Antonio Freeman made up for his average speed with exceptional route-running skills that allowed him to burst through seams and beat top-notch defensive backs.
Cheeseheads and Packers fans everywhere remember Freeman for his 81-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XXXI and that improbable touchdown catch against the Minnesota Vikings in November 2000.
He did what?
All Freeman did was become one of Brett Favre’s favorite targets during their time together in Green Bay. He had such a great feel for the game and knew where he was supposed to be before Favre even ran the play.
It came as no surprise Antonio Freeman was one of the best wide receivers in franchise history and a member of the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Antonio Michael Freeman was born to parents Clarence and Rotha in Baltimore, MD on May 27, 1972.
Rotha worked as a switchboard operator at Care First Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Freeman has a brother Clarence III and a sister La Tonya. The former was a marine sergeant based in Saginaw, MI while the latter was an employee at a publishing company.
The three siblings grew up in a brick house along Aiken Street.
According to SI.com’s Michael Silver, Freeman’s parents gave him the nickname “Buttons” after a chimpanzee that starred in the TV series “Me And The Chimp.”
He grew up in a seedy and drug-infested section of The Charm City.
Freeman survived the rough environment thanks to his family and close friends that included Brian “Big Head B” Winfield, Dante “Big D” Harrison, Paul “Funk” Faulcon, and James “Cootie” Arnold.
Freeman told Silver in 1999 some people tried to convince him to cut ties with his past. He refused because these men were the same guys who stayed with him through thick and thin.
They were the guys who drove five hours from Baltimore, MD to Blacksburg, VA every Saturday to watch him when he suited up for the Virginia Tech Hokies during his college days.
Freeman’s first love was basketball. He and his friends regularly played hoops at the court located at the corner of Aiken and East Lafayette.
He told Silver he saw a lot of guys get killed while he played on that court. He also admitted some of the guys he played with went down the wrong path and became drug addicts.
To their credit, they never dragged him down that path of destruction.
Freeman wanted to attend Dunbar High School because of its renowned hoops program.
Who dat? Ray and Poly’s finest Antonio Freeman.
52+86=Baltimore Winners! pic.twitter.com/GkvmqIft7N
— Scott (@ScottG2011) February 1, 2020
However, his parents insisted he attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute which was known for its math and science program.
It was during this time when Antonio Freeman turned his passion for the hardcourt into a love for the gridiron.
He became Poly’s go-to wideout in his senior season in 1989. Freeman had 1,079 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 47 receptions that year.
Behind Freeman’s exploits, Poly had an unblemished 10-0 win-loss mark, clinched the MSA A Conference title, and earned a Top 25 ranking.
Antonio Freeman would eventually become a big-name wide receiver with the Virginia Tech Hokies in the collegiate ranks.
College Days With The Virginia Tech Hokies
Antonio Freeman earned a scholarship at Virginia Tech University.
He was part of the Hokies’ 1990 recruiting class that made a huge impact during the Frank Beamer era.
Guys such as Freeman, Maurice DeShazo, Tyrone Drakeford, and Jim Pyne helped turn Virginia Tech’s fortunes around. The program had not earned a bowl invite since the 1969 NCAA season.
Freeman provided depth at wide receiver during his true freshman season in 1991.
He had 274 receiving yards and two touchdowns in nine games. The Hokies were an average football team that won just five games in Freeman’s freshman campaign.
Freeman emerged as a go-to wideout as a sophomore. He had 703 receiving yards and six touchdowns in eleven games for the Hokies.
Unfortunately, Virginia Tech struggled badly in the 1992 NCAA season. The Hokies were a dismal 2-8-1 in Beamer’s sixth year at the helm.
Freeman made headlines the following spring when Virginia Tech officials traced the use of an unauthorized access code for long distance calls to him.
The school initially suspended him for a year. After filing an appeal, Freeman saw his sentence reduced to three months, per SI.com.
When his dad Clarence picked him up on campus, Freeman told Silver in March1999 the long drive back to Baltimore was “the longest five hours of my life.”
He tried to get some sleep inside the car. However, his dad would have none of it – he kept telling his son he made a stupid move until they arrived home.
When they did, Freeman’s mother Rotha told him to clean out his basement and look for a job while he served his suspension. She didn’t allow any of his friends to come over.
