Defining Dylan Freechild: On Winning, Losing, And Leadership

Does Dylan Freechild need to win a Championship to complete his complicated portrait?

Dylan Freechild & Oregon Ego in the huddle.
Dylan Freechild & Oregon Ego in the huddle. Photo by Kevin Leclaire — UltiPhotos.com

Dylan Freechild has likely been seen playing ultimate more than any other player ever. He came up in the ultimate world at the dawn of the streaming age, and footage of him is almost impossible to miss. Between Portland Rhino, Oregon Ego, and three summers on the NexGen tour, he played in more NGN games than anyone. He has featured in swaths of Ultiworld games, and has appeared on ESPN3 at College Nationals every year since the partnership was conceived.

It seems counterintuitive, then, that Freechild could be so hard to pin down. That he is such a polarizing player and one of the most complicated and deliberated figures in the sport.

He is a Callahan winner who many people construe as having poor spirit. He is someone who regards the purity of the game as so important that he doesn’t support refs or active observers, but is also a poster child for the ultra-competitive, win-obsessed direction that the sport is heading. He is an ambassador of the game and youth coach who often gets called out online for being a self-centered jerk. He somehow manages to be regarded as a flashy, style-over-substance player, while simultaneously being the best player on one of the best teams in the country.

What makes characterizing Freechild so thorny is that none of those descriptions are totally off base. Over his career he has exhibited the skill, behavior, and disposition necessary to inhabit all of the roles that have been ascribed to him, good or bad.

The complicated narrative leaves us wanting for a simple way to describe him. Since what he has done seems so often contradictory, we are left to define him by what he hasn’t: win a Championship.

It is why Freechild and his legacy have more at stake this weekend than anyone else cleating up at the College Championships in Milwaukee. Finally winning a national championship would give Freechild the chance to make his legacy about who he is, not who he isn’t.

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For years now, Freechild has been the face of Oregon Ego, and for better or worse, the face of their now infamous three consecutive semifinals defeats. For many players, it takes years before they carry the expectations and fate of a program, but Freechild has been at the forefront of Oregon since he stepped on campus. His skill was so undeniable from the get go that despite being an underclassmen surrounded by talented and well-known veteran players, the identity of the team was shaped by his abilities and style.

Through sheer force of will and personality, he made handler movement cool. When you think of exciting ultimate plays, of high octane offense, I would bet that hucks, hammers, and huge skys come to mind. Dumping and swinging is the boring, practical approach to the game that most fans treat with an ironic derision. But that all changes when you see Freechild bury Julian Childs-Walker in a shallow grave with a cut that is just as ruthless and breathtaking as Allen Iverson destroying a defender with a crossover.

Dylan Freechild Cut v. Julian Childs-Walker

Iverson is actually a pretty good analog for Freechild at this point in his collegiate career. Both play with an evocative style that inspired a generation of players, both are polarizing figures that are regarded as emotionally volatile, and both are so dominant and compelling when they play that they burn up all of the narrative oxygen in the room.

Iverson and Freechild are both fantastic once-in-a-generation talents, but, like basketball, ultimate is a team game, and, of course, neither player has won on the biggest stage. Freechild is almost synonymous with Oregon Ultimate, and with the team losing in the semis for three straight years, Freechild has become synonymous with that too.

This kind of player, the tremendous individual talent who has yet to achieve complete success at the team level, is one of the most easily digestible narratives in sports. It takes everything that happens over the course of a season and shrinks it down to one specific, polarizing, dramatic issue: “can player X win a title?”

It is a narrative that manages to take the inarguable talent a player possesses and make it controversial. For most players, the fundamental question asked of them is “do they have enough talent?” but for star players who haven’t won with their teams, the question becomes “do they have the right kind of talent?” or “do they use their talent correctly?”

There many examples of players who are now regarded as consummate winners and professionals that were firestorms of controversial takes before their teams were able to win. Lebron James and Peyton Manning are both gifted and dominant players who were at one time polarizing because of their inability to win a title. Once they did, the narrative completely changed, and they became lauded for their cerebral and emotional growth that got them across the finish line.

In all likelihood, it will take winning a national title for a similar narrative to emerge for Freechild, and for the choker stigma to be buried once and for all. In an interview after Easterns this spring, he admits as much. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it would be nice to win one, to get that off my back,” he said. “But it would mostly be to get people to stop talking about how Ego can’t win one, or how Dylan can’t win one.”

He is clearly aware of what is at stake for his legacy this year but also says that it is not particularly important to him. “If [losing] is going to be the narrative of my career, that’s on me,” he said with an ironic resignation. “If I were to win one, they’d be like, do you have two? And if I were to win two they would be like, oh he won them the wrong way, Spikezilla is a terrible nickname, that’s an unspirited nickname. There is always going to be something.”

And up pops another contradiction. Freechild claims to not care about how people perceive him, but at the same time is acutely aware of exactly what they say. He self-identified a lot of the slights people have aimed his way without embracing them, but without completely rejecting them either.

“If I was guaranteed to brush off the reputation as a choke artist, instant gratification, too fiery, if I could let all that go and be seen as the more level headed Dylan that I think I am, and the more loyal Dylan that I think I am, if I could get rid of that for a championship, which is a close call, I still wouldn’t,” he said, when asked whether or not he would take a guaranteed title at some point in his career if he had to win it outside of Oregon. “I’d still rather sit with people’s idea of me, which I think has gotten better over the years, but I’d still rather sit with that and go down with these guys, to know that these 17 guys are completely comfortable with how I play and lead the team, the way I carry myself.”

