As young players on a rising powerhouse in Green Bay, Dorsey Levens and Antonio Freeman were paired as the Packers' kick returners.
Little did they know that, more than a dozen years later, they'd be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
Levens and Freeman are the Class of 2009, the team announced on Wednesday. They will be inducted on July 18.
Levens and Freeman went from mid-round draft choices to big-play performers on the Packers' team that won Super Bowl XXXI, reached Super Bowl XXXII and contended for another conference championship the following season.
"For me to go in with him, it's just an honor for me," Levens said in a conference call on Wednesday. "You guys really don't understand the things that we go through as football players, how long a season is and how much we become family, and that's because we spend more time with each other than our real families. So, ‘Free' and the rest of the guys are like brothers to me."
Levens is the fifth-leading rusher in Packers history, but his signature play was his 29-yard touchdown catch against the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game preceding Super Bowl XXXI. Levens said the offense practiced the play — called "64 Fullback Wheel" — about twice a week but never ran it in a game.
"It worked all the time in practice," Levens said. "I don't know if Mike (coach Mike Holmgren) didn't have enough confidence in me or the play or whatever, but apparently he had enough confidence in one of the biggest games of the year up to that point to call it."
It was a trick play of sorts, with Levens lining up in a spot usually manned by a tight end, running a short-yardage route into the flat, then turning it upfield. He caught a perfect lob from Favre over cornerback Eric Davis near the front corner of the end zone.
"That game was, for me, the icing on the cake," Levens said. "Obviously, we go onto the Super Bowl and that's way bigger than anything I could have done the game before, but it was definitely a memorable catch."
Levens shared time with Edgar Bennett in the backfield during the Packers' first Super Bowl season. The next year, Levens rushed to the Pro Bowl with 1,435 yards, including what was then a team-record 190 yards against Dallas.
Not bad for a guy who wasn't thrilled to be drafted by the Packers in the fifth round in 1994. In the days leading to the draft, Levens told his agent: "I don't care where I go, as long as I don't end up in Green Bay. It's way too cold."
Freeman, who ranks sixth in team history in catches and yards and third in receiving touchdowns, made one of his signature plays two weeks later in the Super Bowl against New England, when he hauled in an 81-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre. It was the longest play in Super Bowl history.
"It was the game," Freeman said. "It was the game that you dream about. Every kid that plays any kind of sport you dream about playing in the Super Bowl, playing in that game."
"I was just trying to prevent him from intercepting it," Freeman said. "He was trying to intercept it. He thought he intercepted it. He gave up on the play once he deflected the football. As I dove to the ground to try to break my fall with my arms, I felt something hit me in the shoulder. I didn't know if it was his cleat or if it was the ball. My reaction snapped my head around that way, and I saw the football. I was bracing my fall with my arms, so I just kind slid over on my side and stuck my hands out, and the ball came right into my hands."
He added, "That's the signature play I'm remembered for in the NFL. I guess it's good to be remembered for one play than none play."
In 2007, Freeman was the presenter for Robert Brooks. Brooks was the Packers' star receiver when Freeman arrived as a fourth-round draft pick in 1995. Freeman credits Brooks for helping him become one of the NFL's elite receivers.
"He wouldn't let me settle for just being a kick and return man," Freeman said. "He wanted me to get a taste of what the real action was like. He really opened the door for me for a lot of success. Previously in life, you go through channels where the guy in front of you isn't very helpful. He might purposely tell you the wrong things to do, and make fun of you and laugh at you in the back of the meeting room."
Being selected clearly means a lot to Freeman.
"I didn't really realize the magnitude of it until I got that phone call. Boy, that made it a real Thanksgiving, a big holiday season for me," Freeman said of sharing the moment with his mom, dad, brother and sister. "The excitement that they expressed really brought the whole ordeal to life for me and allowed me to realize how special this moment is going to be."
Tickets are $125 apiece or tables of 10 are available for $1,150. Doors open at 4:30 p.m. with a cash bar, followed by dinner and the program at 7 p.m. To purchase tickets, call Gwen Borga at 920-965-6984 or e-mail her at email@example.com.
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Levens, Freeman joining Packers Hall of Fame
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