Packers' Freeman catches on in return Poly grad snares 4 passes in stadium reunion

August 18, 1996|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Antonio Freeman had played on this field before, but this time it was more meaningful.

The Baltimore native was a wide-eyed high school senior at Poly in 1989, the last time he ran and dived on the Memorial Stadium turf.

Last night, Freeman returned home for a preseason game against the Ravens as a promising second-year wide receiver and return specialist for the Green Bay Packers, a team that is among the favorites to make the Super Bowl.

Things were somewhat similar in 1989. Freeman's Poly team went 10-0 that year, won the MSA A Conference title and was ranked 23rd in the nation. Freeman was named Offensive Player of the Year by The Sun and was a USA Today honorable mention All-American.

Freeman was the go-to receiver for Poly, catching 47 passes for 1,079 yards and nine touchdowns in his senior season. It's a role Freeman would like to reclaim in the NFL and he took strides in that direction with four receptions for a team-high 65 yards in last night's 17-15 preseason victory.

"This had to be one of my highest moments in life," Freeman said afterward. "To play at the highest level of football and to play in front of my home crowd, it was unbelievable.

"It was great. Words can't even describe it for me. It was unreal. This doesn't even compare with high school. That was 20,000 fans and now you're looking at 60,000. This is the plateau of life right now. This was only a preseason game, but it meant the world to me."

The 6-foot, 190-pound receiver made steady improvement with the Packers during his rookie season, when he led the team with a 23.2-yard kick return average (fifth in the NFC) and set a Green Bay rookie record with 37 punt returns. He showed further progress in his Baltimore homecoming, but this time as a wide receiver.

Freeman, who still lives in Baltimore, split the Ravens' safeties on third-and-five during the Packers' opening drive, pulled in Brett Favre's pass and crossed midfield for a 25-yard gain. Late in the second quarter, Freeman created space between himself and defensive back Isaac Booth's outstretched arms for a 16-yard catch.

He caught two key first-down passes of 8 and 16 yards on the Packers' first scoring drive of the second half, when they went up 14-2, before leaving the game after three quarters.

"He made some nice plays and caught the ball when it was thrown to him," Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. "He's a gifted athlete and I think he'll be a very important part of our offensive structure this year."

The Packers drafted Freeman in the third round of the 1995 draft after he departed Virginia Tech as the school's all-time leader in receptions and touchdown catches.

Freeman began returning kicks and punts for the Packers when Charles Jordan went down with shoulder and knee injuries.

Freeman won the job and never gave it back.

Twice during the playoffs he was named the NFL's Special Teams Player of the Week. He broke open a close game with Atlanta in the playoffs by taking a second-quarter punt 76 yards for a touchdown. Earlier in the game he returned a kick 42 yards, setting up the Packers' first score.

In the NFC championship game against Dallas, Freeman accumulated 202 total return yards. His 39-yard punt return triggered a Packers touchdown and gave them a third-quarter lead.

Freeman was gradually becoming more involved in the Packers' offense as well.

He caught four passes for 43 yards in the playoffs after snagging eight for 106 yards in 11 regular-season games. He caught two passes for first downs on the opening drive of the Packers' postseason win over San Francisco.

And he leads all Packers receivers in catches and yards this preseason.

"I see good things for him," said Gil Haskell, Packers receivers coach. "I think he's a real receiver. There's speed guys, there's track guys, but I think he's a real receiver."

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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