Interview with John Freeman
To say that Nashville Kangaroo John Freeman is a ‘footy phenom’ may be putting it too lightly. In only his sophomore season of footy, he ascended to the highest rank of amateur Australian rules football in the world: the International Cup Tournament. By his own admission, his nerves were his biggest obstacle as the tournament began, having very limited high level footy experience. But as game 1 progressed into game 2, 3, and on, John managed to master his nerves, lift his vision and skills, and even achieved a ‘man of the match’ award for his gutsy, spectacular effort against the back-to-back World Champions: Papua New Guinea.
We spent some time talking with John about his experiences over in Australia at the International Cup Tournament, and he was kind enough to share lots of insight and information with us. Always the consummate team player, John takes no credit for his amazing efforts over there, instead bragging on the stellar efforts of his fellow USA Revolution players. As we are unabashedly biased in our opinion, however, we don’t mind bragging on the Nashville Kangaroo, the man, the myth, the now-legend… the ‘Bald Eagle’ John Freeman. We’ve been beaming proudly since you made the team mate, and we salute you for your dedication and your burning desire to be the best footballer this region, maybe this country has ever seen.
Below are excerpts from our conversations with John. Some have been edited for length, but every word of the answers are his own.
Now that you have played footy at the highest amateur level in the world, what do you think are the top two things a player can do to prepare themselves to represent the USA at Australian football?
One is to get to a level of elite fitness. It takes a good year to develop top-end fitness while it takes a lifetime to develop top-end skills. In the US, we pick up the sport so late in our athletic lives that we’re never going to have AFL quality skills, but we can have AFL quality endurance. When we’re looking for advantages over other foreign opponents, our athleticism is a major one, but only if we train to make it that way. The other is to find people who support you in what you’re doing. I was fortunate to have that with my girlfriend, my family, my club teammates and my employer. It’s a massive time and lifestyle commitment. I was so lucky to have everyone around me on board and supportive.
How did the style of play in the International Cup differ from what you have experienced in the US?
Well the old description of “bigger, faster, stronger” definitely applies. In the US, I have time to pick up the ball and accelerate away in a direction. I tried that in the first game and made it about a half of a step before getting planted. Everything on the international level is much quicker. The decision making has to be instantaneous. You need to know what you want to do with the ball before you even get it.
What surprised you the most about your experience in Australia?
How well we were treated as Team USA. We represented the United States in a foreign country in a turbulent time and it was a pleasant surprise on how well we were treated on this trip by the Australian public. We wore our team USA gear whenever we would go out and Australians would stop us in the streets of Melbourne asking when our next game is. They seemed flattered that we had flown all the way to their country to play their game. The repairman at our hotel told me he’d be at the final if we got there.
That makes our hearts smile for sure. Which International Cup game did you learn the most from? What did you learn from that game?
PNG most certainly. Their speed and ability to run in packs is something I’ve never experienced. They brought a physicality to the game that was also different from anything I’ve ever played against. Little things like bumping your runs off the ball, putting an elbow into you on ball-ups or knocking you off balance around a contest. They were always looking to make things tougher on you no matter where you were in the play. I’ll take that mentality home with me.
What does the USAFL need to do to get the Revos to the next level?
Ask Tom Ellis. He called me the week I got home and talked about his plans for the next three years and absolutely sold me on his vision. No one is more committed to getting the USA to the MCG than him. As a Revo for the next three years, I simply follow his lead and do what he tells me.
We love Tom. He’s a go-getter. What can the Nashville Kangaroos do to better prepare Revos and potential Revos?
Get numbers and elevate the competition. Many of the best Revo players are from the biggest teams in the USAFL. They’re getting 25 guys out at practice and playing D1 footy in every game, so every time they step out to train or into a match, they’re going to get better. As the Kangaroos grow, we’ll move up divisions and playing the best competition is the fastest way to improve.
If you were selected to go again in 2020, what would you do differently? What would you do the same?
I would learn to relax and enjoy it a bit more. The first week in Australia, I was quite nervous and high strung. I worried too much about if I was going to be in the game day squad for the next game or how the standings looked or other little things that I couldn’t control. By the second week I had relaxed and focused more on what an amazing experience this was with awesome teammates. My play improved after that as well.
Well said. Perhaps a life lesson there as well. How did you first hear about footy? How did you first hear about footy in the states?
I work for a company that was founded by Australians so they are always talking about the sport. I didn’t think much of it until one day in Nashville I showed up to a park to play pick up soccer and the local footy team, my Nashville Kangaroos, was out there practicing. I walked over and asked for a kick and I’ve been all in since then.
