On December 27th of 1974, El Paso, Texas was on the receiving end of a rare snowstorm, blanketing the southwest corner of the state bordering Mexico, both old and New.
The following day, ironically, was the 40th edition of the annual Sun Bowl. The snow was cleared from the field before the game began, but the weather wasn’t done forcing itself into the events of the day.
When the sun finally came out from behind the clouds shortly before kickoff, the bit of warmth began to melt and evaporate the considerable amount of moisture still left on, underneath and around the grass.
What had fallen on the field as snow the night before, was then rising off the ground as full, dense fog, leftover moisture steaming under the El Paso sun.
Senior cornerback Steve Freeman walked to midfield as the festivities began, representing Mississippi State in the coin toss. But he could hardly see his feet as he took each step.
“I’ve got a picture of it hanging in my study when we walked out for the coin toss,” Freeman said. “You can see that fog about four feet off the ground. It just stayed there the whole day.”
Outside of the fog, the game was an entertaining enough match-up on its own. Three times in the second half, MSU came from behind to re-gain the lead against North Carolina.
The Bulldogs ultimately won the game 26-24, led by quarterback Rockey Felker and running back Walter Packer. MSU and its veer attack set a Sun Bowl record with 455 rushing yards, while the two teams combined for over 900 yards of total offense.
The big numbers, Freeman speculated, may not be despite the fog, but because of the blanket of moist air hanging over the field all day.
“It was a funny game,” he said with a laugh. “You make a tackle or a play was made – no one knows who did it. Everything happened under the fog there. It was very strange.”
Freeman, who led head coach Bob Tyler’s MSU teams in interceptions in 1973 and ’74, was drafted a few months later by the New England Patriots, though he ultimately spent the first decade of his career in Buffalo with the Bills racking up 23 interceptions in 13 NFL seasons.
This past Sunday, Freeman was still on the field, running around on the biggest stage in sports.
After 11 years of playing and another 13 officiating, Freeman had finally made it to the Super Bowl, the back judge for Seattle’s blowout win over Denver in New York.
It was a rewarding moment, he said afterward, even if the gravity of the event never sank in.
Oddly enough, and perhaps as a result of professionalism, the Super Bowl was no different than any of the many regular season games he had worked all year.
“It was funny,” he said, “My wife asked me Sunday morning if it felt like I was working the Super Bowl. I said, ‘you know, it doesn’t. It feels like another game. Like it’s another week in the season and you’re just working Seattle-Denver.’
“I went out there as everybody was warming up,” he continued, “and I didn’t feel any different. I don’t know if you’re supposed to or not supposed to. But it felt like any other game. It could’ve been Pontotoc vs. Starkville. When you kick off, it’s a football game.”
Freeman’s journey from El Paso to New York and Sun Bowl to Super Bowl was, like most careers, a long and interesting one.
A journey, in fact, that likely wouldn’t have happened had the product of Memphis schools not signed with coach and eventual athletic director Charley Shira and MSU.
After he retired from playing in 1988, a friend and NFL official named Jack Vaughn who lived in Starkville gave Freeman a call.
“Jack said, ‘You just walked off the field after 13 years. I can help you get back.’”
So Freeman started officiating, at his friend’s recommendation, first in high school, then into college and getting into the SEC, before ultimately reaching what was then the second-biggest job in officiating – NFL Europe.
“Back in those days,” Freeman said, “that was kind of the stepping stone to get in the NFL. I had never been overseas and I didn’t know if I had any desire to. But I was able to take my wife, we toured nearly all of Europe and saw everything over there. It was the greatest experience.
“That’s something that the NFL is lacking right now,” he added, “because we don’t really have a training ground in order to bring up our officials.”
The new training ground for the NFL is the SEC where, fittingly enough, Freeman’s son is an official.
Though it’s not the first way Brad Freeman has followed in his father’s footsteps. While Steve was working his way up the officiating ladder, Brad was growing up as a star baseball player, eventually signing to play at Mississippi State, his dad’s alma mater.
Just like his father, Brad was a star for the Bulldogs. And just like dad, Brad was a part of some exciting postseasons, one of the key players in MSU’s 1997 and 1998 College World Series appearances.
Now married to a Bulldog tennis player he met in school, Brad may be drawing even closer to his dad.
Brad, father Steve said, is on what they call the “21 Man List” – 21 officials who are worthy candidates to move up from college to the NFL.
As the NFL no longer has Europe as an effective boot camp for officials, men from this list are often invited to work preseason NFL games and get a taste for the experience.
Father and son, Bulldogs of different sports, worked together as officials on the same field.
The experience was fitting for the two, as officiating has become not just a family business, but a passion.
In the offseason, Brad actually runs a referee clinic in Mississippi. Steve, several NFL officials and many of the top SEC officials all attend to help teach.
“We’re trying to make officiating better in high school ball and in college,” Steve said. “If we take the knowledge we have and share it with these young officials, that makes all of officiating better.”
Steve had never considered the profession until he got that call from his friend Jack, and something his friend said forced him to consider the option.
“I’d like you to think about officiating,” Jack told Steve. “I liked the way you played, and from what I saw, I think you’d make a good official.”
How Jack could glean that from watching a cornerback play, Steve wasn’t sure. But it’s worked out well, both for him and his family.
“It’s been a good thing for everybody,” he said.