There was never a question on whether Antonio Freeman, growing up in Baltimore, was a playmaker. The only question was in which sport he ultimately would make the plays.
And each December seemed to underscore the state of uncertainty. For Christmas every year, Freeman and his older brother, Clarence, got a new football and a new basketball. Come the following December, each gift would be so worn out, the brothers needed new ones.
"I always knew he was special," his proud mother, Rotha Freeman, said of Antonio. "He was always the smallest kid on Aiken Street. All the guys in the neighborhood called him 'Shorty.' They would play football right out on the street."
In Green Bay, Wis., these days, Freeman doesn't play in the street and they don't call him "Shorty". But he's still a playmaker.
Look who has grown up to become a big-time wide receiver in the NFL's most potent passing attack.
His 10 receptions for 156 yards -- both career highs -- against the Chicago Bears helped put the Packers back into the fast lane after a month of down time in November.
What made it more noteworthy was that Freeman played with a 5-inch plate in his left forearm, broken Oct. 27 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a cumbersome cast on top.
"He's doing it with one arm, and he's faster than I've ever seen him," Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler said after the 28-17 victory over the Bears.
"We control our own destiny," Freeman said. "If we win the last three, we have home-field advantage [in the NFC]. Teams that come in here in January don't want to play in 30-below [conditions]."
Freeman, 24, figures to be a big part of any Super Bowl drive. The second-year receiver from Virginia Tech started the first seven games at split end. When Robert Brooks suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 7, Freeman moved to flanker. After he was hurt a week later, the passing game was grounded in back-to-back losses against the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys.
The numbers tell the tale: With Brooks and Freeman in the lineup, the Packers averaged 34 points for the first six games. Without Brooks, they averaged 20.2. Without Brooks and Freeman, they averaged 18.2.
Despite missing four games, Freeman leads the Packers in catches (41) and yards (637).
The big-play role is one for which he seemed destined, even before his distinguished career at Poly, when he was named The Sun's Offensive Player of the Year.
"I was always the skinniest guy out there and one of the fastest," Freeman said. "I wouldn't say I was the best guy playing, but an important guy, someone who had to be accounted for."
If not for the intervention of his father, Clarence Jr., Freeman might not have been a football player at all. His mother had vetoed the idea originally.
"I thought he was too small," Rotha said. "But his dad told him: 'Sometimes you have to follow your heart.' "
Freeman's heart first led him to basketball and the courts across from him home near North Avenue. "The rest of my family and friends all figured I'd be in the NBA right now," he said.
But as good as Freeman was on the court -- he once scored 37 points in back-to-back games against Dunbar -- his basketball coach, Bucky Kimmett, and football coach, Augie Waibel, both advised him to pursue football in college. The reason was his height: just a shade over 6 feet.
Poly thought enough of Freeman to retire his jersey last October -- a first at the school. Kimmett was moved by a comment Freeman made during the visit.
"He came here for the reception, and people were saying, 'Why (( did you come back to the school?' " Kimmett said. "He said, 'Look around, and here are my roots.' "
Clearly, Freeman hasn't forgotten those roots.
"He gives a lot of time back to young people in the neighborhood," Rotha said. "When he came home last summer, he cleaned up the playground across the street. He swept all the glass, cut the grass. He sponsored a trip for the Oliver Rec Center basketball team. He just loves being here at the 'hood.
"He still gets his hair cut on Monument Street by Dante. He still has the same eight buddies he went to high school with. No, success has not changed him."
Pub Date: 12/08/96