When Stacey Freeman steps out to face Stockport County in one of the biggest FA Cup games in Stamford's history this weekend, he will look up to the sky and remember his friend who was killed on a night out.
The former reality TV contestant wears a white wristband in memory of Connor Saunders, who died from head injuries after being attacked in the street.
"We played football together, went to the same school, shared the same friends," says Freeman, who broke down in tears when he appeared in the E4 reality show Shipwrecked in 2019.
The 28-year-old defender wants to encourage men to open up about their feelings.
"You don't actually say how much you love someone until they are gone," says Freeman, who is set to line up for Northern Premier League Division One Midlands side Stamford at Edgeley Park in the fourth qualifying round on Saturday.
"It had a big impact on our lives in the friend group."
Freeman, a former model and body double, says men talking about their emotions is a strength - not a weakness.
Before appearing on reality TV, he struggled to open up but says the show taught him to speak out about his feelings.
"Never bottle things up and feel comfortable being you," he says.
'I didn't care about crying on TV'
"I grew up boxing with older brothers. I know how to handle myself but there I was crying on television."
Freeman is recalling the moment he broke down on the set of Shipwrecked, the show set on the pristine beaches of the Cook Islands featuring tasks, eliminations and blazing rows.
He had been tasked with sending two people home and had to decide who to pick.
"I was crying because those people were having a good time and I had connected with them," he says. "I was thinking to myself 'I've been crying for a solid 15-20 minutes and it's going to be on national TV'.
"I wasn't scared how I would be portrayed. Being on Shipwrecked unlocked a part of me I never knew existed.
"It made me realise I am an emotional person. What's the problem with crying and showing your emotions?
"Prior to the show I struggled to open up. Growing up, I tried to be a tough guy. I'd break up with a girl and not be bothered."
Freeman's friend Connor was tragically killed by just one punch in Brighton in 2012. He was 19. Nine years on, former Lewes, Eastbourne Borough and Whitehawk player Freeman gets emotional talking about him.
The wristband he wears during matches features Connor's initials and favourite shirt number - as well as the number of lives he saved by donating his organs.
"He made the selfless decision at the age of 16 to become an organ donor. Because of that he saved five lives," says Freeman.
"Every single game I say a little prayer in my head for Connor."
'I was punched in the face'
Six years after Connor's passing, Freeman was assaulted while on a night out in Brighton.
He was celebrating with his team-mates at Lewes after learning he was about to be offered a contract with Stevenage following a trial at the League Two club.
The contract did not materialise. Freeman suffered an ankle injury during the incident in 2018 which required lengthy treatment.
"I was devastated at the time," he says.
Freeman, who studied criminology at university in the United States, adds: "Someone called my name and as I turned I was punched in the face.
"A police officer who intervened landed on my ankle. I woke up the next morning with my foot the size of a rugby ball.
"A few days earlier I had played an in-house game for Stevenage and got a phone call from the recruitment officer saying they were going to offer me something.
"The offer never came."
|Five wins & a 40-year-old - Stamford's FA Cup run|
|Stamford's FA Cup run began on 7 August with a 2-0 win at Oadby Town in front of 60 fans in the extra preliminary round. Their five wins to reach the fourth qualifying round include a 2-1 victory at Telford - who play two tiers above.||Boss Graham Drury is in his third spell in charge of the club, who are nicknamed the Daniels. He guided them to the first round in 2016-17 after beating Wrexham - from three leagues above - in the fourth qualifying round before losing 3-0 at League Two Hartlepool.|
|Three of their 11 goals in FA Cup qualifying have come from winger Cosmos Matwasa, who has attracted interested from clubs at a higher level. Stamford have earned at least £16,944 in prize money from this season's run.||Stamford's team includes 40-year-old defender Jon Challinor, who helped York City win promotion to the Football League in 2012. He also played in York's FA Trophy final win over Newport at Wembley the same season.|
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'I'm forever grateful'
Freeman emerged from Shipwrecked with thousands more Instagram followers and a modelling contract that took him to Cape Town, South Africa, for three months.
Ex-reality TV stars have warned about the impact of being on a reality TV show can have on mental health.
Freeman, however, says his five weeks on Shipwrecked proved a "life-changing" experience as he learned to open up about his feelings.
"It taught me gratitude and so much about myself. For that I'm forever grateful," he adds.
Two years on from the programme being aired, he has no plans to appear on reality TV again.
He has since moved from the south coast to Lincolnshire to be with his girlfriend, Terri. The couple have announced their engagement, while Freeman has stopped modelling to concentrate on running his recruitment agency specialising in construction and engineering.
His latest club Stamford - who play in the eighth tier of English football and are the last remaining team that started this season's FA Cup at the extra preliminary round stage - is a world away from the Cook Islands, where Freeman chased fame and fortune.
"I have put all that behind me," he says.
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