- Inducted: 2009
- Wide Receiver: 1995-2001, 2003
- Height: 6-1; Weight: 198
- College: Virginia Tech, 1991-94
- Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1998
- Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 1998
Even the best of players leave their mark on the game in distinct but different ways. In the case of Antonio Freeman, he is probably best remembered for two of the most memorable pass receptions in Packers history.
The first was one of the most consequential, his record-setting and go-ahead 81-yard catch in Super Bowl XXXI. It was the longest pass play in Super Bowl history at that point and gave the Packers a lead they never relinquished as they beat New England, 35-21, for their 12th NFL championship.
The second was one of the most improbable, his "follow-the-bouncing ball" reception – to echo what were once popular sing-along lyrics – that led to an overtime victory over Minnesota in the rain on Monday Night Football, Nov., 6, 2000, at Lambeau Field.
Those weren't the only big plays of Freeman's career, only the two most unforgettable.
Others included a game-changing, 76-yard punt return in the playoffs against Atlanta his rookie year; a 50-yard Hail Mary catch on the final play of the first half followed by a fearless, circus catch in a crowd in the third quarter of a 37-6 victory over Chicago in 1996; a trademark short slant turned into a tackle-breaking 27-yard touchdown, the first in the Packers' 23-10 victory over San Francisco in the 1997 NFC championship; and more.
Anyway, you get the idea. There were too many highlight-reel receptions in Freeman's eight seasons with the Packers to list them all.
"Some guys have more speed than he does, some guys are bigger than he is, but he's a guy that you see consistently in the end zone," Charlie Baggett said of Freeman when he was the Packers' wide receivers coach in 1999. "And I think that's the bottom line – the guy makes plays some kind of way. He just comes up with the football. His run-after-the-catch ability is unbelievable."
Drafted in the third round in 1995, Freeman had an instant impact as a return specialist, averaging 23.2 yards on kickoff returns to rank fifth in the NFC and 7.9 yards on punt returns during the regular season before almost doubling that number with a 14.3 average on 10 postseason returns.
A year later, Freeman won the starting job at split end and led the Packers in receiving with 56 catches, despite missing four games with a broken arm, when they won their first NFL championship in 29 years. In three postseason games, including Super Bowl XXXI, Freeman caught nine more passes, averaging 19.3 yards per catch.
From 1997-99, Freeman enjoyed his most productive years, leading the Packers with reception totals of 81, 84 and 74 and more than 1,000 yards in each season. His best year was 1998 when the sum totals of his 84 catches included a league-high 1,424 yards, a 17.0 average and 14 touchdowns.
While he might not have been particularly big or fast, Freeman was crafty enough to usually get a quick release off the line of scrimmage against bump-and-run coverage, to deftly work his way open and elude tacklers on pass patterns over the middle, and win the battle for the ball on contested catches.
In essence, maybe more than anything, Freeman was football smart. "In the gray area, when things aren't quite like you put them on the board – they're not quite black, not quite white – he does the right thing," Sherm Lewis, offensive coordinator of the Packers over Freeman's first five seasons, once said. "That is why he's a great player. And he's probably picked this offense up quicker than anybody I've ever been around."
Even some of Freeman's best physical skills were sometimes inexplicable. As Gil Haskell, Freeman's position coach his first three years, said but couldn't fully explain: "When Freeman runs across the middle and people try to hit him, they miss."
Freeman's numbers started to decline in 2000, and he was released in June 2002. At the time, Freeman was unhappy not only over how much the Packers wanted to slash his salary but also their backward slide in the standings since the departure of coach Mike Holmgren following the 1998 season. Freeman signed with Philadelphia and caught 46 passes as a situational receiver on a team that lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship.
Freeman returned to the Packers in 2003 but caught only 14 passes in a backup role. Overall, he played in 116 regular-season games in Green Bay and started 90. He caught 431 passes for 6,651 yards, a 15.4 average, and scored 57 touchdowns. He also played in 14 postseason games with the Packers and caught 47 passes for a 15.9 average. Along with his starring role in Super Bowl XXXI, Freeman also caught a game-high nine passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns when the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII.
Born May 27, 1972. Give name Antonio Michael Freeman.