At the time, Clarence Freeman III was stationed in San Diego, CA managing recruits who dropped out of basic training. They did menial tasks such as sweeping floors and taking out the garbage.
Antonio flew in and had fun with his brother for the first two days. The former went to work like the other cadets who quit.
It was a lesson that humbled the young Antonio Freeman.
He had a combined 1,230 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on 70 receptions in his next two seasons at Virginia Tech.
A rejuvenated Freeman helped the Hokies win an average of nine games during that span.
The 22nd-ranked Virginia Tech Hokies blew out the 21st-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in the 1993 Independence Bowl, 45-20.
The 8-4 Hokies received a bowl invite for the second consecutive year in 1994.
Unfortunately, 17th-ranked Virginia Tech lost to the Tennessee Volunteers in the 1994 Gator Bowl, 45-23.
#80 Antonio Freeman
Played wide receiver at Virginia tech total:
18.2 yards per reception
He was drafted in 1995 in the 3rd round, 90th overall. By the Green Bay Packers.#GoPackGo #BrawlNetwork #TitleTownBrawl #BrawlCountdownSpotlight pic.twitter.com/FhavuXnWH7
— 3rd And 2_Live (@3rdAnd2_Live) June 19, 2020
Antonio Freeman had played his final down in the college football ranks.
He finished his four-year stint with the Hokies with 2,207 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns on 121 receptions.
Freeman would emerge as a first-rate wide receiver in the National Football League after several years.
Pro Football Career
The Green Bay Packers made Antonio Freeman the 90th overall selection of the 1995 NFL Draft.
Freeman made an immediate impact in Packers Green, Gold, and White.
Some scouts thought Freeman was slow and couldn’t make tough catches over the middle.
He proved them wrong from the get-go: he displayed exceptional route-running skills that offset his average speed and befuddled the opposing secondary.
“Free picked up our offense faster than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Packers offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis told SI.com in March 1999. “He has a sense of where he has to be. When all hell breaks loose, he does the right thing.”
Freeman started returning kicks and punts for head coach Mike Holmgren’s squad after Charles Jordan sustained shoulder and knee injuries in 1995.
Freeman promptly took over and never looked back.
He led Green Bay with an average of 23.2 kick return yards. His 37 punt returns in 1995 set a new rookie franchise record.
Freeman continued his impressive play during the postseason.
Today in 1995: Rookie Antonio Freeman's 76-yard PR TD sparks Packers to 37-20 Wild Card win over Falcons. Edgar Bennett rushes for 108 yards and a score, while Brett Favre throws three TDs. Green Bay's defense gets two picks and three sacks of Atlanta's Jeff George. pic.twitter.com/jdNYSkp4py
— Packers History (@HistoricPackers) December 31, 2021
The rookie returned a kick 42 yards in the early going and scored on a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Pack’s 37-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Wild Card Game.
Two weeks later, Freeman had 202 return yards in Green Bay’s 38-27 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
To nobody’s surprise, Freeman earned NFL Special Teams Player of the Week honors twice.
It didn’t take long for Antonio Freeman to earn his first and only Super Bowl ring.
Freeman became more of a wide receiver in his second year in the pro ranks.
He had 933 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in the 1996 NFL season. He took his game to a higher level thanks to his pairing with Andre “Bad Moon” Rison that year.
Green Bay signed Rison in November 1996 to replace the injured Robert Brooks. Freeman was recovering from a broken left forearm at the time.
Pre-game shenanigans with Andre Rison. Had to make a cameo on stage appearance requested by 'THE GLAM BAND' 🙌🏽#HeDidWhat #GoPackGo @S_B_Mktg @packers @PackersHOF @StadiumViewinGB pic.twitter.com/ta5tlwsJBk
— Antonio Freeman (@afreeman86) December 13, 2021
Freeman and Rison hit it off immediately. They began partying together with Rison telling him they would become an unbeatable wideout tandem.
Freeman considered Rison’s signing the best thing that happened to him in his pro football career.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Freeman told Silver almost three years later. “He wouldn’t tolerate any form of weakness. He taught me to carry myself like I’m the best.”
The Packers won thirteen games in 1996 and returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in twenty-nine years.
Freeman broke loose from a Patriots safety and caught an 81-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Brett Favre just fifty-six seconds into the second quarter.
It was the longest play in the history of the Super Bowl.
