The people mean more than the accolades to Antonio Freeman.
Calling Saturday night's induction into the Packers Hall of Fame a "family reunion," Freeman got emotional for a moment while talking to reporters about all of the people who helped him to this moment.
It starts with his family.
"Today is like a recollection of my life," he said. "My family was very supportive, raised with Dad and Mom at home, loving brother, loving sister. Two loving young kids. Just getting me on the right track, and that's something crucial for a lot of young kids out there. A lot of them don't have Daddy at home. I had Daddy there and I had consequences. That's where it all started for me."
Freeman went on to talk about "other great men" who made a positive influence on his life, such as his Pop Warner basketball coach, who he called one of the "toughest, meanest, nastiest coaches out there." At Baltimore Polytechnic High School in Baltimore, he played for legendary coach Augie Waibel. At Virginia Tech, he played for Frank Beamer. And in Green Bay, there was Mike Holmgren.
But it's when Freeman mentioned his brother, Clarence, who has spent more than 20 years in the Marines, and some of the teammates who came to Green Bay to share the moment with him, when he got choked up.
"I just think when you get guys that take time out of their busy lives to support you, that's really a climax to what these people think about you and what they generally feel about you," Freeman said. "Not as a football player but as a person. So, to have those guys stop what they were doing and be a part of it all, it means a lot."
Among those present were former teammates Derrick Mayes and Brian Williams, and he received calls from Edgar Bennett, LeRoy Butler, Frank Winters and Gilbert Brown, among others.
"It means that these people really like me, beyond being a halfway-decent football player," Freeman said. "It means a lot to me personally. It's about everyone else today. Yeah, it says Antonio Freeman, but it's about the friendships I shared in the locker room.
"There's no more football games, you know? There's no more Lambeau Field. They're not coming to see a game. They're here to see me. That's what's most touching. All the people who come and go through the process, you know who your real friends are when it all stops."
One of those friends was Rob Davis, the former Packers long snapper and current director of player development who presented Freeman for induction.
"When Antonio asked me to do this, obviously, like most people, I was flattered, considering the number of players Antonio had played with here in Green Bay as well the relationship with his brother, so I was absolutely honored when he asked me to be his presenter," Davis said.
Freeman was one of the Packers' four third-round draft picks in 1995. He made an instant impact on special teams, averaging 7.9 yards on punt returns and 23.3 yards on kickoff returns. He served notice of what was to come during a wild-card playoff victory vs. Atlanta, when he returned a punt for a 76-yard touchdown.
That was the first of many big plays by Freeman, from a then-record 81-yard touchdown reception against New England in Super Bowl XXXI, to his team-playoff record 12 touchdowns, to his All-Pro season of 1998, to his famous "Improbable Bobble" against Minnesota on a rainy Monday night in 2000.
"I was brought into a punt returner, so I had to be the best punt returner that I could be," Freeman said. "So many times during that season, I got so close and I finally got my chance in the playoff game — one of the biggest moments for us in that playoff game. The Super Bowl catch the very next year, when I became a starter, it just was an evolution for me. It was like a kid trying to get out and my steps were slow but I got there, and I had an opportunity to play big and make some big catches in some big games."
Today, Freeman is building onlyplayers.com, a Web site meant to help retired players stay in touch and to facilitate communication between players from today and yesterday. The endeavor doesn't surprise Davis.
"For a guy who had his stats and coming off of Pro Bowl seasons and the Super Bowl obviously with the big catch, he was still just a regular guy," Davis said. "He treated everyone in the locker room the same."
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