The Gambler Ultraconfident Packers wideout Antonio Freeman rolled the dice in 1998 by rejecting a long-term deal--and he won. Now Green Bay will pay up

March 08, 1999
March 08, 1999

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March 8, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
College Basketball

The Gambler Ultraconfident Packers wideout Antonio Freeman rolled the dice in 1998 by rejecting a long-term deal--and he won. Now Green Bay will pay up

He was a spry and shapely specimen, the biggest and baddest of
the bunch, and Antonio Freeman knew instantly what had to go
down. "Gotta take you out, big man," Freeman, the Green Bay
Packers' sublime wideout, said, pointing at the five-pound
lobster that would soon become his dinner. A waiter at the
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse near Baltimore's Inner Harbor lifted the
corpulent crustacean out of its tank and hustled it into the
kitchen, where it would be steamed for Freeman's dining enjoyment.

This is an article from the March 8, 1999 issue Original Layout

Freeman's next call wouldn't be so obvious. He had come to the
restaurant on this rainy night last July to make the biggest
decision of his career. While Antonio's parents, Clarence and
Rotha, listened intently, agent Joel Segal laid out the Packers'
final offer for a long-term contract, a five-year, $17 million
proposal. A restricted free agent who had almost deep-sixed his
football career five years earlier by getting suspended from
college for unauthorized use of a telephone access code, Antonio
had hit the mother lode. His parents, divorced for several
years, smiled at their youngest child's good fortune. Segal, a
family friend, prepared to celebrate. Think Jerry Maguire, with
Antonio as Rod Tidwell.

Finally, Antonio ended the suspense. "JS, it's not enough," he
said, and jaws dropped all around the table. "Say what?" asked
Clarence. "You realize this is more money than you ever dreamed
of having?"

"Doesn't matter," Antonio replied. "I'm gonna roll the dice."

A few days later Freeman reported to training camp and went on
the roll of his life. After accepting Green Bay's one-year
tender of $1.153 million, he approached his job with a newfound
seriousness, increasing his film study and scaling back his
partying. The don't-drink-and-salary-drive strategy worked to
perfection. To borrow from his favorite rapper, Jay-Z, Freeman
blew out like Afro-Sheen in 1998, catching 84 passes for 1,424
yards, an NFL best, and 14 touchdowns. As a result, though
effectively kept off the open market by the Packers' designation
of him as their franchise player, he still stands to be the big
winner of the ongoing free-agency period, which figures to be
notable for its utter lack of excitement.

"My whole life has been a gamble," Freeman said on a recent
Saturday as he paced in the kitchen of his home in Owings Mills,
an upscale suburb northwest of Baltimore. "So I said, F--- it.
If it doesn't work out I'll go back to the 'hood. I've got the
best quarterback in the league [Brett Favre], but he can't throw
it, catch it and run with it himself. Fifty percent of the
Pack's success last year was on me, and I welcomed that. It was
a make-or-break season."

Freeman earned first-team All-Pro honors, and now he's ready to
break the bank. "I'm down with Steve Austin," he says, evoking
the bionic 1970s television character. "That's me, baby--the Six
Million Dollar Man."

Freeman's primary negotiating lever is his superior
route-running skill. He possesses an uncanny ability to find
seams, even during moments of mass confusion. It's a talent he
has mastered off the field as well. He survived an upbringing
near a drug-infested east Baltimore ghetto, thanks largely to
his well-grounded family and a tight-knit group of old friends
that he has steadfastly refused to forsake.

When in Baltimore, Buttons, as Freeman is known around his
neighborhood--before his birth Clarence and Rotha gave him the
nickname, after a chimpanzee that appeared on the short-lived TV
series Me and the Chimp--hangs with the homeys who have had the
goods on him since junior high. It's easy to push Buttons's
buttons, and the crew, which includes James (Cootie) Arnold,
Paul (Funk) Faulcon, Dante (Big D) Harrison and Brian (Big Head
B) Winfield, isn't shy about bringing him down to earth. "He's
such an easy target," Harrison says, "because he's always
bitching about something, even when there's nothing really
wrong. We bitch right back at him."

