Danny Freeman’s life has seen numerous twists and turns but at age 61 he “ain’t dead yet.”
After all, he’s known the enjoyment of serving customers at Sky City in Marion, the adventures of being a long-haul truck driver, the wild behind-the-scenes life of managing a rock band, the thrill of facing opponents in the ring as a professional wrestler and the responsibility of looking after hardened prisoners as a correctional officer.
But none of these experiences could have prepared him for the most serious bout of his life. Just four years ago, this big, tough native son of McDowell County was flat on his back and held down by an unrelenting opponent unlike any other. And there was no certainty he would ever rise again.
“The main reason I decided to write this book is I had a near death experience,” said Freeman to The McDowell News. “You have a lot of time thinking when you are paralyzed and I said if I ever live through this I am going to write a book. I got to thinking I didn’t live a normal life.”
That book he wrote is titled “Ain’t Dead Yet” and in it he describes his incredible and varied life.
But most of all, he describes his encounter with that unrelenting opponent.
A native of McDowell, Freeman attended McDowell High and graduated with the class of 1976. After high school, he attended Wingate College for a year before going to work at the Sky City store in Marion. He was there for 2 1/2 years but had the urge to travel across the United States. He was able to do that by working as a long-haul truck driver.
Later, he got a job working as a bouncer and bartender at a club in Morganton called Main Street Music Hall.
In 1981, this club was able to land its biggest performer ever, country legend Johnny Paycheck. But during that concert, a man was murdered and Freeman witnessed it all happen.
He testified at the trial and the club closed afterwards.
He was able to land a new job with a rock band called Passenger. He drove the truck for this band as they traveled from gig to gig throughout the South during the 1980s. Five years later, he became the sound engineer and then the road manager.
“All the old stories about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll from back then, they are all true,” he said.
But the music scene changed and Freeman found himself searching for a new career. He had always been fascinated with pro wrestling. He was still young, unmarried, had no children and no major debts. So he felt this would be his last chance to see what it would be like to step into the ring. He worked at Marion Manufacturing Co. while training to become a wrestler.
So in the late 1980s, he entered the world of pro wrestling. His first match was in 1986 in Marion and he won the Over the Top Battle Royal.
He also wrestled at the Asheville Civic Center. He did it for two and a half years.
But Freeman found the life of a professional wrestler was not as exciting as he thought it would be.
There were some brief moments of glory in the ring, but there was a lot more time spent in hotel and motel rooms, dressing rooms and traveling from one place to another. “Outside of the ring, it’s a boring lifestyle,” he said.
He ended up going back to work at Sky City. “That was the best job I ever had but it was obvious the chain was going under,” he said.
When Marion Correctional Institution opened in 1995, he applied to work there as a correctional officer.
It turned out to be his longest career and he became a unit manager and an instructor. He had worked at the prison for 20 years before he was confronted with his toughest opponent imaginable.
On the evening of Sept. 24, 2015, the 56-year-old Freeman went to bed at around 10 p.m. At around 11:30 that night, he woke up to use the bathroom.
He felt a slight numbness on the right side of his body but didn’t think much about it. As he walked out of his bathroom, his knees got really weak and he lay back down on his bed. He then felt a numbness on the left side of his body. He didn’t feel any pain but when he tried to stand up he fell over. Freeman thought he was having a stroke so he called 911.
“The doctors couldn’t figure out what it was,” he said. “I kept getting weaker and weaker.”
One physician thought Freeman showed the signs of something more unusual: Guillain-Barre syndrome, a muscle weakness that develops quickly when the immune system attacks the nervous system. The syndrome causes the muscles in the body to stop working and the cause is unknown.
He was finally discharged from the hospital in March 2016, but he still had to use a wheelchair at his home in Nebo.
“You go through something like that, you don’t take life for granted anymore,” he said.
He also decided to write a book so he could share his story with others. He typed his entire 164-page manuscript from a wheelchair at his desk with just his two index fingers.
He doesn’t need his wheelchair any more but he finds it more comfortable for writing.
“What I really learned is you can’t count on tomorrow,” he said. “This could be your last day so live every day like it’s your last. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Believe in other people and believe in yourself.”