There are those who like the game of football, and there are those who love the game. Joe Ross Freeman is one who loves the game.
A rising senior at Lakewood, the young man is an outside linebacker and a tight end in the fall, a runner in the winter, and an outfielder and backup catcher in the spring.
He has played varsity football and baseball since ninth grade, and last winter he won the gold medal at the conference trials for indoor track.
“It’s cold and they call it indoor track, but it’s really outside and it‘s really cold,” he stated, slowly shaking his head as though he could still feel the frigid air.
Despite winning the gold in track and with baseball season in full swing, it’s football that Joe Ross likes to talk about the most.
Loving the game
The teen’s love for the game is evident from the excitement in his voice. “I like the challenge, the contact, and going out there every day and putting my pads on and my helmet. It’s a thrill to me. I love everything about football,” he said, a big smile spreading across his face.
The teenager sees his Leopard teammates as more than just guys from school, too. Most have played together or against each other in the recreation league since elementary school.
“I grew up playing with these guys and they are more like a family to me. That‘s another reason I love playing football so much,” he asserted.
Joe Ross has many fond recollections of playing football over the years, but there is one memory he wishes he could change. It was from his fifth-grade year.
“I didn’t play my fifth grade year because we missed the deadline to sign up,” he said with a sad shake of his head.
“It was hard on me, because the guys would come to school and talk about all the things they had done playing football, and I would think, ‘Man I wish I was playing.’ I will never make that mistake again,” he insisted.
Joe Ross went from the rec league to the middle school field and played both football and baseball in seventh and eighth grades, too. His experiences there helped solidify his love for the game.
“I remember one time we played Sampson and I had two great catches and we won the game. The next day I felt like I was Peyton Manning. Everyone was coming up to me shaking my hand and asking me about the game. It was great,” he remembered.
So what makes him so good at such a tough sport?
“It’s a combination of things. I get up every morning and run down my road. I go to the gym on weekends and lift weights in the off season,” he explained.
Joe Ross is also a dedicated member of the off-season team that plays in the summer. “We have a passing league in summer for just the county schools, but it only lasts a few weeks. I always get to the game an hour before it starts,” he said with a laugh.
According to Joe Ross, the rules of the game say no contact between the teams, just two-hand tag, and there can be no running plays. It’s all about passing.
“We did really good this year,” he added.
Lakewood’s high school team did really good during the regular season last year, too. They made it to the third round of the state 1A playoffs.
The Leopards’ win against South Stanley in the second round is one of Joe Ross’ favorite memories.
“We were playing South Stanley in overtime. On the very last play, I had the final stop so we could get the ball back and eventually win the game. They were on the goal line and it was fourth down. I stopped them from scoring,” he said proudly.
Playing such a rough sport can be tough on the body and Joe Ross admits he’s been injured a few times, but that doesn’t keep him from giving 110 percent every time he gets out on the field.
“I hurt both ankles, both my knees, and my neck, but my neck injury wasn’t serious. I probably should have stopped playing when I hurt my knees and ankles, but I didn’t. I just taped ’em up and kept playing,” he said matter-of-factly.
Three of the biggest influences in Joe Ross’ life have been his father, O.B. Autry, grandpa Rodney Grantham, and great-grandma Alice Grantham.
In speaking about Alice, Joe Ross said, “ Every time I would go to her house, like at Thanksgiving or whenever, she would show me all the football articles that had my name and what I did in the game, where she saved the newspapers. It made me feel good.”
“When I go to my grandpa’s store, Sampson Building Supply, he’s always in there talking about me to his customers. My dad is the stat man for Lakewood, so he’s always on the sidelines,” Joe Ross continued.
He said his mom, Shae, has always been at his side to help him get the essentials, and more, so he could play the game. “She buys me what I need for football,” he said. “She and my dad found a way to pay for me to go to a Carolina Panthers football camp the summer I was a freshman.”
He said that was a great football memory, too. “I learned a lot of techniques, but we had fun all the time, too. I met Steve Smith, a wide receiver for the Panthers. I made a whole lot of friends there. I’ll never forget that experience,” he asserted.
Joe Ross maintains that football has been more than just a game for him.
“Football has helped me overcome a lot of stuff. It’s helped me have a good outlook on life, so that I always try my hardest. Playing football has been a tremendous confidence builder for me,” he stated.
The teenager said his coaches give the players a lot of advice throughout the season, but one life lesson James Lewis, Lakewood’s football head coach, told him has stuck.
Joe Ross recalled his coach’s advice: “Don’t ever give up. When you’re down, just keep going, keep playing. No matter the outcome, you know you finished and didn’t give up,”
When Joe Ross is not involved in sports, he likes to be involved with his church, The Family Worship Center in Clinton.
“I love going to church. We were part of a camp last week, Illuminate. I went this year for the first time and I didn’t want to leave. A lot of youth pastors from other churches were there. I got to help build handicap ramps for the people that needed them. I loved seeing the look on the people’s faces. One woman was crying and she tried to give us a donation and we told her we weren’t about that,” he expressed.
“I’m looking forward to next year when I can be a counselor,” he added
The young man is on the B Honor Roll and hopes to attend East Carolina University after graduation so he can major in criminal justice and play Pirate football. He wants to eventually be a N.C Highway Patrol Officer.
“It think I would enjoy law enforcement. It’s a physical-type job and I I would like something like that,” he explained.