Football was a natural sport for Freddie and throughout his years playing from Pee-Wee football on up, he’d score numerous touchdowns each game because no one could stop him as he was blazing fast. He gained some of his tremendous endurance and speed because his dad worked with him after practice. One of the drills he’d do with Freddie was to have him run sprints up a hill. His parents weren’t wealthy so his dad did everything he could to help Freddie earn a football scholarship.
A new student by the name of Bobby Mitchell arrived at Freddie’s high school his senior year and he was a huge, star running back from California. The only thing Freddie didn’t have was size. As other kids kept growing, Freddie maxed out at around 5’9” and 155 pounds, much smaller than other star athletes at other schools.
Because Bobby arrived, Freddie started sharing time at running back but kept his starting position on defense playing safety. Freddie was responsible for stopping the other teams’ receivers from catching the ball and he was extremely good at it.
They went on to win the state championship but as the football scholarships from all around the country were pouring in for Bobby (at this point they were great friends), no one was interested in Freddie because of his small size. Even being named Colorado’s premier student athlete his senior year, didn’t help him get any offers.
His high school coach was upset by this because he had never coached anyone with as much great character and heart as Freddie’s so he talked a friend of his who was one of the coaches at the University of Texas, into watching that season’s videos of Freddie in action.
While reviewing the films the assistant coach from Texas realized that other colleges missed something big. He saw that Freddie would rarely leave anyone open to catch the ball and if they did throw the ball his direction he was so close to the receiver that he’d often intercept the pass. He also noticed that if a ball carrier got anywhere near Freddie he wouldn’t just tackle the player, he’d drive him into the dirt and it didn’t matter how big the other player was. It was some of the best tackling he’d ever seen.
Both boys were flown to the campus of the University of Texas to meet with their famous head coach Darrel Royal. During the interview Freddie asked the coach why such an elite football program was interested in him since no other colleges were; something most kids wouldn’t have brought up but Freddie was extremely honest. The coach told him that he wasn’t much bigger than him when he played quarterback for the University of Oklahoma and he led them to a national championship. Coach Royal said if he could accomplish what he did at the collegiate level then having seen Freddie’s amazing accomplishments on the field, that he certainly deserved a shot to prove himself.
Both Freddie and Bobby were offered full scholarships to play football for the University of Texas. What made it even better for Freddie, is that his girlfriend ever since the 8th grade (Linda Wheeler), was accepted to the university as well.
At the time, college athletes couldn’t play their freshman year so Freddie’s first shot at playing was when he became a sophomore but even then, almost all the teams played juniors and seniors including the University of Texas until Freddie came along.
Freddie’s work ethic was phenomenal. He was one of the first players to show up for practice and he was one of the last ones to leave. The coaches kidded around that they couldn’t wear him out because of his unique endurance. The coach loved him because he was so inspirational for everyone on the team including him. Coach Royal said he didn’t need to motivate Freddie that instead Freddie motivated him.
It was a great move letting him start his sophomore year as they’d assign him to cover the other team’s best receiver and he kept shutting them down. Some people didn’t notice at first how stellar Freddie’s performances were because the focus was Coach Royal’s new offense called: The Wishbone and no one in sports had seen anything like it. Other teams couldn’t stop the new offense so it took a little while for fans, opponents, and those in the sporting news, to realize that not only was the offense scoring a lot of points, the defense was terrorizing other teams largely because of Freddie. He ended up with the most interceptions in the conference that season and his vicious tackling always made the highlight reels.
The last few games of the regular season, Freddie’s left leg began bothering him and he couldn’t figure out what it was. He was in a lot of pain but he tried to hide it because the team was doing so well and it looked like they might have a shot at going to the national championship. He was right, about four months later they played the University of Arkansas for the championship.
Freddie began noticeably limping in the fourth quarter of the championship game so for the first time in his career, he was pulled from a game because he was hurt. Texas was down 14-7 but scored a touchdown with four minutes left in the game. Coach Royal shocked everyone and instead ensuring a tie by kicking an easy extra point, he had the team go for two and they made it.
So they had the lead at 15-14 and Arkansas got the ball with 3:58 left on the game clock. They only needed a field goal so Texas had to prevent them from reaching their 30 yard line in order to prevent Arkansas from attempting a field goal.
Arkansas marched down the field by throwing passes to their star receiver. Momentum had shifted drastically and Arkansas crossed the 50 yard line. Coach Royal asked Freddie if he was well enough to stop Arkansas’ momentum and he promised the coach he could which is exactly what he did. Their star receiver couldn’t catch another pass because Freddie wouldn’t allow him to get open. Their quarterback had to pass to a different receiver and one of Freddie’s teammates intercepted the pass. The University of Texas became the 1969 NCAA National Football Champions in what was called: “The Game of the Century.”
They were asked to play Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day which they agreed. Freddie’s pain kept getting worse so three days after the championship game he admitted to the coach that he was in bad shape. Coach Royal immediately sent him to their best doctor and they were shocked by the news that Freddie had a tumor on his left femur that was the size of a baseball. The doctor couldn’t figure out how Freddie was able to deal with the pain and that his leg hadn’t already snapped.
He was immediately sent to the best oncology specialist in the state. Coach Royal was in New York City to receive an award and when he got a call from Freddie’s doctor, he immediately left to be with Freddie. The coach knew the doctor was going to tell Freddie that he had to remove his left leg because the bone cancer had spread into his femur. The doctor also had to let him know that even with removing his leg, most people didn’t live beyond a year; keep in mind the cure rate for cancer in the 60’s was deplorable.
The doctor said he’d be in the hospital for 30 days after surgery and would be in a wheelchair for an extended period of time after he left. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, and against doctor’s orders, his friend Bobby showed up every night after Freddie’s surgery to work with him on getting around on crutches.
Freddie shocked everyone one more time by showing up in the locker room on the day of the Cotton Bowl and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Coach Royal told the team they were going to win the game ball for Freddie and they did. They also had him lead the team out of the tunnel before the game and the crowd went wild when they saw him and began chanting his name.
President Nixon invited Freddie to the White House and there’s a picture of the two of them on the internet. Freddie broke up with Linda because he didn’t want her to deal with his medical problems but after several months they got back together and set a wedding date. Freddie slipped into a coma a couple of days before the wedding and then died about a week later with his family and Linda at his side.
People who knew Freddie said he was the best person they had ever met. His charisma, integrity, passion, work ethic, and spirit, were at levels everyone should aspire to. Although not widely known because it is inside the tunnel of the football field, but even after 48 years, the University of Texas football players touch a memorial made in honor of Freddie (which includes a large picture of him), before heading out on the field. His legacy lives on and a great one it is.