James Franklin on Pat Freiermuth: ‘He has a bright future ahead’
Forty-five minutes north of Boston sits a 270-acre campus for 370 kids, a private prep school situated on picturesque Lake Cochichewick. The Brooks School — which admits 12 percent of those who apply — boards students from 29 states and 26 countries and boasts a Who’s Who alumni list that includes Olympians, actors and a Fortune 500 CEO.
But never in its 92-year history has the Brooks School produced an NFL player. Never has it produced a sure-fire freshman All-American. Never has it produced a kid like Pat Freiermuth.
“He was the best player ever at our school and arguably our conference,” said Brooks School head coach Patrick Foley, Freiermuth’s cousin and godfather, during a quiet Monday afternoon in his office. “But he did it in a humble way.”
Freiermuth — Penn State’s breakout tight end who led the team with seven touchdown receptions in 2018 — is an anomaly in northern Massachusetts. The 6-foot-5, 258-pounder, a former four-star prospect with offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame and LSU, dominated the New England prep league — accounting for 1,531 yards and 24 total touchdowns in three seasons.
But Freiermuth’s impact at the Brooks School goes beyond the stacked stat sheet. The Merrimac native was a teammate, friend and classmate, someone the whole community could get behind. He elevated a program, remained a leader on the basketball team even after hanging up his sneakers and stayed with the school when most would have left.
In the words of Foley, Freiermuth’s legacy is “a combination of excellence and humility,” the kind that makes everyone proud to say they knew “Fry” before he stepped foot in Happy Valley.
“He has the respect of people,” the coach said. “Football fans or not, they’re Pat Fry fans.”
The Brooks School football field doesn’t have bleachers. Instead, Anna K. Trustey Field, a stone’s throw from Foley’s office, has a three-tiered rock wall for patrons to sit on and a grassy area for lawn chairs.
On average, 100, maybe 200, people show up to see Foley’s team every Saturday afternoon. It’s a low-key program that needed a star like Freiermuth to come along when he did.
When Freiermuth transferred from his local public school, Pentucket, after his sophomore year, the Brooks School was coming off a 7-2 season. Not bad for a team that managed four wins the previous four seasons. But statewide concerns over concussions, combined with a small pool of players to pick from, caused the Brooks School to look in the mirror before Foley’s time and decide if it could continue football.
“There are some big-picture questions everyone is dealing with right now around numbers. And at smaller schools, it hits even harder. There just aren’t that many kids,” said John McVeigh, the school’s dean of faculty. “But Pat injected life into the football program. Kids came here to play football because they wanted to play with him. He put us on the map.”
In Freiermuth’s three seasons in North Andover, the Brooks School went 19-7. The program reached two NEPSAC bowl games and captured the conference title in 2017, as well as a share of the Independent School League Championship in 2016.
As a senior, Freiermuth owned both sides of the ball. The standout tallied 815 total yards (613 receiving, 202 rushing), 15 total touchdowns (seven receiving, five rushing, three defensive) and five forced fumbles. In a Week 6 win over St. Sebastian’s, Freiermuth had six catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns — a one-handed, 10-yard grab and a 94-yard score thanks to four broken tackles.
“I’ve been in the league for 40 years, and he is the best football player I have ever seen in our league,” said St. Sebastian’s coach Bob Souza, who faced Boston College running back and Doak Walker Award semifinalist AJ Dillon. “I’ve never seen a kid that dominated a game the way he did.”
In his senior sendoff at Brooks, a 24-14 victory over New Hampton (N.H.) in the Ken O’Keefe Bowl, Freiermuth caught a 44-yard touchdown and cemented a win on defense.
“This kid goes, ‘Penn State who?’ I heard him say that, and I look over at Pat and saw his face,” Brooks cornerback Connor Silva recalled with a grin. “The very next play, that kid who chirped him ran the ball, and Pat picked him up and literally took the ball right out of his hands. Pat was like, ‘Yeah, Penn State.’ And that was the game.”
Added New Hampton coach Ed Kiley: “He was the best player in New England last year, if not the Northeast. ... He was a game-changer.”
Almost a year ago to the day, there was a buzz new to Brooks’ century-old campus. After breakfast at the Freiermuth’s, Penn State head coach James Franklin and his staff — offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, tight ends coach Tyler Bowen and associate head coach Sean Spencer — visited the place that shaped their eventual starting tight end.
“That was cool,” Brooks School dean of students Willie Waters said with a smile. “All these guys you see on TV walking around this little, tiny campus? ... There’s a pocket of college football fans who would recognize James Franklin in an airport. But then there’s 70 percent of the kids here who have no idea. It was an interesting dynamic.”
Dec. 5, 2017 was a special occasion for Freiermuth. But the next day, he was back with his team. The basketball team, that is.
Surprise, surprise. The uber athletic tight end — like Mike Gesicki before him — was a star forward in high school. As McVeigh, the head basketball coach, noted, Freiermuth came to the Brooks School in 2015 and was recognized more on the hardwood than he was on the gridiron. Freiermuth scored more than 600 points and guided Pentucket to a state semifinal appearance as a sophomore, and in his first year at Brooks, he led McVeigh’s squad in points per game as its sixth man.
“I have no doubt he would have been a Division I basketball player,” McVeigh said. “No question.”
