When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States in March of 2020, one of the first things impacted was the cancellation of college and professional sports.
For several months there was a void, something missing for many. And then, as summer arrived, sports began to return slowly, but surely.
Among the sports back for the fall of 2020 was college football. Well, in some cases. While some conferences chose to play, there were others that put on the brakes. Including the Big Ten.
On Aug. 11, the Big Ten made an announcement that shocked many. They postponed the 2020 football season until the spring of 2021, impacting many college athletes who were ready to close out their football careers.
Steelers second round draft pick Pat Freiermuth was one of them. All he wanted to do was play for his Penn State Nittany Lions, especially after he decided not to declare for the NFL Draft following the 2019 season.
But he didn't know if he would have the opportunity.
"When I decided to come back, I was looking forward to the white outs, a full Beaver Stadium," said Freiermuth. "When the pandemic hit, it was taken away from us obviously for an understandable reason. Having it being canceled hurt a lot."
Seeing the pain the college athletes were feeling was something that impacted many. They wondered why some conferences could play, but the Big Ten wasn't. So, they spoke up. One of those who spoke up the most was his mother, Dianne Freiermuth, who was the president of the Penn State Football Parents. The organization posted a letter online and encouraged parents from other Big Ten schools to do the same. They wanted their kids to be able to play football, in a safe manner of course. They knew it might mean they wouldn't be able to enjoy the games in person, but their kid's joy came first. And it all paid off as the Big Ten decided to return in the fall for a shortened season, minus fans in the stands.
"My family has been with me throughout my whole career," said Freiermuth, whose dad was also part of the drive to get them to play. "They know how much I love football. The support they showed in that difficult time was amazing. They put the pedal to the gas full force. They helped me out, helped the Big Ten come back and I was appreciative of that. The season coming back meant a lot."
The one thing that was missing, though, was having his parents there, even though his season was cut short because of an injury.
"It was really tough for them," said Freiermuth, whose parents are both teachers in Massachusetts and had to adapt to remote education during much of the pandemic. "I know they love going to Penn State, love travelling to places to see me play. Those are their weekend trips. Not being able to do that hurt them. They were there in spirit, watching it on television. It was not ideal, but they made it work."
It's likely they will be back watching him this fall when Freiermuth takes the field for the Steelers at Heinz Field. He is thrilled to join the black and gold, a team that has the playing style he embodies.
"I just like to be physical," said Freiermuth the day after he was drafted. "If that is blocking the whole game, pass protection the whole game or even running routes and catching the football. I like to do everything physical. I don't shy away from contact at all. I am not going to be a guy who is going to hurdle someone or juke someone. I am going to be a guy who runs through someone. I am going to try and bring the juice that way and dominate the guy through my physicality.
"The Steelers are known for that, that grittiness, put your hard hat on and work. That is what has made me successful in my career so far. Being part of an organization that prides themselves on that is something I am excited for."
Freiermuth is definitely excited to get in the black and gold. From the moment Franco Harris, a former Penn State player himself, walked on the stage in Cleveland to announce Freiermuth as the Steelers second-round pick, he has been on cloud nine.
"It's been wild," said Freiermuth. "First seeing the Pittsburgh area code pop up on my phone and knowing they had the next pick. It's meant a lot because my college career was in Pennsylvania and now, I get to continue my career in Pennsylvania. My emotions have been all over the place from excited, to anxious, to nervous, to getting ready to go out there and compete. A lot of different emotions.
"It was really cool getting the call from Coach (Mike) Tomlin. Talking to him throughout the process. Hearing his voice telling me I was going to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. It meant a lot to hear that.
"And then having a Hall of Famer, a Penn State graduate and ex-football player, that meant a lot. I will remember that for the rest of my life. Not just getting picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers but having a Hall of Famer in Franco Harris announce my pick and him being from Penn State. It was special."
He also got a shoutout from former Steelers tight end Heath Miller via the Steelers Twitter handle, something that took him by surprise.
"That meant a lot," said Freiermuth. "Heath Miller was a heckuva tight end, heckuva Steelers tight end. He is a great person to look up to and try to be like, emulate my game after. I feel like our games are kind of similar. Hopefully I get to talk to him some day, pick his brain about what made him so successful. It means a lot to have him shout me out like that."
Freiermuth has some familiarity with the Steelers and their tight ends not because he followed the black and gold. Quite the opposite. He has always been a New England Patriots fan growing up in Merrimac, Massachusetts.
"I know the Steelers have an unbelievable defense and that is something I am very excited for," said Freiermuth. "I am excited to go out and compete against them every day in practice. And of course, Ben Roethlisberger. The rich history of the organization. I grew up a Patriots fan because I am from Boston. It was huge the times when we were playing the Steelers. Now being a part of the Steelers and knowing how big of a deal the organization is to everyone there is exciting."
In addition to Miller, another former Steelers tight end Freiermuth is familiar with is Jesse James, who also played at Penn State.
And yes, he did weigh in on the ruling of James' catch against the Patriots, when his touchdown reception against New England in 2017 was overturned. The play happened in the fourth quarter, with the Steelers down 27-24, and just 34 seconds on the clock. Roethlisberger connected with James for a 10-yard touchdown, with James going to the ground as he extended for the end zone. The play was ruled a touchdown on the field, but after a long delay with the replay officials looking at it, the call was overturned and ruled incomplete. Two plays later Roethlisberger was intercepted in the end zone, and the Steelers lost. The play even promoted a rule change in the NFL.
And yes, Steelers fans, despite the fact that he was a Patriots fan at the time, he agrees with you as far as whether James made the catch or not.
"I do remember the play," laughed Freiermuth. "I personally do think Jesse caught the ball if we are being completely honest. Not just saying it because I am a Steeler now. But he did catch the ball. I worked out with him and we talked about that and he did catch it."