Since sustaining a season-ending quadriceps injury on Sept. 29, Chargers outside linebacker Dwight Freeney tries to stay as far away from football as possible. He avoids watching it on television or listening to it on the radio. He doesn't even read about it on most days. The mental anguish of being unable to take the field with his teammates cuts too deeply.
Still, like much of the country Sunday evening, he couldn't help but tune in for Peyton Manning's ballyhooed return to Indianapolis, where for 14 years, the record-setting quarterback was the face of the franchise and the city. Freeney spent 11 seasons with the Colts after being drafted 11th overall in 2002, and like Manning, with whom he teamed for a decade, he thought he'd never wear another team's jersey. But business being business, Manning landed in Denver before the 2012 season and Freeney signed with the Chargers last May after the Colts failed to make him a contract offer.
During parts of Indy's 39-33 victory Sunday, he experienced a twinge of emotion. He participated in legendary battles with some of the players and won his only Super Bowl with them. So when the crowd gave Manning a sustained standing ovation just before kickoff, he felt it. And when former running mate Robert Mathis drilled Manning from behind to force a fumble that resulted in a safety, his adrenaline rushed.
"Oh, God!" he said Monday by phone. "You could see after he hit him how emotional he was, how excited he was. You don't get hits like that too often, and seeing him like that, he was fired up. That was his first real opportunity to hit Peyton. It's something when you want to hit a guy so much and you can't in practice. When he got that first opportunity, that was a great experience. I felt it."
He would've liked to have been a part of it, but the decision was not his. The further he gets from his time in Indy, the more limited his comments become about it. Why keep going down that road? He has detached himself far enough from the game since his injury that he was even unaware of the controversial comments made by Colts owner Jim Irsay beforehand. Whether Irsay's remarks about how the franchise is structured now versus the Manning years was a slap at either Manning or former general manager Bill Polian is open for interpretation, and Freeney had no interest in trying to decipher them.
"I almost watched the game with the volume down because I didn't want to hear the commentary," he said. "I just wanted to see my guys go at it and play. Why Jim does what he does, that's on Jim. He's always been a guy where ... who knows? Maybe he did it to spark it up, make it a bigger deal, make it a bigger event, like a boxer does before the fight."
It's so hard for Freeney to watch football these days that he didn't stay through the Colts' victory. It was only during our conversation that he learned Indy wideout Reggie Wayne tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in the fourth quarter and will miss the rest of the season.
"Oh, God," he said, sighing dejectedly. "Noooo, I hate that. I didn't know that. I'll hit him up."
He received similar support and words of encouragement after his injury. It's one of the things that keeps him going during this difficult time, during which he's not scheduled to start walking until next month. The hope is that he'll be back to full strength by March, but that doesn't lessen the pain of being sidelined this year. He had so much he wanted to prove after a statistically down year last season. Instead, he now spends most of his days with his leg elevated, watching movies or visiting with family.
As to speculation about whether he plans to retire—he has a year remaining on his contract and currently ranks 21st all-time with 108 sacks—Freeney said: "I have no thoughts of calling it quits. To be honest with you, I'm taking this thing day by day. It really is day by day. I have to see how rehab goes. But in my mind, I feel like I want to be back next year. I have to think that way. By March or April when I'm running around again, decisions have to be made. But I'm sure I'll be back. I still have a hunger in me and goals I want to achieve."