The play eclipsed the 80-yard touchdown pass from the then-Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams to Ricky Sanders nine years earlier.
The Packers beat the Patriots 35-21 and won their third Super Bowl title.
“This organization stands for pride and dignity and all those good things,” Freeman told The Washington Post’s Richard Justice after the game. “It’s the Vince Lombardi Trophy and it’s going back home.”
In positive Packers news, the ‘96 Super Bowl is currently live on @NFLonFOX
Brett Favre 🎯 to Antonio Freeman pic.twitter.com/uaWu0d9nso
— Jarad Evans (@PFF_Jarad) April 26, 2020
Antonio Freeman blossomed into an elite wideout in his next three pro seasons.
He recorded three straight years with at least 1,074 receiving yards and averaged twelve touchdown receptions during that stretch.
Freeman’s relationship with Packers quarterback Brett Favre improved significantly in the 1997 NFL campaign.
Favre told SI.com he and Freeman approached the game of football the same: prepare hard during the week and then go all out on game day. Whenever Favre received the snap, Freeman already knew where his quarterback wanted to go with the pigskin.
Freeman enjoyed a breakout season in 1998: he had a league-leading 1,474 receiving yards and added 14 touchdowns on 84 receptions.
Consequently, he earned his first and only First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl berths that year.
Green Bay averaged eleven wins from 1997 to 1999. They made it to Super Bowl XXXII but lost to the Denver Broncos, 31-24.
Freeman became a restricted free agent at the end of that memorable 1998 NFL campaign.
His agent Joel Segal was confident he’d sign a five-year, $17.3 million offer from the Packers during the offseason.
Had to take Dad to 2 back-to-back prime-time games. Just returning the favor for all the times he took me to Baltimore Colts and Orioles and Skipjacks and The Blast ⚽️ 🙌🏽 #HeDidWhat pic.twitter.com/4lZRL6AGCC
— Antonio Freeman (@afreeman86) September 21, 2021
His father Clarence was stunned. He told his son he can’t believe he’s turning down that much money.
“Doesn’t matter,” the younger Freeman said (via SI.com’s Michael Silver). “I’m gonna roll the dice.”
Several days later, Freeman accepted the Packers’ one-year tender worth $1.153 million. According to Silver, he also became more voracious in his film study and cut back on his partying ways.
Freeman told SI.com he had planned on going back to the ‘hood if things went awry with the Packers.
“My whole life has been a gamble. So I said, F–k it. If it doesn’t work out I’ll go back to the ‘hood.”
“Fifty percent of the Pack’s success last year was on me, and I welcomed that. It was a make-or-break season.
Freeman held out for two weeks but eventually signed a seven-year, $42 million contract during the offseason.
Freeman had 1,074 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 1999. His lower production stemmed from his switch from split end to flanker and a groin injury he sustained in Week 6.
The Pack regressed and finished with a mediocre 8-8 win-loss mark in Ray Rhodes’ only season as Packers head coach.
It was also a trying time for Antonio Freeman.
Freeman suffered a concussion after Detroit Lions safety Mark Carrier rammed his helmet into the Packers wide receiver during a Week 11 game.
The hit was so hard it rendered Freeman unconscious for a split second.
As emergency responders took him off the field, the Lambeau Field crowd booed him.
Worse, his brother Clarence III – the man who taught him to keep his nose to the grindstone during his three-month exile from Virginia Tech almost seven years earlier – booed him, too.
Apparently, one of the reasons why the fans booed him dated back to Freeman reporting to training camp out of shape after his lengthy holdout.
It was one of the lowest points of Antonio Freeman’s NFL career.
“At first I was offended,” Freeman told SI.com’s Josh Elliott in August 2000. “To leave the game with a concussion, and now my own brother’s doubting me. I’d heard it all year long, but not from someone I loved.”
Clarence III later apologized to his brother, per Elliott.
Heading into the 2000 NFL season, a leaner Antonio Freeman took on the challenge from his new head coach Mike Sherman to step up as a leader.
He didn’t get off to a good start.
Freeman received a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine after Green Bay authorities determined he lied about a traffic incident.
According to The Associated Press (via ESPN), Freeman initially told police he was not in the car that went over a curb and ran into a light pole inside the Allouez restaurant driveway.
He claimed he and his Packers teammate Charles Jordan were passengers in a different car.
