MERRIMAC — Dianne and John Freiermuth were sitting near the right corner of the end zone as the Penn State offense drove down field in their direction.
The Nittany Lions held a 14-7 lead over Illinois in the second quarter, and the team looked primed to extend that lead after quarterback Trace McSorley rushed for a 12-yard gain to set up 1st and goal from the 5 yard line.
Then, on the next play, McSorley dropped back and looked to his left. Pat Freiermuth, the true freshman tight end from Merrimac, was open, and McSorley quickly hit him in front of the goal line. Freiermuth made the catch, but as he turned towards the end zone, he suddenly lost his footing.
“He slipped a little, and when he slipped he was thinking ‘Oh god, please don’t let me fall,’” Dianne said, recounting her son’s recollection of his first career touchdown. “It wasn’t pretty, but it was beautiful to us.”
Freiermuth was able to stretch into the end zone for the 5-yard touchdown reception in front of his parents. And by the time Penn State had finished up its 63-24 road win over Illinois, he had played the most snaps of the three tight ends battling for the starting job.
Within days, Freiermuth was officially named the starter, and since then he has become a key piece in the Nittany Lions offense.
Part of a family
Dianne Freiermuth says her favorite moment of Pat’s career wasn’t something that happened on the field. It came in Penn State coach James Franklin’s office the day Pat make his commitment and become a part of the program.
“Coach Franklin called my dad to tell him so he wouldn’t see something on social media first,” Dianne said. “That he took the time to talk to my dad, who has supported my kids so much, that was a cool moment and at that point you felt like you’re not joining a program, you’re joining a family.”
Pat Freiermuth, who couldn’t comment for this story because Penn State doesn’t permit its first-year players to speak with the media, had a series of “welcome to college” moments from that point on.
One of the first was when he got to see his locker for the first time and found a No. 87 jersey waiting for him — the same number worn by the player to whom he’s most often compared, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Another was his first team arrival, when he and his teammates walked off the famous blue buses and entered Beaver Stadium through a crowd of fans prior to the team’s season opener against Appalachian State.
Then, of course, was when he actually took the field for the first time.
“He was on a high like I’ve never seen,” Dianne said of Pat’s demeanor after the season-opening win. “You work so hard and you wait for it to happen for so long and then it’s there.”
But for all of the excitement that came at the beginning, nothing could compare to what happened on Sept. 29.
An emotional roller coaster
Pat Freiermuth’s first game as the starting tight end was also Penn State’s biggest game of the year. No. 4 ranked Ohio State was coming to town, and so was ESPN College Gameday and the biggest crowd in Beaver Stadium history.
Standing squarely in the spotlight, Freiermuth had the game of his life. The true freshman made three catches for 44 yards, including a one-handed touchdown grab in the back of the end zone that gave Penn State a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
His other two catches both gave the Nittany Lions first downs, and Freiermuth received praise from the television commentators and from across social media as the game went along.
“It was incredible to see him on that kind of stage, handling himself the way he did,” said Patrick Foley, Freiermuth’s cousin and his head coach at the Brooks School in North Andover.
“First to perform the way he did and then to see him take him all in the way we’re used to seeing him do it. In some ways its not surprising, but to see him do it with Gameday there and 107,000 people, I don’t think you can ever really expect that but it was awesome to see.”
“It was surreal,” Dianne said. “It’s something that as little boys you dream of, and then you see it happen and it’s really unbelievable. You’re extremely proud but you almost have to pinch yourself.”
What should have been the greatest night of Freiermuth’s life, however, was spoiled after Ohio State mounted a furious fourth quarter comeback. The Buckeyes wound up winning 27-26, dealing a crushing blow to Penn State’s playoff aspirations.
The next game, Penn State lost again to Michigan State. As great as the highs could be, the lows proved equally discouraging.
“The two losses have been devastating,” Dianne said. “He really sees this as a team thing, so it was great but it wasn’t enough. We wanted to win.”
Ahead of schedule
The Freiermuths have been to every game this season, home and away, to soak in what they called a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yet while they were always confident in their son’s ability, they acknowledged they weren’t sure he would earn such a prominent role so quickly.
His high school coaches, Foley at Brooks and Steve Hayden at Pentucket before that, said the same. But they did believe he had the physical and mental tools to seize the opportunity if it presented itself, tools many freshmen don’t possess.
“He’s obviously a great athlete, so you can see the catches and that’s so impressive, but I think the reason he’s been able to get on the field is because he’s such a great blocker,” Foley said. “Someone who has all that talent but wasn’t as physically mature as he was is probably not getting on the field so soon. They felt comfortable with where he was physically and that’s why they got him out there right away.”
Whether it happened right away or down the road, one thing his family and coaches all agreed on was they knew he would be a success.
“He’s earned it,” said Hayden. “He works hard and he loves the game, so you’ve got to tip your hat to him. He’s done it!”