Freeman's family ties are equally strong. His brother, Clarence
III, a Marine sergeant stationed in Saginaw, Mich., and his
sister, La Tonya, who works for a Laguna Hills, Calif.,
publishing company, were successful academically. Antonio, whose
first love was basketball, wanted to attend perennial hoops
power Dunbar High, but his parents insisted on Baltimore
Polytechnic Institute, a school specializing in math and
science. After earning a football scholarship to Virginia Tech,
Freeman established himself as a big-play receiver while a
sophomore, averaging 22 yards a catch on 32 receptions and
scoring six touchdowns. The following spring he was nearly
dragged down for good. Nailed by Virginia Tech officials for the
unauthorized use of an access code to make long-distance calls,
Freeman was suspended for a year, though after an appeal the
penalty was reduced to about three months.

The elder Clarence picked him up in Blacksburg, Va., right after
the suspension was handed down, and Antonio says the drive home
"was the longest five hours of my life. I tried to get some
sleep, but my dad wouldn't even let me. He kept telling me how
stupid it was." When Antonio got home, Rotha told him to clean
out the basement, look for a job and forget about having any
friends over.

Clarence III came to the rescue by flying Antonio out to San
Diego, where Clarence was assigned to oversee recruits who had
quit basic training. The two spent the first couple of days
living it up. Then Clarence brought Antonio to work and, he
says, "showed him how we treat the quitters. They were calling
mommy and expecting to leave right away, but we made them hang
around for a week or two, sweeping floors or taking out the
trash while a few yards away the guys they quit on were
preparing for graduation. Antonio took it to heart. He says I
saved him, but he saved himself."

After a standout career at Virginia Tech, Freeman became a
pleasant surprise for the Packers, who took him in the third
round of the '95 draft and fancied him chiefly as a return
specialist. Labeled by some as slow and unwilling to make tough
catches over the middle, Freeman proved to be quick, fearless and
smart. "Free picked up our offense faster than anybody I've ever
seen," says Green Bay offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis. "He has
a sense of where to be. When all hell breaks loose, he does the
right thing."

Freeman had always been confident, but his pairing at wideout
with the flamboyant Andre Rison late in the '96 season increased
his swagger. Rison, a former All-Pro, was signed in November of
that year to replace flanker Robert Brooks, who had suffered a
knee injury. Freeman, who was out with a broken left forearm at
the time, spent many nights partying with Rison and soaking up
his emphatic preachings: "I'm telling you, Free, we're the best.
Can't nobody stop us."

"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Freeman
says. "He wouldn't tolerate any form of weakness. He taught me
to carry myself like I'm the best." Rison may have been too
convincing for his own good. Freeman returned with a cast on his
arm on Dec. 1 and emerged as Favre's go-to guy. Green Bay won
its first NFL title in 29 years--Freeman caught a Super
Bowl-record 81-yard touchdown pass--and Rison was waived after
the season.

Even after Brooks returned to action in 1997, the Pack's passing
game was the Freeman show. Coach Mike Holmgren's West Coast
attack had always revolved around the flanker, but now the focus
shifted to the split end. Freeman led the '97 Packers with 81
catches for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns, not including a pair
of scoring receptions in Green Bay's Super Bowl loss to the
Denver Broncos. His bond with Favre also grew, in part through
his aptitude for improvisation, an invaluable skill given
Favre's unique ability to keep plays alive. "He thinks on my
level," Favre says. "We have the same approach to football: We
prepare as hard as we can all week; then we go out on game day
and just kind of let it go. When I take off, it's like he knows
where I want to go with the ball."

Last season Freeman got even better. "He does everything well,"
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan says. "You always have to keep an eye
on him because he's so good running with the ball after the
catch." Freeman's value was evident after he fractured his jaw
during a Nov. 29 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. In the
only game Freeman missed, Packers wideouts combined for just 99
receiving yards in a 24-22 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Freeman, his jaw wired shut, returned to catch 15 passes for 289
yards in the next two games. He had a pair of touchdown
receptions in Green Bay's last-second playoff loss to the San
Francisco 49ers.

