Antonio Freeman is the NFL's number two touchdown-maker over the last four-plus years, hauling in 41 touchdowns.
Money can't buy happiness and can't solve everything. Just ask wide receiver Antonio Freeman and he'll be the first to tell you.
After holding out for most of the 1999 preseason to score the big contract he felt he earned, Freeman's critics came out with their fingers pointing after his numbers went down from the season before -- which ended with a trip to Hawaii and the Pro Bowl. They pointed to the Packers' problems and then they pointed at Freeman and his new contract.
"Last year was a lot of pressure," began Freeman. "I was the guy holding out -- sitting at home while my teammates sweated. People look at you different. I was very uncomfortable last year and I wasn't in the best shape of my life. I was salty by the fact that I had to hold out and be the main topic of why the team isn't always together. I didn't have the type of year I could have."
But heading into the 2000 season, Freeman reported to training camp in better shape, with a better attitude and with the determination to put up bigger numbers and show why he has quickly escalated into the company of the NFL's elite receivers.
"This year, I've come in and I feel like I'm newborn," said Freeman. "I came to camp in shape. I'm as light as I've ever been. The money issue is behind me -- Keyshawn (Johnson) is now the highest paid receiver, so I don't have to carry that label. I can just have fun and play football. That is what I've always wanted to do."
When the regular season opened for the Packers, few were concerned about the offense that easily put numbers on the board during the preseason. They tore apart defenses, averaging 375 yards per game and finishing the preseason with 12 touchdowns in four games.
But a slew of injuries to key players and untimely penalties resulted in few points, two early losses and more attention being given by the opponents' defenses to slowing down Freeman. As a result Freeman has only made 14 catches for 194 yards (13.9 average) thus far this season. His high expectations along with the two early defeats has made for some frustrating afternoons.
"I think losing makes it frustrating," expressed Freeman. "When you're losing, it makes it that much tougher and you start to think to yourself, 'I feel like I can help this football team. I feel like I can do good things where we might not be in this situation if I could get my hands on the football.' The coaching staff is going out of its way to get me the ball and the defenses just aren't allowing it to happen."
Freeman has kept his spirits high about he remainder of the season. The savvy veteran knows the season is still in its early stages and he remains enthusiastic about the road ahead for the Packers.
"I'm expecting a lot more," said Freeman. "The season is still young and we still have a lot of football yet. I think for the most part, the coaches and the players are still trying to feel each other out and trying to bring everything together. I think the coaching staff is doing a tremendous job with the way they are running things. I'm just real excited about the season. We had a rough start, but I think we can bring it all together and we'll be just fine."
If week 4's game at Arizona is any indication, Freeman's expectations for the team seem to be right on target. The Packer offense got back on track with a 29-3, commanding victory over the Cardinals.
The Green Bay offense set the tone early against Arizona by taking the opening kick-off 80 yards and into the end zone for a lead they would never relinquish. The key play during the eight play drive? A 20-yard reception on a third-and-four by Freeman himself.
On the day the Packers' offense racked up 455 yards and controlled the ball for an astounding 36:28, wearing down the Cardinal defense. With several key offensive components beginning to return for the Packers, it can be safe to assume that this will be an explosive offense and Freeman will be touching the ball more as the season goes on.
"I think the fact that Dorsey (Levens) is back in the line-up will create more opportunities for me just because of the major component that he is to this offense," said Freeman. "When Corey (Bradford) gets back it will be another weapon that the defenses will have to worry about."
To look at what Antonio Freeman has accomplished thus far in his young career is rather remarkable when you consider that his sport of choice as a teenager was not football, but basketball.
"I wanted to be a professional basketball player and I always thought I would, my whole family did," began Freeman. "I didn't start in football my junior year, but my senior year I started at split end and ended up being named 'Offensive Player of the Year.' It came down to me choosing whether I wanted to play football or basketball.
"During basketball season, I was offered a football scholarship to Virginia Tech. They just made me feel important, like they really wanted me to be a part of their team, so I decided to play football. My whole family, all my friends couldn't believe I was going to play football and not basketball. Everybody questioned my decision, but I knew in my heart that is where I wanted to go."
Nobody questions that decision anymore.
Freeman is the NFL's number two touchdown-maker over the last four-plus years, hauling in 41 touchdowns -- ranking behind his NFC Central counterpart, Minnesota's Cris Carter. He also is third in the NFL in receiving yards the last four seasons with 4,868.
As the owner of nine team playoff records and a share in four others, Freeman has established himself as a big-time play-maker and the Packers' go-to guy in their most important games.
Freeman has quickly catapulted his way into the upper echelon of NFL receivers. But as is his nature, he credits the man behind the pass with helping him achieve that lofty status.
"I still see myself as one of the elite receivers in the NFC Central," said Freeman. "And I say that not just because of me, but because I have Brett Favre. If any quarterback in the Central can get it done, Brett can. I have a lot of respect for Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Marcus Robinson, Keyshawn (Johnson). Those guys are tremendous athletes and receivers. But I also feel the same way about myself."
With so many talented receivers in Green Bay's conference, the schedule lying ahead for the Packers remains a challenging one.
"We've got a tough road ahead of us," began Freeman. "It's a complete division now and it's competitive. We're going to get better as the season goes. We still have shot at winning the division; it's not going to be an easy road, but we still have a shot.
"We have to go on a streak where we win five or six straight and then we're right back in the picture. No one will even remember those two losses. We have to have a run, and we feel like we can get it done. It's just been real tough with key guys being injured. Now all of our components are starting to come together. If we can get everybody healthy again, this team can be very good."
Freeman is also understanding the significance of his role as a leader on this team. With an extremely talented, but young, receiving corps taking the field for Green Bay, Freeman is choosing to let his actions speak louder than his words and throwing in a lot of fun along the way.
"I'm the type of guy that will go out in practice, have fun and joke around," said Freeman. "I'm going to mix the work part of football with having fun. We're a very young receiving corps. I have to be a trend setter. I have to show these guys how to practice, what the coaches expect out of us in practice. In previous years, when Robert Brooks was here, I was the guy behind him so my role wasn't as important. Now I feel how important my role really is."
The Packers long ago realized the importance of Freeman to the immediate and future success of this team. They knew just what type of top-notch receiver they were investing in when they signed 'Free' to the long-term contract last year. They expect Freeman to attain years of success in a Green Bay uniform, garner more records and help the Packers rejoin the ranks of the NFL's elite teams for years to come.
Antonio Freeman is ready and aiming to exceed those expectations.