You’re obviously a superb athlete. What drew/draws you to play footy?
How many adult amateur sports in America is it cool to play hard? Footy is one of the few. If you go all out in an adult soccer league, you’re “that guy that takes it way to seriously.” If you go all out on a footy field, you’re doing your job. The competitiveness and intensity of it are the biggest draws for me.
Now I’m getting fired up. Yeah! Ahem.., umm, back to the questions. What is your sporting background?
High school football, soccer and track. Nothing special there. I did get into cycling after graduating college and with that, learned a lot about endurance, diet and training. I’d say all four sports have contributed to turning me into a footy player. Interestingly enough, when I lived in Virginia I broadcasted college athletics for the University of Virginia. That means I would travel with the teams on their road trips. I picked up so many insights into game day prep, diet, film-study and weightlifting from those trips and I apply so much of those learnings to my footy prep and play.
Do you have a favorite AFL team? What team is it? How did you come to barrack for that squad?
Still working on that. Ask me after the Grand Final.
Very political of you. What’s been your best or proudest moment playing with the Nashville Kangaroos?
Early this year before a game I invited the team over to my house the night before to eat pasta. Nearly all of the guys showed up and we crammed into my little space. I remember thinking that I’ve got 20+ good friends in my house that I didn’t know a year ago when I moved to Nashville. That moment meant more to me than anything on the field. I was proud to be part of that group of guys and that they valued me as a teammate.
That’s exceptionally well said mate, and we’re getting a little emotional about it to be honest. Just outstanding. Building off the previous answer, what’s been the most difficult thing about playing with the Nashville Kangaroos?
Travel. Nashville isn’t close to many other clubs, so getting games can be quite a commitment. Other than Louisville, there’s no teams within 5 hours of us. So, I’d like to play footy three times a month, but in reality, were’ getting around a game a month and in many cases, having to spend all weekend traveling to play in it. If I didn’t love the sport and my teammates, it wouldn’t be worth it. But it always is.
Having played at the highest amateur level in the world now, do you have any ideas or suggestions on how to have more effective fitness/training/game strategy?
Fitness is a necessity. With the internet, it’s so easy to find training plans specifically designed for footy. It’s just a matter of doing the work. I’ve only played 15 months of footy in my life, so I’m not the one to ask about strategy. I’m trying to figure that part out myself!
Any predictions for the Nashville Kangaroos regarding Nationals?
We were competitive last year in Division 4 and our squad this year is even better. If we don’t raise the cup in San Diego, I’d consider our Nationals a disappointment. If we win, I’ll drink whatever people pour into that cup.
And drink you shall, mate. What was the biggest surprise regarding the level of play at the International Cup Tournament?
There weren’t a whole lot of surprises. I expected the play to be competitive and it was. One thing stood out was how straight the competition kicked. Our last two group games, teams combined to kick 18.3 on us. There’s not much margin for error at the international level and teams make you pay for mistakes.
Which game do you feel you had your best effort?
I was named man of the match against PNG so I guess that game. It was an absolute street fight and for someone who’s game is currently based more on athleticism than skill, it fit my style. I just wish my contributions had come more in the decisive third quarter when PNG ran away with the game. But I’ve never left a game without replaying a bunch of missed opportunities in my head. I still think about things I could have and should have done that would have impacted the game.
Which game was the team’s best effort?
Tough to say, but we competed with PNG, the two time world champions, for a majority of that game. We really had a chance. We were ahead for most of the first half and then it got away from us in the third. They also kicked 15.2. Who does that? In the end, their class and experience prevailed, but we gave them a good scare. Afterwards, people at the local club were quite complimentary of how the USA team has progressed in the years they’ve been watching us at International Cups. That meant a lot, and makes me quite excited to see how our team stacks up in 2020. The skills will develop but the American resolve will always be there. There’s not a single guy on the team that wasn’t on empty after that game.
15.2, eh? Bloody Hell that’s good. Wow. How were the crowds for the games?
The PNG game was special and one I’ll remember forever. A local club named Montrose hosted us and put in a ton of work into promoting the game. There were posters around the town, the game was on radio and TV and they even painted USA on the field. When we showed up at 9:30am for a 12:30pm game, there were already people tailgating. When we were in the locker room before the game, I could hear people chanting USA. When we ran out onto the field, I counted at least four American flags. I got a little emotional during the anthem, when it dawned on me how cool this moment was. Then when I got lit up in the first minute of the game right in front of the fans, I could hear the crowd go “ooooooohhhhh.” I guess I got the full experience.