It's obvious the Pack needs him back, but Freeman is frustrated.
Because he's the franchise player, Green Bay is obligated to
offer him a 1999 salary of at least $3.531 million--the average
of the league's five highest-paid receivers in '98--though
Freeman vows to hold out for a long-term deal to his liking. (He
hasn't attracted much interest around the NFL, because the price
of signing another team's franchise player is steep: two
first-round draft choices.) Ron Wolf, the Packers' general
manager, concedes that "there's pressure on our side to get this
done, so we don't have a repeat of last year," when protracted
contract talks led to a lost exhibition season for running back
Dorsey Levens, who then suffered a leg injury in Green Bay's
second game and didn't return until Nov. 29. As of Sunday the
Pack's best offer was a five-year deal worth about $4.2 million
per season.

Until the big payday arrives, Freeman will kick back and do what
he always does when he's in his hometown: hang with his homeys,
blast hip-hop, go to clubs, play and watch hoops. His friends
have jobs, but Freeman gladly serves as their sugar daddy,
giving them virtually unlimited access to his house (Harrison
and Winfield live there, and Faulcon is a frequent guest), his
wardrobe and his wallet. "I'm constantly getting this vibe from
people that I should abandon my past," says Freeman. "But these
are the brothers who were with me before the fame, the ones who
drove five hours to see me play every weekend in college. They
keep me grounded."

Freeman and his crew are barreling headlong into their past.
Winfield steers Freeman's Lincoln Navigator east on Highway 40
toward the old neighborhood. Freeman is in the backseat making
goo-goo eyes at the love of his life, two-year-old daughter
Gabrielle. (Though no longer romantically involved, Antonio and
Gabrielle's mother have remained friendly.) Antonio is now
taking his daughter to see her grandmother. The Navigator passes
through the projects and pulls up to the brick house on Aiken
Street in which Antonio grew up--and where Rotha, to Antonio's
chagrin, still insists on living.

The dining-room table is laden with home-cooked offerings: crab
cakes, golden-brown chicken wings, spicy shrimp and
butter-soaked corn on the cob. It's no stretch to say that
Rotha, a Care First Blue Cross Blue Shield switchboard operator,
is a better cook than her son is a football player.

After dinner Antonio walks outside to check out his childhood
hoops haven at the corner of Aiken and East Lafayette. The court
is marked by a pair of bent rims and tattered nets. Two men in
their early 20s stand on the street corner doing nothing in
particular; one holds a soft drink in his left hand and a fifth
of whiskey in his right. Freeman hugs both men and chats for a
few minutes before returning to the court. "I saw guys get
killed while I played here," he says. "It's a trip. A lot of
guys who were just as talented as I was ended up as junkies. But
I've got the utmost respect for them because they never tried to
drag me down that road."

Big Head B pulls up in the Navigator, but Freeman has one more
memory to savor. He sets up near the left wing and says, "This
is it, my old sweet spot." Someone has marked it by
spray-painting a yellow football with Freeman's number, 86,
graffitied on it in Packers green. Freeman pivots, fakes to his
left and launches an imaginary jumper: nothing but net. "Money,"
he says and then lets out a triumphant cackle. He'll be laughing
all the way to the bank.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI NO PLACE LIKE HOME Though he has settled down in wooded Owings Mills, Freeman hasn't strayed far from his Baltimore roots.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN ZICH/AFP GOTTA HAND IT TO YOU Freeman has a knack for finding seams in the coverage, as the Bears' Terry Cousin discovered in a 16-13 Green Bay win in December.

In the Money

Antonio Freeman gambled last July when he rejected the Packers'
multiyear offer and signed a one-year contract. Here's how
Freeman's statistics last season stacked up against those of the
league's five wideouts with the highest average salary at the
position in 1998.

Herman Moore, Lions $4.369M 15 82 983 12.0 5
Cris Carter, Vikings $4.045M 16 78 1,011 13.0 12
Bert Emanuel, Bucs $3.15M 11 41 636 15.5 2
Michael Jackson, Ravens $3.092M 13 38 477 12.6 0
Curtis Conway, Bears $3.0M 15 54 733 13.6 3
Freeman, Packers $1.153M 15 84 1,424 17.0 14

"Free picked up our offense faster than anybody I've ever seen,"
says Lewis. "He has a sense of where to be."