In 2015 and 2016, the Brooks School, a New England prep league power before and after Freiermuth, went 47-4 and hoisted every trophy it could. Last season, McVeigh’s team went 23-0. But it had to do so without its star player.
Freiermuth — the son of a college basketball player and high school coach — gave up the sport before his senior year. His football future was too bright, and the risk of injury wasn’t worth it. That didn’t stop him from studying the opponent’s big man and emulating him in practice. It didn’t stop him from going to every game, every workout, and providing a captain’s voice.
But sacrificing basketball wasn’t easy. What made it harder? While Freiermuth watched the Brooks School win a New England title, his future teammates — the likes of Micah Parsons, Jesse Luketa and Zack Kuntz — graduated early and enrolled at Penn State for the spring semester. And the Brooks School wouldn’t let him do the same.
Instead, if Freiermuth wanted to become a Nittany Lion by January, he would have had to transfer back to Pentucket, wrap up his senior year there in the fall and get to Happy Valley for spring practice. “He knew he had big things ahead. He knew he didn’t want to miss out, and he didn’t want to put himself behind,” McVeigh said. “But he didn’t want to disappoint anybody, either. That’s how he is.”
When denied by the Brooks School brass, Freiermuth decided to stick it out. “It showed what he thought of this place,” Waters added. “He believed enough in his ability that the amount of time wasn’t going to make or break his college career. And it didn’t. It worked out.”
It worked out primarily because Freiermuth didn’t mope or whine. He didn’t get complacent or lazy. Every day before basketball practice, Freiermuth ran routes in the multi-court Danforth Gymnasium and sat at the scorer’s table, poring over Penn State’s playbook.
One evening in February, McVeigh walked over to the table to check on Freiermuth. The tight end picked his head up and said, “I need to be ready.”
“For whatever anyone else thought about this year, I think Pat Freiermuth thought, ‘I’m going to go down there and compete to play right away,’” McVeigh said, nodding his head. “That was how he prepared in every way.”
The 25 residents of the Chase House stood silently in their common room, breath held, eyes fixated on the TV. It was a Friday night, and their former classmate’s first career touchdown was in question during the Penn State-Illinois game.
“It was scary,” Brooks offensive lineman Anthony Burnett said. “They were reviewing it.”
Added Silva, this year’s quarterback: “It was funny, though. He stumbled and almost fell.”
No, it wasn’t graceful. But it worked. Freiermuth’s 5-yard score at Illinois on Sept. 21 — the first of seven in Big Ten play — was upheld. And the Chase House, as well as the rest of Brooks’ dorms, erupted. Burnett ran to his room to grab his phone so he could catch the replay for his Snapchat story. Silva said 40 Brooks football players posted the same thing.
“The next day everyone was talking about it,” Silva added. “It was the word around campus.”
News of Freiermuth’s touchdown-laden freshman campaign traveled fast. Foley and McVeigh both say they’ve seen more Penn State hats, shirts and flags around town than ever before. Boston is a pro sports town, but Freiermuth has carved a niche following in New England.
For those who get Big Ten Network, Penn State football has become appointment viewing. That’s especially true for the students, faculty and families at Brooks.
“My son thinks Pat walks on water,” McVeigh said of his 11-year-old, Jack. “It’s Pat, and then Tom Brady. Which is saying something for a Massachusetts kid.” Waters, whose 5-year-old would “pick him out of a lineup and run over to him,” believes Freiermuth’s down-to-earth personality makes it easy to pull for him.
When prospective students and families from out-of-state came to visit, Freiermuth was one of Brooks’ best tour guides. Whenever the baseball team played last spring, Freiermuth sat behind home plate and was “the team’s biggest cheerleader,” Burnett said. And when it came time to pick an out-of-curriculum, winter term class, Freiermuth chose to help out at a local preschool. Waters also recalls Freiermuth volunteering at Brooks’ summer camp, walking around with kids clinging to his arms.
“He’s the best football player to have ever gone here. But I think a legacy is more that you can be in that stratosphere of an athlete and be totally one of the people here,” Waters said. “Who knows? Maybe he’ll play in the NFL. You’d never know that if you talked to him.”
Added McVeigh: “He takes everything so seriously. But he doesn’t take himself seriously.”
Maybe that’s why former classmates compare him to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Maybe it’s because now the Nittany Lion wears No. 87. Or maybe it’s because, like Waters mentioned, Freiermuth’s exciting 2018 campaign has people talking about what lies ahead.
Souza, the St. Sebastian’s head coach, said Freiermuth “might be the best tight end in college football next year.” That could be the case if he becomes Tommy Stevens’ go-to red-zone target like he has for Trace McSorley this year. Heck, if not for Iowa’s tandem of Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, Freiermuth would have received serious All-Big Ten consideration. His seven touchdowns were tied for the second-most in the country, after all.
It is too soon to discuss Freiermuth’s NFL potential. He’s 20 years old, and so much can happen between now and then. But that’s not going to stop the people at Brooks from dreaming.
“You always start to think, ‘What is this going to lead to? What’s next?’” Foley said. “You don’t want to get too far ahead. But the success he had as a freshman, if he gets better as a sophomore and gets better as a junior and a senior, that’s a pretty good trajectory. That’s exciting to think about.”