Antonio Freeman - He Did What?!
By Jon Meerdink
When you're in second grade, about the worst thing that can happen to you as far as a physical injury is a broken arm. Think about all the stuff you can't do when you have a big, bulky cast on. You can't play on the monkey bars. You can't run around and play football with your friends. You even have a hard time writing on your school work, which, all things considered, isn't the worst thing in the world but still pretty inconvenient. So imagine the horror the second grade version of me experienced when I heard that spectacular wide receiver Antonio Freeman had suffered a broken arm in the midst of a tremendous 1996 season. Basically I thought he had died. Certainly he wouldn't be coming back that year, or possibly ever. Or would he?
A couple weeks after his injury, I remember my dad telling me that there was a chance Freeman could come back. At that time there was no internet, we didn't have cable so I didn't watch SportsCenter, and I really didn't have any opportunity to listen to sports radio. As a result, anything I heard about the Packers came through my dad. Consequently, I peppered him with questions from that point on. Will he be back? How do you play with a broken arm? Will people still tackle him? How do you play with a broken arm? Will he get hurt more? HOW DO YOU PLAY FOOTBALL WITH A BROKEN ARM?! Or at least that's how I remember it.
After missing the better part of six games with his arm injuries, Freeman did eventually return. This blew my eight-year-old mind right out my ears. "He's coming back?" I thought. "Wearing a cast? In a football game? Can he do that?" Apparently he could, and he came back with a vengeance, catching 19 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns in his next two games, all while wearing a bulky black and white cast on his left arm. Eight year old me was amazed. If we had a guy who could catch passes with a broken arm (in addition to having Brett Favre and Reggie White) we were pretty much guaranteed to win the Super Bowl, right?
In short, yes, thanks in part to his epic touchdown in Super Bowl XXXI. Not bad for a guy who cracked his arm in half earlier in the season. That play really cemented my love for Antonio Freeman to the point that I proudly wore an Antonio Freeman jersey to my very first Packer game ever.
Much, much later in his career, Freeman was a salary cap casualty of a Packer rebuilding effort. He caught on with the Philadelphia Eagles, but it just never really felt right. He belonged in Green Bay. I was bummed when he had to go and I always hoped he'd have a chance to come back, but it didn't seem likely. But, even though he had a pretty decent year in Philly, they cut him after just one season. And when receivers started dropping like flies during the Packers' 2003 season, guess who got the call? Good ol' number 86. It was more of a token signing than anything. Brett Favre always loved him and he was a fan favorite, and despite his extremely forgettable season (14 catches, 141 yards, no touchdowns) it was still fun to see him back in a Packer uniform.
Freeman truly faded away as a Packer. His last two games he had no catches and he was quietly released in the off-season to little fanfare. But he always sticks in my mind as one of the first Packers I can remember as a truly spectacular player.