Call Him "Buttons" or "Free," He Just Makes Plays


Sure, his nickname has changed. And now he has a Super Bowl ring.

But sit down to talk with Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman, shoot some hoops with him, or try covering him on a pro football field, and you'll see he hasn't changed a bit.

Just ask his high school coach.

"He was not a mouthy kid," former Baltimore Polytech coach Augie Weibel says. "He was easy to coach."

Any different today, Coach Cromwell?

"He lets what he does on the field talk for itself," says Nolan Cromwell, the Packers' wide receivers coach. "He practices hard every day. He plays hard."

To his family and friends, Antonio Michael Freeman will always be "Buttons." His mother called him Buttons because she thought he was "cute as a button" when he was born. His father called him Buttons after a baby monkey on TV.

Coach Weibel renamed a play from "98 Split-Out Carroll Dale" to "98 Split-Out Buttons Freeman." Then he retired Buttons' uniform, the only player at the school with such an honor. The number was 80.

"He'll always be Buttons to me," Weibel says.

To Freeman's current teammates, it's always been "Hey, Free."

Different names. But Freeman insists it's the same guy.

"What I drive has changed, what I wear has changed," he says. "But me, I haven't changed. I still hang with the same group of guys that drove up and down the highway five hours at a time to watch me play at Virginia Tech, the same guys I grew up with. There's probably five or seven of us. We'd play Nintendo when it was the big thing, until three or four in the morning until my mother kicked us out. Now we play PlayStation until the wee hours of the morning."

Not much has changed with Freeman on the field, either.

"I remember one play when Buttons ran all the way from the sideline to the hash while the ball was in the air and caught it with one hand," Weibel says. "He ran a 4.55, but no one ever caught him. When he caught that touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI, I think I ran the last 10 yards with him. I knew they wouldn't catch him."

Cromwell agrees. "Free's the kind of guy who plays at a speed that wins," he says. "And if he needs more, he finds it."

Freeman explains. "I look at it as, a big Doberman Pincher, 'woof-woof-woof,' is chasing you down, and you try to run and jump over that fence to safety before he bites your ankle."

Not many dogs - or defenders - have been able to catch Freeman. Weibel says one reason he often gets away is he's a student of the game.

"I agree," Cromwell says. "He understands what the play is, what he has to do and why he has to do it. He knows the adjustment that needs to be made, or how he's got to slip a defender to get into a certain area - and not to get there too quick or too late. He's got a great feel for the game. I think that's what separates him from other people.

"He's been that way since, gosh, since he's started playing offense."

Behind the touchdown dances and first-down head wiggles, Freeman has always been a soft-spoken, intelligent, pleasant guy.

"He's a good person," Weibel says. "And he's a good person because he came from good parents."

"To this day, I try to hold up everything they instilled in me," Freeman says. "'Respect everyone. Treat someone like you would want your mother being treated. Sometimes there may be times where you want to say something, do something - bite your tongue. Then an hour later, you'll see it really didn't pay to have a negative thought.' They basically told me, 'Just be yourself, and people will love you still.'"

"Buttons was a great kid," Weibel says.

"Free's a good guy," Cromwell says.

Sounds like the kid from Baltimore hasn't changed.

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