Pack's Freeman catches on in home return Poly grad grabs 4 passes in stadium reunion

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

Antonio Freeman had played on this field before.

The Baltimore native was a wide-eyed high school senior at Poly in 1989, the last time he ran and dove 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 many feel is bound for 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-America.

He 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 National Football League.

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, making a team-high four receptions for 65 yards.

Freeman, who still lives in Baltimore, split the Ravens safeties on third-and-five on the Packers' opening drive, pulled in a Brett Favre pass and crossed midfield for a 25-yard gain. Favre threw his way again at the end of the drive, but defensive back Isaac Booth knocked away a would-be TD pass.

Freeman got revenge late in the second quarter, putting space between him and Booth's outstretched arms. The reception was good for 16 yards. Freeman also caught two key first-down balls of 8 and 16 yards on the Packers' first scoring drive of the second half, when they went up 14-2, before leaving after three quarters.

"Antonio has a good feel for working in the open field," said Packers receiving coach Gil Haskell. "I see good things for him. I think he's a real receiver. There's speed guys, there's track guys, but I think he's a real receiver."

The Packers drafted Freeman in the third round of the 1995 draft out of Virginia Tech, where he departed as the school's all-time leader in receptions and TD 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 playoff opener by taking a second-quarter punt back 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 against Dallas, Freeman totaled 202 return yards. His 39-yard punt return triggered a Packers' TD and gave them a short-lived 17-14 third-quarter lead.

The Packers hope to capitalize on Freeman's combination of special teams big-play ability and strong fundamental receiving skills more often this year.

"I think his ability to return punts has helped him see the field when he plays the game," Haskell said. "And when he catches the ball, he doesn't just catch it and go down. He catches the ball and tries to score a touchdown."

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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