There is obvious conflict between wanting to win a title to get people off his back and only caring about what his teammates think of him, and it is illustrative of the problem facing star players who haven’t won a championship. They shoulder immense expectations from fans of the sport to dominate the game, but in order to meet those expectations they must exist as part of a team. Finding that balance, on and off the field, is what separates great players from great players who win.

Fulfilling the dual expectations of being a superstar and a teammate is difficult and requires real maturity, the kind of maturity players who finally win a title are celebrated for attaining. With most athletes, growth in maturity and in an understanding of the game coincides with a tangible growth in ability and performance on the field. This makes it easy for us to process their development, because we can tie the changes we see in front of us to the player’s maturation off the field. With Freechild, this is tricky, because for the past five years he has outwardly appeared to be much the same player.

Dylan Freechild winning the Callahan award. Photo: Alex Fraser -- UltiPhotos.com
Dylan Freechild winning the Callahan award. Photo: Alex Fraser — UltiPhotos.com

It has been two years since Ego released his famous Callahan video (the video that launched a thousand upline cuts); his game today looks very similar to what we saw in 2013. Because he looks so similar on the field, it is harder for us to reconcile how he has changed off the field, as a student of the game and as a leader. His skills may have marginally increased, but his maturity and his role as a leader are growing much faster, just like anyone’s would as they transform from an 18 year old boy to a 23 year old man.

Leadership has been one of the most marked changes in Freechild’s role on Ego. Coming to Eugene, he almost immediately stepped into a type of leadership simply because of his talent. Players would look up to him because of how much better he was than anyone else. Over the years, Freechild has begun to really understand how his role as a leader is important, and change from someone who helps the team just by playing spectacularly, to someone who is able to help the team in all facets.

“[My] role has just changed more into, I don’t want to say a father figure necessarily, because I am still a goofball, still plenty a kid,” he said. “It shifted from trying to get people to play the best they can in the moment which sometimes turned into negativity because I would get frustrated, to just trying to get the team to be successful, and having the best chance to be successful.”

This maturity and recognition points towards Dylan the superstar player and Dylan the teammate reconciling their conflict and becoming one productive force. A big turning point in this regard came last fall during Freechild’s time captaining the Portland club team, Rhino. Having never been in such a position of authority with players who were significantly older and very talented, he felt like he needed to really earn the respect of his players and approach leadership differently than he had before.

At Nationals after a disappointing day one, Rhino found themselves facing an elimination game against Seattle Sockeye in prequarters. The way the team prepared for the game and how they were able to get in the right emotional and mental mindset to pull off the famous upset left a big impression on Freechild, and he described the experience as both humbling and eye-opening.

“We discussed how we needed to attack that Sockeye game, and it really changed my perspective on what is important,” he said. “That is doing things together as a team and not isolating yourself as the guy, as the leader, as the one that people look to. The more that you do that, the more you put yourself in a box, and the more you feel frustrated and constrained when things aren’t going right.”

That line about the box is important. There is more to leading a team than just being the best player on it; leadership requires that you make yourself part of something, to fully embrace the successes and failures of the team as your own. Ultimately, it will make you and the team more secure.

Portland Rhino's Dylan Freechild celebrates a goal at 2013 Terminus.
Freechild scores for Portland Rhino. Photo by Christina Schmidt — UltiPhotos.com

Internalizing that lesson has been something Freechild has been working on this season, and he feels that it is having a positive impact on Ego. He compared the moment at Nationals with Rhino to what had just transpired after the game at Easterns against Wilmington, and how he has learned to become mentally stronger, not weaker from defeats.

“I was just harping on these guys, I was trying to get my jog on and be positive for once, and no one would follow me and jog, and I was like, ‘Guys we have to win and lose as a team. We’ve got to put this together,'” he recounted with a wry smile. “I used to be intimidated by teams that beat us earlier in the year and now I’m not nearly as intimidated as I used to be. We’ll see UNCW again.”

That sort of attitude marks something of a change for Freechild, who by his own admission has been obsessed in the moment about winning, about vanquishing his opponents. But as the last few grains of sand trickle out of the hourglass of his eligibility, he has taken a longer view.

“I really want to see this team succeed after this year,” he remarked almost wistfully. “I think the principles I was playing by were sort of an instant gratification.” This sort of introspection is surprising from a player that is supposedly “obsessed in the moment,” but another wrinkle in the complicated picture of Freechild shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point.

Emerging as both a superstar and a teammate, combining obsession with introspection, are crucial to the redemptive arc that finally winning a title would represent for Freechild (as well as for Ego’s actual chances in Milwaukee). The drama of the narrative matches up directly with what we will see on the field. Freechild can’t eliminate the stigmas of being a choker or a selfish player without a team victory, and in order for the team to win, Freechild will have to perform in a way that truly dismantles those claims.

For now, Freechild’s narrative is muddled by all the things we have seen from him over the last five years. To fully put all of the pieces together into a coherent whole, we would need to see him be the one thing he hasn’t been before: a champion.

  1. Patrick Stegemoeller
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    Patrick Stegemoeller is a Senior Staff Writer for Ultiworld and also a lawyer who lives in Washington DC. He hopes that his BA in History will prove to be valuable at some point. You can find him on twitter at @patstegs.

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