WESTMINSTER -- That Eric Frees, who in physical structure resembles an oak stump, has remained sound of body and mind offers strong testimonial to his personal resolve and durability. Opposing teams endeavor to surround him, with emphasis on gang-tackling, but when he takes off his Western Maryland College uniform after four momentous years he likely will have advanced the football past two significant milestones -- 1,000 carries for 5,000 yards.
Both will be records that will far surpass anything achieved in the more than 100-year history of college football in the state, where the lineup of illustrious running backs includes such notables as Bill Shepherd, Joe Bellino, Bill Guckeyson, Lou Gambino and Napoleon McCallum.
That's a rarefied grouping, even if Frees hasn't been playing on major football battlegrounds. He's at the NCAA Division III level, where it's all for fun, minus the business pressures of packed stadia, full scholarship rides and high-budgeted programs. But this in no way diminishes the parameters of his accomplishments.
In 25 of the 37 games over four years, with three remaining before his final season ends, he has put up more than 100 yards rushing. Frees is 5 feet 8, 185 pounds and runs, for the most part, inside the tackles. He's not a sprinter but has a way of accepting a hit, sliding away or reaching inside himself to find extra strength when he's engaging a tackler.
"As a person, we all admire his demeanor and character," said Western Maryland coach Dale Sprague. "He's a breath of fresh air. He doesn't have to get the ball, but it's important for us that we call his number. I've never coached a better player and he's the kind of kid who would make any coach feel that being involved in college football is something truly worthwhile."
Frees played at Ephrata (Pa.) High School and as Sprague visited the Lancaster/Lebanon area of Pennsylvania, he kept hearing his name in coaching conversations. Merv Witmer, who was Eric's high school coach, was enthusiastic over his ability and told Sprague there was no question he could play. Had he been taller and faster, Pitt and Penn State would have been calling because his natural ability can't be denied -- which is why he is rolling up imposing, yet hard-earned, yardage totals almost every Saturday afternoon.
"I saw eight of his high school games on film," recalled Sprague. "Against Elizabethtown for the Lancaster Lebanon League championship, they played in the mud. It was a scoreless tie until Eric intercepted a pass and shot 70 yards down the sideline. That couldn't miss catching your attention. He was interested in us because he knew he'd get a chance to play."
Sprague will eagerly show reels of film on Frees. There's a show-stopper against Swarthmore a year ago when he was entitled to go down after a linebacker's hit. But somehow he utilized his balance, which is exceptional, remained upright and rambled another 35 yards. "I've showed that to a lot of coaches and they are simply amazed," said Sprague.
Western Maryland has been a pleasing experience for Frees, who is an English major. He wanted to play varsity baseball in the spring and he has been afforded that. This would have been impossible in a college or university where the emphasis was on football. As for post-graduation plans, he may seek a free-agent chance in the National Football League or in Canada. But for now, he's not concerned.
"All of that can wait until after the season," he said. "Coach Sprague said we would talk about it then. I've enjoyed everything about Western Maryland. I really like it that baseball is available to me. So I'm happy with everything. Our team is 4-and-3 and if we could win our last three football games it would give us a respectable showing. We'd all like that."
Scott Deitch, the school's publicity director, mentions that in four years, considering all the exposure to being hit, Frees has only left one game because of injury. That happened as a freshman against Muhlenberg when a deep thigh bruise sent him to the sidelines.
But what he has done, mostly traveling between the tackles, moving his thick, short legs with piston-like drive, breaking tackles and having a capacity for absorbing blows has given Eric Frees a special identity. With three games to go, he has 939 carries for 4,687 yards.
One thousand tries and 5,000 yards would be an extraordinary attainment. It would elevate him to a plateau of accomplishment that football in Maryland hasn't seen in more than 100 years.