When Antonio Freeman visits with the league’s newest players at the annual NFL Rookie Symposium, he gets a kick out of the questions he receives about playing with Brett Favre or making that miracle catch on “Monday Night Football.”
“Their eyes light up,” Freeman said. “My eyes light up that they were sitting up at 1 o’clock in the morning watching that catch.”
But Freeman doesn’t go to the symposium just to re-live his playing days. He goes to provide a resource for young players, a sounding board for all their questions about life on and off the field, and he’ll do so again next week.
The 15th annual symposium, resuming after a one-year hiatus due to last year’s lockout, will be held in Aurora, Ohio, beginning Sunday. Freeman said this will be his fourth time as a group facilitator. He’ll sit with the rookies from a few different teams and conduct a meaningful conversation about finances, social life, and a host of other topics.
“As a former player, I didn’t have anybody to give me the blueprint for how to be successful,” said Freeman, who played eight of his nine NFL seasons with Green Bay and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame three years ago. “I had to figure it out as I went a long. I took my bumps and bruises like a lot of people do trying to figure it out.”
This is the kind of giving back that Freeman has made a big part of his post-playing life. His B’MoreFree86 Foundation, serving underprivileged youth and families both domestically and internationally, is an ongoing and growing effort that works to change the circumstances of those in need.
With NFL rookies, their circumstances are changing in a vastly different way, and it’s easy to lose control. Freeman is being joined by a handful of other current and retired players who will either speak to the large groups (the NFC rookies’ program runs from June 24-27; the AFC rookies’ from June 27-30) or in smaller sessions.
“It’s not so much about what I did or what the next guy has done, but now that we’ve finished the race, we know the format to be successful in the race,” Freeman said. “I just want to give the kids information about life and protecting their namesake and their family image and who they are, and how to be professional. It’s not about who made mistakes, it’s about how to get the most out of this game.”
Freeman, who said there was only an “abbreviated” rookie program when he entered the league in 1995, said he gets more questions about finances than anything else. That’s understandable considering so many of these players just out of college will become instant millionaires once they sign their first contract.
His advice to the players is to take responsibility for their own financial education, because family and friends aren’t going to know how to manage a seven-figure bank account either.
That circle of family and friends can often grow unintentionally, too, and that’s another aspect of their lives that players need to monitor closely.
“Something is going to come up,” Freeman said. “I hope it doesn’t. I hope this is the first rookie class ever that doesn’t have an incident. But things come up.
“You’re at the top of the line now. You’re someone super, super special. People would give their right arm to be in your position. So the people that you hang around with have to have that same thing in common.”
The NFL has increased the number of current and former players speaking at this year’s symposium, and the new Ohio location was chosen to allow for a history session at the nearby Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Freeman expects that to be an eye-opener for a lot of the young players.
“They’ll learn about the pay that Johnny Unitas got, and the pay that the 1980s guys got, and how much they still loved the game,” he said. “If you learn the history of the game, maybe you respect the game a little bit more, and you respect what’s expected of you to be a professional.”
Freeman is certainly carrying that on in retirement, and he appreciates the opportunity to stay connected to the league’s up-and-coming players. He’s also a member of the NFL player safety committee, which has taken on a higher profile lately as well.
“It’s about opportunities and being involved,” he said. “I miss the game. I wish my body could hold up and I could be out there running post routes again, but I can’t. So this is an extension for me to be involved in the game.”