On Sunday, the match in Atlanta between the Chargers and Falcons will be more than just a game.
Dwight Freeney spent a pair of seasons in America's Finest City, but hasn't donned the lightning bolt since the end of the 2014 season. For Freeney, he's looking forward to facing some of his old teammates and going up against them for the first time in two seasons.
"I have a lot of friends on the other side of the ball and a lot of experiences," the defensive end said. "It's going to be a lot of laughter and a lot of good times. (Antonio) Gates and I are pretty close and it's also going to be fun getting back after Philip Rivers. I was after him for a few years there, then I had to join his team, but now I get to go back at him. It's going to be exciting."
While they went from enemies to teammates and now back to foes, Gates and Freeney have spent nearly a combined three decades in the league. Gates admits the time shared with Freeney strengthened their bond.
"We would always compete," Gates said. "I think once he got here it was a natural bond. We realized we had a lot in common, from a personal standpoint and having these high expectations of going out and playing well. (Our friendship is) inspirational, really. I think we see it the same way. We both were always on the same path with what we were able to do career-wise. I think it's the (shared) understanding of being older and how much more we have to dedicate towards our bodies (to) focus and get the proper rest. We have the understanding we both have to (have for) what it takes to still play at this level at this point and time in our careers."
Freeney also said he maintains a close relationship with Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram. When Freeney first joined the Bolts, Ingram was fresh off his rookie season. Fast forward to today, and number 54 calls Freeney his "big brother" adding the veteran taught him invaluable lessons about life off the football field.
"I'm grateful to even know a person of that caliber," Ingram said. "I learned everything from him. I learned how to be a pro and learned how to take care of my body. He showed me the right way to take care of your body in this league. He showed me how to eat. Like if you have a nice car, you're going to put good gas in it…I didn't understand it until he showed me."
As for Ingram's play on the gridiron, Freeney said he's been able to watch his former teammate grow and evolve into a complete NFL player, which Ingram attributes in part to Freeney's guidance.
"I think (Ingram's) maturing as a player," Freeney said. "Back in the day, if I remember correctly, he was a guy where he'd have a good play and then he'd have a bad play. The consistency wasn't always there; (but) he always knew he had the talent. But I think now, I think he's being more consistent in making good and great plays. He's becoming that solid rock for that defense and obviously you see it in his numbers and how he's playing now."
"When you get to learn from players like that and they show you a pattern of how you should do things and the way to make you successful and consistent, you have to listen to it," Ingram added. "(Freeney) has over 100 sacks in this league, so why wouldn't you listen to him?"
In addition, Brandon Mebane and Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn will also reunite at the Georgia Dome. Having spent multiple seasons coaching Mebane in Seattle, Quinn had nothing but glowing things to say about the nose tackle, crediting him for his head coaching job.
"He means a lot to me because it's guys like Brandon who have totally played so well that they've allowed me to have the Falcons logo on my chest," Quinn said. "I have tons of respect for him. He's always been an anchor inside in the run game. He keeps all the power downstairs; you guys have seen that. He's somebody I have tons of respect for."
Upon hearing Quinn's praise, Mebane was taken aback.
"I didn't know he thought that much of me!" Mebane said. "I'm just a nobody trying to make a living for my family. It's special. I feel special. Before (Quinn) was my defensive coordinator, he was my defensive line coach. He actually was one of the coaches who helped me watch film. When he first got (to Seattle), he took me to another level when it came to watching film as far as breaking my opponent down."