TAMPA - Late in the evening, long after practice, meetings and film study are over, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman can often be found at home, lounging on his couch and cradling his beloved Ilithyia in his arms.
Long and slender, with cool, soft, creamy white skin, piercing blue eyes and a name derived from Greek mythology, Ilithyia is among the things Freeman treasures most in life, which just might make your skin crawl.
Ilithyia is not Freeman's wife. She is not his girlfriend or daughter. She is a 4-foot-long, 5-pound pet ball python that Freeman happily admits he fell in love with at first sight.
"She's beautiful,'' Freeman said with a smile. "I mean, she's just so sweet.''
Freeman has surrounded himself with slithering sweetness. He shares his South Tampa home with Ilithyia, 10 other ball pythons and one 6-foot, 30-pound jaguar boa constrictor, though that represents a bit of downsizing.
"I used to have three boa constrictors,'' Freeman said. "But I ended up selling the other two because the couple that feed my snakes when I can't be here didn't like them.
"But that's OK. Boas are sweet, too, and they're really good looking, but they get a little bigger than the ball pythons, so it's a little more work to keep them and take care of them. Besides, ball pythons are my favorite.''
Freeman's passion for the Squamata, or scaled order of reptiles, particularly his love affair with the python species, can be traced to his childhood and the basement of a friend who lived near his family's home in Kansas City.
"I used to run around catching snakes all the time as a kid, and we usually just caught corn snakes or rat snakes or whatever it was that you could find running around in Missouri," Freeman said.
"But one day I went over to a buddy's house to play video games and we were down in his basement and there was this 4-foot-long orange snake. He would just pick it up and play with it and I thought, 'Wow, that is so cool.' "
Freeman's father, Ron, didn't think it was all that cool.
The one-time Orlando Renegades linebacker has always been terrified of snakes. So, when Freeman came home later that day asking to keep one as a pet, Ron balked. So did Freeman's mother, Teresa.
Freeman didn't give up easily. After they sat down as a family and learned about caring for snakes, Ron and Theresa relented.
"They're actually less harmful than a dog," Ron said, referring to the non-venomous ball pythons that have always made up the bulk of Freeman's nest. "If it's 6 or 7 feet, it may be able to bite you, but it won't do the damage a dog will do."
Ron Freeman knows about the damage a dog can do. When he was 8, he was playing near a friend's house when a German Shepherd broke free from its chain and took a chunk out of his left calf. The scar, about 4 to 6 inches long, is still visible.
So, despite his fear of snakes, Ron came to feel comfortable with having them around the house.
"The one thing we wouldn't budge on was no venomous snakes," Ron said. "We weren't going to allow that. But that was never a problem, because Josh never asked for one that was venomous.
"And we learned pretty quickly that a snake will not attack a prey unless it can take its head. It usually won't try to eat anything that's too big for it, so that made us feel a little better and safer.''
Not that Freeman's love of snakes hasn't created some anxious moments.
One night, while Freeman was in high school and away at a party, one of the two ball pythons he kept at the time got out of its cage and began slithering its way down the bedroom stairs just as Ron was ascending them. After finally building up the courage to pick up the stray and take it back to its cage, Ron realized the other one had gotten out, too.
He found that one in the bottom of Freeman's closet under a pile of dirty clothes.
"For the most part, they always stayed in their cages; Josh was good about that," Teresa said. "That's why we let him keep them. He took good care of them. And really, they're very low maintenance."
That's one of the things Freeman likes most about his pet snakes. He feeds them their recommended diet of live mice, but other than that they require very little attention, making them a perfect pet for a quarterback on the go.
"They don't get too big and they're fairly docile," Freeman said. "And you don't have to spend a lot of time with them the way you do a dog or a cat, because they don't show any emotion. I mean, it's a snake. It's not looking for love or affection or for you to go out and play with it.
"They want their meal, and once they've eaten they usually just sort of chill out.''
Snakes might not show any emotion, but snake owners such as Freeman do, especially if one of their snakes goes missing. That happened a few years ago with a snake Freeman had kept since he was a child.
"I got this snake when I was in third grade and I had it all the way through college," Freeman said. "And when I went out to Arizona to start training for the combine after my junior year, I had a friend look after it for me.
"While I was out there I called to check in on it and the guy says, 'Uh, yeah, I lost it.' I was like, 'What?' They do get out, but you can always find them. It just seemed fishy. I haven't talked to that guy again to this day."
Freeman lost one of the snakes in his current nest not long ago. It was missing for weeks. He finally tracked it down one night resting beneath a pile of shelves he was installing in a room in his home.
"I was taking furniture apart looking for that thing," Freeman said. "And then one day, I'm walking upstairs and I see this snake skin on the floor. It had started shedding its skin. A few days later I see more skin, and I'm thinking, 'What is this snake doing?' They're nocturnal, so they always move around at night, looking for food or shelter, and then I found it the next morning.
"I went to pick up one of the shelves to start installing it and there it was all curled up underneath the boards. Scared the crap out of me, too. That snake, it was all over that house."
It's rare that Freeman's snakes slither freely around his home. Most are kept in cages in a climate-controlled room in which the light, temperature and humidity are kept at settings fitting for snakes.
A couple, however, can be found in aquarium tanks in his game room, where their presence can sometimes make it a little more difficult to execute even the simplest of shots during a game of pool.
"If you come over to the house, you wouldn't even know I have snakes, unless you go into the game room,'' Freeman said. "But I usually tell people coming over that I have them, because those things can get out and hide on you.
"I do let them out because they want to move and stuff, but they're all really slow, which is a good thing. And like I said, they're all really docile. That's why they make such good pets. If I'm just hanging out, watching a movie or whatever, that's when I'll hold 'em. Sometimes I'll just hold it in my hands and play with it. Sometimes I just let it sit there on my stomach.