When Matt Freeman said he wanted to become the feature baton twirler for Pennsylvania State University, his high school principal in southern California laughed and told him he needed realistic dreams.
"I have proved him wrong in everything he's ever told me," Freeman said.
For 3-1/2 years, Freeman, six times a world champion, has dazzled crowds at Beaver Stadium as feature twirler for the Penn State Blue Band. He twirls five batons at once, tosses them high, rolls them on his neck and bounces them like boomerangs. For night games he sets them afire.
On Saturday, the senior was performing his last home football game as the Lions took on Nebraska. Following tradition for a departing lead twirler, he planned to perform a solo at midfield as the rest of the 305-member band and tens of thousands of fans looked on.
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"That will be a moment I treasure forever," said Freeman, 21, a marketing major.
He is only the second male student in Penn State's history to be lead twirler. The first, John Mitchell, a 1992 graduate from Pittsburgh, still twirls and teaches twirling.
At a school that has attracted world champion twirlers, Freeman has left a special mark, said his coach, Heather Bean.
"The things that he can do with the baton, the height that he can get is just incredible," said Bean. She recalled the day on Notre Dame's home field, in South Bend, Ind., when Freeman threw a baton so high that it got stuck atop the Jumbotron.
The trip to Notre Dame in July 2012, for a national twirling contest, came as Penn State was reeling from the release of a report on the child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Asked to address the crowd, Freeman stepped up. He likened the situation at PSU to the Whos in Whoville who, in Dr. Seuss' tale, carried on with Christmas even after the Grinch stole it.
"We're showing everybody what Penn State is all about," Freeman said. Applause thundered.
It's the band's job, he said this week, to keep a positive beat even when a dark cloud looms.
"We're still out there twirling, because you love Penn State, regardless of what happens, regardless of what people think of your school, regardless of the score of the game," he said.
His father is a firefighter, his mother a teacher. Freeman got interested in batons when accompanying his big sister to lessons.
"I begged and begged my parents for lessons," he recalled. At age 9, he qualified for a world competition in France and won a gold medal. In 2012, he was captain of the U.S. world team.
His high school principal thought twirling was too much of a distraction. But Freeman caught the eye of Penn State coaches.
He was a bit apprehensive about coming to Penn State in a sport usually associated with females. But twirling became part of his identity, and led him to love. He met Meredith Semion, 21, a senior and a majorette. He hoists her into the air during routines. This fall, the duo delighted the crowd with a Romeo and Juliet skit. And at the Nittany Lions' first home game, he proposed.
His favorite routine is the once-a-year fire-twirling. The batons, soaked overnight in kerosene and gasoline, burn at both ends. He twirls three at a time.
"The crowd gets so pumped up," he said. "I've burned my neck and usually, I have no hair on my arms by the time I'm done."
He and Semion, an education major, hope to open a dance-and-baton studio. He also plans to visit his former principal and tell him how wrong he was.