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 two and a half 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. This was a road band which meant that the members traveled day in and day out and performed live as their profession. The legal age to drink was 18 at the time and the crowds were bigger and more raucous.
“All the old stories about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll from back then, they are all true,” he said to The McDowell News.
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 had finished up a normal day at work, went to the Corpening Memorial YMCA to work out, went home, watched some TV and ate his dinner. He went to bed at around 10 p.m. At around 11:30 p.m. 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.
When the paramedics arrived, they had to carry him out of his house. He was transported to The McDowell Hospital where the doctors could not find any signs of stroke.
“The doctors couldn’t figure out what it was,” he said to The McDowell News. “I kept getting weaker and weaker.”
However, one physician thought Freeman showed the signs of something more unusual: Guillain-Barre syndrome. The only way to determine if it was the syndrome would be through a spinal tap.
Guillain-Barre syndrome is 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. “This illness affects only about 1 in every 100,000 people worldwide each year, and I had never heard of it,” said Freeman.
He was taken to the Intensive Care Unit at Mission Hospital in Asheville. By this time, he could only turn his head and shrug his shoulders. Throughout it all, he remained calm.
“To be honest, I wasn’t scared because I thought they know what was wrong with me and Mission is a top-notch hospital, so they can fix me,” he said to The McDowell News.
He was placed on an Immune Globulin Intravenous Solution (IGVI) treatment for five days but he was found to be getting worse.
“That’s when I really got concerned,” he said.
It took more treatments but after six weeks in Mission’s ICU, he started to recover from Guillain-Barre. He was then sent to St. Joseph’s Hospital on the other side of Biltmore Avenue but he was still on a feeding tube and a ventilator. He stayed there for two months. By the middle of December 2015, he was taken off the ventilator.
“That was a big step forward,” he said. “I was able to eat and drink again.”
Freeman had to learn to do a lot of things again. In January 2016, he was moved to CarePartners Rehabilitation Hospital where he learned again to dress himself, comb his hair, feed himself and brush his teeth.
“The hardest part is muscle atrophy,” he said.
He was finally discharged 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. “I was on the edge but I came back.”
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.
When he was finally able to drive again, he went right back to the Corpening YMCA to work out and make himself stronger.
“I resigned myself that I would be here every chance I got,” he said at the local Y.
The result of his work is “Ain’t Dead Yet: Winning a Wrestling Match Against Guillain-Barre.”
Danny Freeman will hold a book signing event at MACA on Saturday, Nov. 16 from 1 to 3 p.m. He hopes folks come out to see him and get copies of his book.
“It’s full of stories from my life and a lot of this stuff happened in McDowell County,” he said.
It is also available on Amazon as a printed book or a Kindle download. It retails for $14.95.
“What I really learned is you can’t count on tomorrow,” he said to The McDowell News. “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.”