'That could be my mom:' Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman troubled by violence against Asians

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman won’t stick to sports. 

Asked Wednesday afternoon about an alarming increase in violence against Asian Americans — and Asian American women in particular — the mixed-race son of a Black military father and a South Korean-born mother spoke from the heart. 

“For me, that could be my mom,” Freeman said during a 45-minute conversation on heritage that was sponsored by the university’s Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies. “That’s the thing I think about. What’s any different from a woman in the Asian community being attacked … and my mom?” 

Chong Freeman moved to Ohio in 1976 after marrying Freeman’s father, Michael. She raised her two sons to respect both of their cultures, cooking two dinners most nights to make sure Korean food was part of their upbringing. 

Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman speaks with moderator Tarryn Chun at the Decio Theater on April 27, 2022 as part of the Distinguished Speaker series for the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies; (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

When violent incidents appear to target Asian women, whether it’s the Atlanta spa shootings in March 2021 or more recent episodes in New York and New Mexico, the Freeman family takes note.

“I think about that often and I talk to my mom about it,” Freeman told moderator Tarryn Chun, an assistant professor of Film, Television and Theater at Notre Dame. “She doesn’t speak a lot about it, but I know it’s something she pays attention to and I pay attention to.”

Moral obligation

Raising six multicultural children (four boys and two girls) along with his wife Joanna, Freeman said it was important for his young family to view its “melting pot” ethnicity as normal. Whenever grandmother “Harmony” visits, Freeman said, her traditional Korean “kimchi” is enjoyed at the dinner table. 

Whether it’s his children or his football family, Freeman believes in freedom of expression. When Chun asked if athletes have a “moral obligation” to use their platform and speak out against violence, Freeman nodded. 

“I think they have the opportunity,” he said. “If it’s something that they feel is morally important to them, then they should use that. … We’re all given a platform. If you’re just silent, you have to be OK with what’s going on, and I’m not just talking about the attack on Asians.”

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Freeman, who joins former Hawaii coach Norm Chow (2012-15) as the only FBS-level head coaches of Asian American descent, touched repeatedly on matters of heritage and identity during the discussion before a modest audience of 100-plus attendees. 

He said he grew up attending religious services in both of his parents’ respective churches, noting the meal afterwards was usually better at the Korean church. 

Freeman recalled marking his ethnicity on standardized tests as Black/African American “the majority of the time,” but said he didn’t know why. In general, Freeman said, he has “always embraced” being of mixed race while maintaining “the utmost pride” in both his Black and Korean backgrounds. 

Kyle Hamilton talks to Marcus Freeman's parents Michael and Chong Freeman during a press conference Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South bend.

Freeman said the first thing he did after being hired as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator in January 2021 was to contact All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, who shares the same parental dynamic in terms of ethnicity. 

“I called him and said, ‘Brother! We’re going to go to a Korean restaurant and eat,’ “ Freeman said. 

While Hamilton is a likely first-round pick in Thursday’s NFL Draft, Freeman noted his current roster includes two Asian Americans in quarterback Tyler Buchner, whose mother is Chinese American, and linebacker Jordan Botelho, whose mother is Korean American. 

“I hope they don’t just see me as an African American head coach,” Freeman said. “(I hope) they see me as the Asian American head coach and embrace that. Everybody can see the African American side of you. But when you have that Asian American connection, that’s unique. I embrace it and I love it.” 

Growing up outside Dayton, Ohio, Freeman said he looked up to Asian American sports figures such as Hines Ward, the former University of Georgia and Pittsburgh Steelers star who was raised by a Korean mother; and golf champion Tiger Woods, whose mother is from Thailand. 

"The Korean society isn’t that big," Freeman said. "They’re so close-knit. When somebody in that Korean society has success as an athlete, they all embrace it. My mom was a huge Hines Ward fan."

Benny Meng, a world-renowned grand master in the martial arts with a studio in Richmond, Ind., taught Freeman in taekwondo classes from ages 4 to 12. The future Ohio State linebacker looked up to Meng as well. 

Michael and Chong Freeman during a press conference announcing Marcus Freeman as the new Notre Dame head football coach Monday, Dec. 6, 2021 at the Irish Athletic Center in South Bend.

It was Chong Freeman who insisted her sons learn taekwondo. Marcus Freeman, however, said his wife has so far vetoed that idea for their children, who instead focus mainly on football, wrestling and gymnastics. 

“My mother didn’t know much about (sports),” Freeman said. “She had no clue what football was. She did know about taekwondo, but she always supported us. That’s all she cared about was, ‘Hey, are you OK? You doing good?’ “ 

While his father, who spent 26 years in the Air Force, was “very hard” on his football-playing sons, Freeman recalled his mother’s soft touch, even after a disappointing performance in one of Ohio State’s spring games. 

“After the game I look at my phone and my dad is ripping me: ‘Ah, you didn’t play well enough, you didn’t do this,’ “ Freeman said, smiling. “And my mom was just, ‘Honey, I’m so glad you didn’t get hurt. You did such a good job.’ Those experiences are why I’m the way I am.” 

South Korean homeland

When he got married in 2010, Freeman said it was “very important” to him that his mother wear a traditional Korean dress known as a Hanbok.

“I wanted her to feel like this is a part of her Korean wedding,” Freeman said. 

He has yet to visit South Korea but reminisced about a 2017 visit from his maternal aunt and several Korean cousins. When Chong Freeman returned home to South Korea the following year, Freeman sent eldest son Vinny along with his Uncle Michael. 

“Being a coach there was no chance for me to go,” Freeman said. “I just had no time.”

(l-r) Notre Dame football coach Marcus Freeman and event moderator Tarryn Chun after the presentation of a celadon bowl to commemorate Freeman's Liu Institute discussion of his Korean heritage on April 27, 2022 at Notre Dame's Decio Theatre.

Thanks to modern technology, video calls helped fill the void for the Cincinnati defensive coordinator, even with the 13-hour time difference. 

“It was an unbelievable experience for (Vinny),” Freeman said. “If I couldn’t go, I wanted my boy, one of my oldest kids, to go and experience it. That was really fulfilling for me. I know she wants to go back again. Hopefully, I will get the opportunity to go at some point.”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre  Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.