ATLANTA — Abby Freeman watched her starstruck son cover his face with his hat, and was so stunned by what she was seeing that she uttered the same remark over and over.
"He’s never been speechless before," Freeman said.
Austin, 13, of McDonough, Ga., was standing in the end zone of the College Football Hall of Fame’s indoor playing field Thursday when he was asked who is his favorite NASCAR driver.
"Dale Earnhardt (Jr.)," Austin replied.
"Who’d you say again?" came a voice from behind him.
Freeman turned to find Earnhardt, the two brought together by CURE for Childhood Cancer — a foundation that funds research for pediatric cancer and offers support, help and encouragement for families — and Talladega Superspeeday, and his response came in a simple three-word answer
"Oh, my God," he said. "OH, MY GOD!"
The two played catch on the 45-yard field, then went head-to-head in a three-lap race on motorized coolers — Freeman won and afterward, Earnhardt opened the cooler and remarked it would "be even better with some Mountain Dew (a sponsor) in there" — and raced remote control cars. Earnhardt also brought gifts, including a pit crew shirt and hat and two tickets to the Sunday, Oct. 25 race at Talladega, where Freeman will sit on the pitbox along with No. 88 crew chief Greg Ives.
"It touches me so much," Freeman said. "You don’t know how good I feel right now. It touches my heart in so many ways that I can’t even say … It means a lot. It really does."
Earnhardt fielded questions on his impending wedding to Amy Reimann and disclosed they are debating between a summer or winter ceremony. He’s admittedly hands-off with most things involving it, but said his preference is the winter, because "if we’re going to have it during the off week we have in August, that changes every year. So we might end up racing our anniversary, and that won’t be any good."
Sitting 12th in the Chase at 42 points behind leader Matt Kenseth heading into this weekend’s race at Dover, Earnhardt needs a win to control his own destiny to reach the Contender Round. He’s never reached Victory Lane on the track, but has five top-10 finish in the last seven races on the concrete surface.
"I’m not really worried about the position we’re in. It is what it is and we’ll go into Dover and do the job we think we can do and I think that will be good enough to get us into the next round," he said.
Earnhardt’s focus was on Freeman and as the two made their way through the Hall of Fame, marking the first trip to the facility for either of them and along the way, a realization struck Abby.
First diagnosed with cancer in his pelvic bone on April 24, 2013, Freeman was in remission for 15 months, but relapsed over the summer. Surgery awaits and he will have the entire right side of his pelvic bone removed, along with the top of his femur.
"Watching him right now, it’s like, soon he’s not going to be able to do that," she said.
As their tour came to the alternate helmets exhibit, Earnhardt looked around at entires from the likes of Army, Ohio State, Syracuse and others when a representative from Talladega suggested he check out a black matte Purdue helmet on the wall.
Earnhardt walked over to it, and as he did bellowing voice said "Why don’t you look at a real helmet."
Dave Butz, a College Hall of Famer as a defensive lineman the Boilermakers, and a member of the Redskins, who won two Super Bowl titles, approached clutching a helmet under his arm.
Earnhardt is a long-time Redskins fan, who has been known to ask for scores and stats updates during races and Butz presented him with the last helmet he the member of the NFL’s 1980’s All-Decade Team ever wore in a career that ended in 1988.
"I thought we were having an awesome day and I’m glad Austin is here to be a part of this," Earnhardt said. "He was surprised here today and he gets to see me get surprised. It’s pretty awesome … I think I might have to carry it around for a few months just to keep an eye on it."