Jesse Freitas, troubled former San Diego Chargers quarterback, found dead in Petaluma

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Former quarterback Jesse Freitas, who fell on hard times after two seasons in the NFL and a stellar college football career at San Diego State, has died. He was 63.

Freitas backed up Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts on the San Diego Chargers in 1974 and ’75. He was identified Wednesday by Petaluma police as the man whose body was found in a parked car earlier this week.

Freitas suffered mental health issues and in later years was in and out of the Sonoma County Jail. At the suggestion of the Sonoma County coroner’s forensic pathologist, his brain will be analyzed to see whether he had suffered from traumatic shock that has been linked to football injuries, said his younger brother, James Freitas of Rancho Peñasquitos is San Diego County.

Jesse Freitas was known at the Sonoma County courthouse and jail as a colorful character who still talked passionately about football.

“Jesse was a superstar,” said his former lawyer, Joe Bisbiglia of Santa Rosa. “Even though he only played a little while in the league, people looked up to him. He was just a good guy. He loved his family.”

Petaluma Police Lt. Dan Fish said an investigation and autopsy found no indication there was anything suspicious about the circumstances of Freitas’ death.

Freitas was found unresponsive just before 4:50 p.m. Sunday in his vehicle by a family walking on Willow Drive near Garfield Drive in east Petaluma, according to police. Freitas was lying in the back of a green Toyota Camry. He was fully clothed, on his back with his left arm across his chest “as if he had been laying down to take a nap or rest,” police said.

The car’s door was ajar.

Petaluma fire officials pronounced him dead at 4:55 p.m.

Freitas apparently had come to the area to meet with a real estate agent in the neighborhood but missed the appointment, Fish said.

“It’s very likely he was there waiting for an appointment with a real estate agent and he laid down in the back of the car with the door open and died from an unknown cause,” Fish said.

An autopsy was performed Tuesday, but authorities were awaiting the results from toxicology tests before making a final determination, Fish said.

Freitas leaves behind his four children, his brother James Freitas, sister Linn Nichols, and his father, Jesse Jr.

The 6-foot, 1-inch, 203-pound quarterback had a remarkable run during his college years at San Diego State, throwing 21 touchdowns and racking up 2,993 passing yards during the 1973 season.

He was drafted by the Chargers the next year. He filled in for Fouts with some success but became discouraged and left the NFL in 1976, according to his family.

After those pro football days, Freitas’ behavior was at times erratic and he was arrested for crimes including petty theft, hit-and-run driving, trespassing and violating restraining orders. His family has said he struggled with mental illness.

Fish said investigators weren’t able to determine where Freitas was living, although he said they found no clear evidence that Freitas was homeless or living in his car.

Police officials didn’t release any information about the body until three days after Freitas was found. Fish said that was an oversight by the department.

His younger brother said Jesse Freitas had been visiting him after being released last year from Atascadero State Hospital. A judge sent him there after he was arrested for setting a fire in Santa Rosa.

He left his brother’s house about two weeks ago and drove north to Petaluma, where he hoped to re-establish himself near his college-age kids, the brother said.

Freitas, originally from San Mateo County, once lived in Petaluma and raised his four children there.

“He was going to make roots again,” James Freitas said.

Freitas received disability checks and was talking about returning to school, the brother said. However, he continued to struggle with demons and was not necessarily recovered despite receiving treatment.

“It was day-to-day,” the brother said.

He said he thought his brother was living in hotels at the time of his death.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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