However, a witness testified Freeman was inside another car. To make matters worse, his 22-year-old female passenger Heather Molloy, sustained a head injury after the accident.
Nine months later, Antonio Freeman made one of the most spectacular plays in NFL history.
Freeman’s improbable catch against the Minnesota Vikings in November 2000 was one of the most memorable in Monday Night Football History.
Experts considered the Packers a long shot in this divisional showdown against the Vikings. However, sloppy field conditions gave Green Bay a chance to win it in overtime.
The Vikings seemingly had clinched the game when they lined up for a 33-yard field goal with less than 10 seconds left in regulation.
Unfortunately, Minnesota botched the snap. Rather than spiking the ball and then regrouping, Vikings punter Mitch Berger threw a pick that sent the game into overtime.
That’s when Antonio Freeman took over.
Vikings cornerback Chris Dishman deflected the pass two times but the ball somehow landed on Freeman’s shoulder. The Packers wide receiver turned his body slightly, made the ball pop up, tipped it to himself, and finally hauled it in for the miraculous touchdown.
“He did what?” play-by-play man Al Michaels said after Freeman scored.
Antonio Freeman just did the impossible. The Pack prevailed in stunning fashion, 26-20. The play has been regularly viewed on social media more than two decades later.
📺: NFL 100 GREATEST PLAYS | Now on NFL Network pic.twitter.com/JuMWC6y2M6
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) September 14, 2019
Antonio Freeman played for the Packers until the 2001 NFL season. He had a combined 1,730 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns on 114 receptions in 2000 and 2001.
Green Bay went 12-4 in 2001 but lost to the then-St. Louis Rams in the NFC Divisional Round in blowout fashion, 45-17.
Freeman had butted heads with Sherman during the 2001 NFL season. The Packers eventually placed him on waivers on June 3, 2001.
The Philadelphia Eagles signed him to a one-year deal on August 25, 2001.
Despite playing in all 16 games for Philly, Freeman regressed. He had just 600 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the 2002 NFL season.
The Eagles went 12-4 in Freeman’s lone season in Philadelphia. They lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game, 27-10.
After playing out his one-year contract with the Eagles, Freeman returned to Green Bay for the 2003 NFL season.
While Freeman had a career-low 141 receiving yards in 2003, his final NFL reception occurred in the fourth quarter of the famous Brett Favre game against the then-Oakland Raiders on ABC’s Monday Night Football.
Favre had four first-half touchdowns and 399 all-purpose yards in the 41-7 rout of Oakland on December 22, 2003. He played just a day after his father Irv passed away in his home state of Mississippi.
Antonio Freeman was an iconic Green Bay Packer:
Super Bowl Champion
231 Rec Yards and 3 TDs in two Super Bowls
Caught the most TDs from Brett Favre (57)
First Team All-Pro (1998)
Led NFL with 1424 Rec Yards (1998)
Caught 6+ TDs in six straight seasons
The "He did what?!" moment pic.twitter.com/zJVFSvtYDW
— PackersHistory.com (@PackersHistory1) January 12, 2022
Freeman signed with the Green Bay Packers on June 16, 2007 to retire as a member of the organization.
He finished his nine-year NFL career with 7,251 receiving yards and 61 touchdowns on 477 receptions.
Antonio Freeman has a 25-year-old daughter Gabrielle from a previous relationship.
Freeman received the Pop Warner Humanitarian Award on May 27, 2006. The recipient of the award is an individual who has shown excellence in both athletics and the humanitarian fronts.
Prior to receiving the award, Freeman has worked with various charities including Coats for Kids, the March of Dimes, and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Antonio Freeman, @packers Hall of Fame wide receiver, takes the stage at #WISHRM21 to talk about his journey from Baltimore, MD to the Green Bay Packers. #NFL @afreeman86 #HRcommunity pic.twitter.com/7RqbCK69h4
— Kyra Matkovich, SHRM-CP (@KyraMatkovichHR) October 15, 2021
The Green Bay Packers inducted Freeman into their Hall of Fame on December 16, 2008.
Freeman became a member of the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame four years later.
Freeman hosts “The End Zone With Antonio Freeman” podcast. He also served as a pro and college football analyst on ESPN.
He has also worked as a commentator for Comcast SportsNet Washington analyzing Washington Football Team games.