Antonio Freeman turns a great career into good works

They were two of the most remarkable throws of the Brett Favre era, and Antonio Freeman was on the receiving end of each – an 81-yard TD pass in Super Bowl XXXI that put his team ahead for good, and the surreal miracle lob that put away the rival Vikings in overtime and earned the receiver a permanent place in Monday Night Football lore.

But ask Freeman which play was the most memorable of his career, and he’ll delve much deeper into Packers fans’ collective memory banks.

“I think my ideal catch that I like to remember is the catch I had against the Chicago Bears that same year we were in the Super Bowl,” said Freeman. “I go over a guy’s back to make a touchdown grab, and right before the half, Brett Favre threw up a Hail Mary – and you practice it a lot, and it never works. But I’m the guy on the end of it that comes up with the Hail Mary pass. So it was in about an eight-minute stretch where I had two phenomenal touchdowns, and that was prior to me having the 81-yard touchdown. So that was my point of knowing, ‘You know what? I can play in this league. I can do this.’”

Of course, it seems strange now to think there was ever a time when Freeman thought he might not make it in the NFL. But it’s fate – and luck – of a less propitious sort that motivates him now.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Freeman last Friday – appropriately enough at Lucky’s in Madison – the day after he signed autographs in support of Buckets for Hunger, an Oregon, Wis., nonprofit that leverages the fame and good names of numerous Wisconsin sports stars for a good cause.

Freeman said that before he got involved with Buckets for Hunger, he “talked with [the charity’s founder] Wayne Bisek … and I just thought about my life, reflected on my life a little. I never missed a meal, I was just fortunate enough to have both parents, a loving family, so I never knew what it was like to actually go hungry. But I could only imagine that feeling, and I wanted to be involved in it.”

The organization’s celebrity board of directors reads like a list of Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame inductees: Freeman, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer, Ron Dayne, Bo Ryan, John Brockington, Chris Chambers, Adam Burish, Mark Tauscher, and Joe Thomas, to name several.

The list of the organization’s corporate sponsors is impressive, too, with MassMutual Financial Group, Continuum Investment Partners, Alliant Energy, WIBA AM radio, and ESPN 1070 radio all having signed up at one time or another to raise money for local food pantries.

Happily, all that star power and corporate leadership have combined to make a huge difference. Since its inception, Buckets has raised $1.5 million to provide food for the needy.

It’s a building process that Freeman hopes just keeps on rolling, especially now that the still-struggling economy has put a sizable dent in nonprofits’ resources; and he challenges the business community – and the community at large – to do their part.

“I think when guys like Ron Dayne and Jerry Kramer, just to name a few, join an organization like this, we would hope that a powerful business would now come in and donate something at some level,” said Freeman. “We would hope that other sports figures would want to be a part of it just so that this thing can get bigger, because the more people we can get involved, the more money we can generate, the more food we can pass out to hungry families.”

It’s a job that Freeman seems to be taking on with grace and enthusiasm. After all, if he’s learned nothing else from his years in Packer country, he knows that wearing the green and gold entitles you to a lifetime of working capital.

“I earned a lot of money in Wisconsin doing something great that I loved to do,” said Freeman. “So, yeah, this is where I’m most valued, and to come back to a place that has meant so much to me for a decade, was my whole life for a decade, it’s just refreshing.”

More from Antonio Freeman

On the pressure the 2011 Packers must feel chasing an undefeated season: “Those guys want it. They want the pressure. I’ve talked to several guys on the current team, and they embrace it. They know they’re doing something special. They know they’re doing something that’s very, very hard. … But they’re the hunted right now, they’re everybody’s Super Bowl.”

On Donald Driver and the other Packers receivers: “I kind of groomed Donald from 1999 until 2002, and he’s just a great player – the toughness, speed. And that was kind of the Packer way. When I came in, Robert Brooks took me under his wing and taught me the offensive system. When Donald Driver came in, it was my duty to now teach Donald the system, so if I go down, he comes in and we don’t miss a beat. I mean, just his ability to have such a long career, a long healthy career, he’s really done a lot for the Packers.

“And I look at the young generation of guys – the Greg Jennings, the Jordy Nelsons, the James Joneses – I’d like to take a little bit of each one of those guys and put it into my game plan because it’s such a luxury to have four possible starters for any of the other 31 teams in the league. All four of those guys, they could probably start for another team. So having that dynamic and watching Donald Driver develop the way he has has kind of put a smile on my face.”

On comparisons between a young Antonio Freeman and Randall Cobb: “He’s much faster than I was. (Laughs) I look at his role on this football team, and his role is to man the punt and kickoff return unit, and to fill in as a number four or number five receiver when we want to go to a certain package, and he’s just an awesome dynamic to add to the already talented receiver corps. You can put five receivers, put a package on the field at one time. No defensive back has three, let alone four, extremely good defensive backs that can hold these guys.

“So he becomes a wild card. He becomes a guy you just hide, just keep him in the back, and when the playoffs come, now you put him in the mix and create mismatches, because he’s a guy that can work against that linebacker, can be working one on one against that free safety, much as I did when I handled the return duties for the Packers. … We game-planned, okay, you’re going to have 10 plays this game, we’re going to match you up against the linebacker, the strong safety. So he has a great dynamic and a great skill set that can help this football team go deep into the playoffs.”

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