Syracuse, N.Y. — Will Hicks tried to stay awake to get the news. When it arrived, he struggled to get back to sleep.
The former Syracuse football strength and conditioning coach learned that defensive end Dwight Freeney was going into the Professional Football Hall of Fame from a text message on Thursday night while he was half-asleep in an armchair.
“I’m like most old guys,” Hicks said. “As soon as I sit in my chair, I fall asleep. Then I spend two hours watching ‘SportsCenter’ and catching up on what I missed.
“He’s like part of my family. I don’t get to put the gold jacket on, but it means as much to me as if I could have made it myself.”
Freeney was announced as one of seven members of Canton’s Class of 2024 during the NFL’s annual awards show late Thursday.
Hicks spent much of Friday reminiscing about a relationship that has lasted for more than 20 years, starting when Freeney was an about-to-explode junior at Syracuse, continuing through 16 years in the NFL and lasting through this year, when Freeney was among the first to reach out to Hicks after the death of his son.
The greatest sign of their unique bond came each NFL offseason when Freeney, who had his choice of any training facility in the country, would always return to Syracuse and spend time training with Hicks, who currently works as Syracuse football’s director of player engagement.
Freeney would fly in at the start of the week, work out for five days and then fly out to play a few rounds of golf. Then he’d be back again the next week.
Hicks told Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard that Freeney called him on Friday afternoon, amid a whirlwind of other activities in Las Vegas.
Freeney apologized for being prohibited from telling Hicks about the honor until after the NFL’s awards show was broadcast.
The defensive lineman thanked the strength coach. Hicks redirected it.
Freeney’s next few days will include a luncheon in Las Vegas on Friday, posing for his bust, getting measured for his gold jacket and attending the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“When he called and I answered, I told him, ‘I might be more excited than you are,’ Hicks said. “He said, ‘I don’t know, I’m pretty jacked up too.’
“It’s an honor for me that he thanked me for being part of it. It’s one of the greatest honors any athlete has ever given me.”
Hicks recalled how they first bonded at Syracuse.
He arrived from North Carolina State before Freeney’s junior year.
The defensive lineman had thick arms and legs, with the capacity for explosiveness that would allow him to chase down Michael Vick and record 125.5 career sacks over the course of his NFL career.
To maximize those traits, Hicks said, Freeney needed to work on his hips.
“He had really big legs,” Hicks said. “I remember telling him you’re not doing some of this stuff right because you’re not strong enough in your hip flexors. Your legs are so heavy. We’ve got to improve your core.”
Freeney’s ability to explode and bend around an offensive tackle on his way to the quarterback became his trademark.
The defensive end was so smart, Hicks said, that he got bored doing traditional workouts. He always asked for something new. And then he’d ask for more.
“He never accepted being good,” Hicks said. “He always wanted to be better than good.”
It was the perfect match for Hicks. They made each other better.
“You had to challenge him or he’d get bored,” Hicks said. “He wanted you to push him. I’ve always believed that your responsibility as a coach is to inspire others to do more than they could without you. I think that’s the real definition. Any coach can read a book and tell you to do eight sets of this.”
During his senior year at Syracuse, Freeney totaled 17.5 sacks, a number Hicks says would have been higher if the season was played today. At the time college statisticians didn’t include strip sacks. Freeney also forced eight fumbles that season.
Freeney, at 6-foot-1, went from a football player who was deemed too short to a first-round NFL Draft pick.
Hicks said that Indianapolis Colts representatives attended Freeney’s Pro Day at the school and watched him run a blistering 40-yard dash, one recorded between 4.39 and 4.42 seconds.
Other scouts stayed to watch Freeney perform other drills. The Colts didn’t bother. They’d seen everything they needed to and picked him No. 11 overall.
“Nobody had ever seen a big guy run that fast,” Hicks said. “Some couldn’t believe it. They thought they missed it and said 4.43. Whatever it was, it was fast.
“We laughed about how we beat the odds with everything. People said he was too short. He was too small. He was too this. ... On his Pro Day he ran so well, and he had the tape that proved he could play, Indy didn’t stay for the whole day. People were watching him hit the bags, drop back into coverage, wondering if he was a linebacker. Indy saw him run and they left. They knew what they were doing.”
Freeney never forgot the help. He returned to Syracuse each summer of his professional career to work out. He dressed alongside members of the Syracuse football team, wore the same clothes they did and tried to pass along what he learned.
Hicks’ two sons loved to help hold tackling dummies, then sprint away as Freeney chased after them.
When Hicks’ son, Connor, died by suicide before the football team played Pittsburgh this year, Freeney was among the first to reach out, calling his old coach and then sending the family a flower arrangement. Hicks sees that as a sign of how deeply Freeney cares about those who have helped him.
When Freeney entered the College Football Hall of Fame, Hicks sat with his family. When he was honored for that achievement by Syracuse University, Hicks joined him at mid-field.
When Freeney is enshrined at Canton, Hicks will be there too, celebrating a bond that is worthy of the Hall of Fame itself.
“I said, ‘Man, I’m so proud of you,’ Hicks said. “He said, ‘Coach you had an awful lot to do with it. You’re going to be there aren’t you?’
“There ain’t no way anyone can keep me from being there.”
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