The elder Clarence picked him up in Blacksburg, Va., right after the suspension was handed down, and Antonio says the drive home "was the longest five hours of my life. I tried to get some sleep, but my dad wouldn't even let me. He kept telling me how stupid it was." When Antonio got home, Rotha told him to clean out the basement, look for a job and forget about having any friends over.
Clarence III came to the rescue by flying Antonio out to San Diego, where Clarence was assigned to oversee recruits who had quit basic training. The two spent the first couple of days living it up. Then Clarence brought Antonio to work and, he says, "showed him how we treat the quitters. They were calling mommy and expecting to leave right away, but we made them hang around for a week or two, sweeping floors or taking out the trash while a few yards away the guys they quit on were preparing for graduation. Antonio took it to heart. He says I saved him, but he saved himself."
After a standout career at Virginia Tech, Freeman became a pleasant surprise for the Packers, who took him in the third round of the '95 draft and fancied him chiefly as a return specialist. Labeled by some as slow and unwilling to make tough catches over the middle, Freeman proved to be quick, fearless and smart. "Free picked up our offense faster than anybody I've ever seen," says Green Bay offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis. "He has a sense of where to be. When all hell breaks loose, he does the right thing."
Freeman had always been confident, but his pairing at wideout with the flamboyant Andre Rison late in the '96 season increased his swagger. Rison, a former All-Pro, was signed in November of that year to replace flanker Robert Brooks, who had suffered a knee injury. Freeman, who was out with a broken left forearm at the time, spent many nights partying with Rison and soaking up his emphatic preachings: "I'm telling you, Free, we're the best. Can't nobody stop us."
"That was the best thing that ever happened to me," Freeman says. "He wouldn't tolerate any form of weakness. He taught me to carry myself like I'm the best." Rison may have been too convincing for his own good. Freeman returned with a cast on his arm on Dec. 1 and emerged as Favre's go-to guy. Green Bay won its first NFL tide in 29 years—Freeman caught a Super Bowl-record 81-yard touchdown pass—and Rison was waived after the season.
Even after Brooks returned to action in 1997, the Pack's passing game was the Freeman show. Coach Mike Holmgren's West Coast attack had always revolved around the flanker, but now the focus shifted to the split end. Freeman led the '97 Packers with 81 catches for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns, not including a pair of scoring receptions in Green Bay's Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos. His bond with Favre also grew, in part through his aptitude for improvisation, an invaluable skill given Favre's unique ability to keep plays alive. "He thinks on my level," Favre says. "We have the same approach to football: We prepare as hard as we can all week; then we go out on game day and just kind of let it go. When I take off, it's like he knows where I want to go with the ball."
Last season Freeman got even better. "He does everything well," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan says. "You always have to keep an eye on him because he's so good running with the ball after the catch." Freeman's value was evident after he fractured his jaw during a Nov. 29 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. In the only game Freeman missed, Packers wideouts combined for just 99 receiving yards in a 24-22 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Freeman, his jaw wired shut, returned to catch 15 passes for 289 yards in the next two games. He had a pair of touchdown receptions in Green Bay's last-second playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
It's obvious the Pack needs him back, but Freeman is frustrated. Because he's the franchise player, Green Bay is obligated to offer him a 1999 salary of at least $3,531 million—the average of the league's five highest-paid receivers in '98—though Freeman vows to hold out for a long-term deal to his liking. (He hasn't attracted much interest around the NFL, because the price of signing another team's franchise player is steep: two first-round draft choices.) Ron Wolf, the Packers' general manager, concedes that "there's pressure on our side to get this done, so we don't have a repeat of last year," when protracted contract talks led to a lost exhibition season for running back Dorsey Levens, who then suffered a leg injury in Green Bay's second game and didn't return until Nov. 29. As of Sunday the Pack's best offer was a five-year deal worth about $4.2 million per season.
Until the big payday arrives, Freeman will kick back and do what he always does when he's in his hometown: hang with his homeys, blast hip-hop, go to clubs, play and watch hoops. His friends have jobs, but Freeman gladly serves as their sugar daddy, giving them virtually unlimited access to his house (Harrison and Winfield live there, and Faulcon is a frequent guest), his wardrobe and his wallet. "I'm constantly getting this vibe from people that I should abandon my past," says Freeman. "But these are the brothers who were with me before the fame, the ones who drove five hours to see me play every weekend in college. They keep me grounded."
Freeman and his crew are barreling headlong into their past. Winfield steers Freeman's Lincoln Navigator east on Highway 40 toward the old neighborhood. Freeman is in the backseat making goo-goo eyes at the love of his life, two-year-old daughter Gabrielle. (Though no longer romantically involved, Antonio and Gabrielle's mother have remained friendly.) Antonio is now taking his daughter to see her grandmother. The Navigator passes through the projects and pulls up to the brick house on Aiken Street in which Antonio grew up—and where Rotha, to Antonio's chagrin, still insists on living.