ANTONIO FREEMAN … CAUGHT 477 PASSES FOR 7,251 YARDS; GAINED 1,007 YARDS RETURNING KICKOFFS AND PUNTS; SCORED 64 TOUCHDOWNS … PRO BOWL, 1998 … SUPER BOWL CHAMPION, 1997 … NFL WIDE RECEIVER, GREEN BAY PACKERS, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES, 1995 2003 It’s amazing what the human body can do when chased by a bigger human body. JA CK THOMPSON, former NFL quarterback ANTONIO FREEMAN 181 THE DIFFERENCE ONE PERSON CAN MAKE Anytime you make the jump from high school to college and then from college to the NFL, you have doubts. Packers head coach Mike Holmgren was the difference-maker for me.
He didn’t look to me as a third-round pick, ninetieth overall, and think, He better prove himself to me. Instead, he pulled me aside early in my first camp and let me know I could be a great one in the NFL. Here I am wondering if I can make it in this league and this championship coach tells me I can be special! This is the guy who shaped Jerry Rice, John Taylor, and Sterling Sharpe and he was saying I could be all that. Those words from that man made my career. He didn’t look for what I didn’t have. He wanted to utilize what I did have. It wasn’t long before I was working my way into the starting lineup as a wideout and returning kicks right off the bat. MOTIVATED EARLY My parents expected a lot of me in school in terms of academics as well as in sports, and they would use incentives to make sure I focused because I was like any kid who had to battle distractions.
I get good grades, I get the Jordan sneakers, the bikes, and a lot of material things. I don’t get good grades, I don’t get anything. HOW NOT TO DO IT My family never told me that I was going to be a pro player and that it was the only way to fame and fortune. Even though I was recognized as a hoops standout and played well on the football team, I knew there were no guarantees. Why? Because my brother was one of those can’t-miss kids who looked like he was heading to the pros. He was an All-State running back in Baltimore and he made some choices that messed up his chance to play major college ball, thereby destroying any hope of playing in the NFL. He’s six years older than me and my best friend in the world, but I just saw how he blew it. My parents and I learned from my brother. 182 IT’S HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME They’d say to me, If your grades are not high you’re not playing and I don’t care if your coach calls the house day and night. No sports if school suffers. LEARNING THE MEANING OF WORK: THE TEST I went to Virginia Tech on raw ability. I was coming out of high school as the Maryland offensive player of the year and I was flying high, ready to start as a freshman. I never did speed training, nor did I lift weights. I was all natural, no work, which is the rap on Baltimore athletes like Sam Cassell and Carmelo Anthony. In reality, I was not ready and didn’t play much. What was worse, I did not study and got all D’s. My coach read me the riot act and then my dad got to me and let me know I had one more semester to get it together or it was over. Well, I did get a 2.5, got my body ready to play, and I turned it around for my second year, saving my career and my education. TEST PASSED I ended up having a fine college football career and better yet, I got my business degree as well. I know now that even if the Packers hadn’t given me the shot I would have been okay. I had that degree and I had my parents to ensure my success and happiness.
Even today, as a so-called millionaire athlete, I still go back to my parents for advice and, of course, they sometimes still offer unsolicited advice. THE GREATEST CATCH IN MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL HISTORY It’s all about not giving up. ANTONIO FREEMAN I was having a mediocre game, about four catches, when my favorite playa slantwas called. When I got to the line, I saw the Vikings were about to blitz, which meant I would look at quarterback Brett Favre and change my pattern from a slant to a slant-and-go. Well, Favre tossed it up, and I collided with the Minnesota defensive back. He thought the ball was on the ground, but all the while I felt the ball on my back. I turned ANTONIO FREEMAN 183 around, grabbed it, and ran it into the end zone for a score. Favre jumped me and asked if I caught it. I said, Yes, and he just couldn’t believe it.
UNSELFISH I trained my replacement in Green BayDonald Driver. I wanted him to know what I was doing, so if I went down he could pick up the slack. I saw that he had great speed and I was able to teach him what I knew about the system, the game, and Favre. I got that mentality from Brett, because that’s the way he treated me when I broke in. He made me feel like I mattered, and I was inspired by that. Can you imagine this Hall of Fame quarterback breaking down film with this third-round rookie pick? That’s Brett. I wanted to pass down that wisdom even if it wasn’t in my career best interest for me; it is all about the team’s interest. Robert Brooks trained me to take his spot and I did take his spot, the same way Sterling Sharpe mentored Brooks, who would take his spot. In the end, it worked for everyone because we didn’t quit doing the things that made us pros. WHAT I MISS Since retiring, I miss the structure in my life and of course I miss the guys.
I do not miss the hitting or the games as much. What I learned in my years in the game is a huge help to me today. The feeling of teamwork, deflecting credit, pulling for someone else, and preparing for any meeting like I did for a game certainly helps me out today. MY WRAP Parents matter more than anything else, and Antonio had great ones. He stumbled, but he reacted and adjusted to become an outstanding pro. For a time he was among the best in the league. Interesting, isn’t it, how bad examples can be as great a learning tool as good ones, if taken right. That’s what happened with his brother blowing his Division One football career. And it’s also interesting that Freeman thanks his first NFL coach for his stellar career.
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