Any major screw ups you want to tell us about? Haha
Everyone who knows me, knows I’m organized to a fault. So much so that I bought two pairs of the same cleats to Australia and broke them in equally before the Cup. If one pair fell apart, I’d have the exact same pair, already broken in. We show up to the first game against Canada and were 45 minutes from the start. I pull out my cleats and I had brought the two left boots. Here I was before the biggest game of my life and I had two left shoes. Thankfully one of our reserves who wasn’t on the game day roster had brought his cleats. I played the whole game with his shoes that were 1.5 sizes too big for me. I also managed to lose my mouth guard in warmups for that game. I had to borrow a teammates extra that was fitted for his teeth. Quite a Revo debut.
Hahahaha oh my, laughing with you mate. Not at you. Haha. Outstanding. How about any superfootyman moments you want to tell us about?
I survived a brawl at the end of the 1 st quarter vs. PNG. I also learned to not bring a soft push to an elbow fight.
That first half of the PNG game… you guys really were in there strong. We were all watching on the edge of our seats and dared to hope that the upset of the ages was coming. Then the second half sort of got away from you guys. From your perspective… what happened?
Everything happened so fast. We were in it and then 8 minutes later, we were down by more than 40. There’s always ebbs and flows to a footy game and when PNG made their run, they really made it count. If we could do it again, we’d try and settle that game down in the third and compose ourselves. Instead, we played right into the track meet style that PNG wanted and they ran right by us. If we get them again in 2020, expect us to use our height more and make the game an aerial battle. That third quarter was played mostly at ground level where PNG thrives. They dictated. We didn’t.
Well reasoned mate. How were the grounds you boys played on? Was there a different site for each of the matches?
We played on 4 different ovals for 5 total matches. I was surprised at how small the ovals were. I expected them to be these massive grounds. I remember coming into the tournament envisioning myself running down the side into a pasture and taking multiple bounces. No joke, I ran more than 70 miles in training over the last six months in which I would bounce a ball. I don’t think I ever took more than five steps at the IC without someone latched onto my back.
We noticed you wound up in the forward area quite a bit. Do you prefer to lurk around there and ball hawk, or do you crave a truer midfield or rover type position?
I’ll play wherever the coaches put me. I’m not taking marks anywhere on the field, so I’ll go wherever they say, run myself empty and try and be a vacuum cleaner.
Mate, you don’t suck. But I guess in a way, you do. Haha. Will you have a go again at the 2020 IC?
If the coaches will have me, absolutely. I went in thinking I’d be a one and done. I left hoping I could play the next one at 33. Or the next two until I’m 36. Physically, I’ll decline, but in the process of time, my skills will improve. So I may be a little slower before the next Cup rolls around, but I may have a left foot by then too.
We think, like a fine wine, you’ll get better as you mature. Good things ahead for sure. How was the travel getting over to Australia? Were you alone or with some teammates for the flight?
Quite long. Nashville to Denver to LA to Melbourne. It took me 32 hours door to door to get to Australia. In the end it was worth it. As for the flight back, I had a severely swollen knee that expanded during the 14 hour trip. I wanted to cut my leg off somewhere over the Pacific.
Eesh. We saw that mongrel all blown up back stateside. Hope it’s mending well. How many days did it take you to overcome the jet lag?
None in Australia. We landed in the morning and pushed through the day without sleep. By the time 9pm rolled around, it was easy to fall asleep and get on a schedule. Coming home it took about 9 days to get back to normal. I work from home, so my coworkers were surprised to wake up and see I had written them emails at 4am.
The frequency of the games, especially given the intensity, was insane. How was your mind/body going into games 2, 3 and 4?
After the 1st game, I remember thinking about how little things hurt compared to after USAFL games. At the International level you get significantly less touches per game and therefore less contact. In the USAFL, you might be playing 12 a side and as a midfielder getting 40 touches a game. That was naïve thinking in the end. I picked up some rough knocks against South Africa in Game 2 and it all snowballed from there. When you play every 3 days, nothing heals. Swelling doesn’t go down, wounds don’t cover themselves and aches just get worse. So you just add to your injuries. I literally could barely walk after the last game against Ireland and had a knee the size of grapefruit. It’s been nearly two weeks since our last game and I’m another two weeks away from being fully recovered. It’s physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Without a doubt John Freeman has been a golden asset to the Nashville Kangaroos and the USA Revolution squad. As demonstrated above, he combines a ridiculously high level of fitness and dedication with an even higher quality of character. Your club appreciates you and applauds you for your efforts mate, and we wish you many, many more years in both the Nashville AND the USA Revolution jumpers. As your footy senses and skills continue to increase, you’ll get to places none of us have ever been.
And we love ya hard for it.
Go the Roos!
Go the Revos!