2007 ACC Football Legend: Virginia Tech's Antonio Freeman
Nov. 15, 2007
By Wilt Browning
When Antonio Freeman walks onto the field in Jacksonville with 11 other former college football Legends to be honored at the 2007 Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game, he will know he is more than the owner of dizzying statistics at both the college and professional level.
He will know, as well, that as long as Frank Beamer is the coach at his alma mater, Virginia Tech, he also will be known as an inspirational icon.
The truth is, there is scant record of the football game that turned Freeman's world around and transformed him from reserve to superstar. It was a game not played before a packed stadium - "there may have been 200 to 300 people there," he said - and digging a play-by-play account from the archives would be no easy task. The game was neither televised nor over-analyzed by network TV. Newspapers, radio and television hardly noticed. It was a game that caused not even a second look in the national collegiate rankings for the year.
But Beamer and his coaches noticed.
Freeman had just endured his red-shirt freshman year in 1980 and into the 1981 season was listed as a backup wide receiver on the Hokies' depth chart. It was the kind of existence that made Freeman look forward to an open weekend early in the season. He already had plans; he would head home to Baltimore to visit old friends and enjoy some home cooking, and he'd return to Blacksburg reinvigorated.
"Then they came to me and said, `You know you gotta play in this game,'" Freeman said. "This game" was a game that counted in no one's season won-lost record. "This game" was a junior varsity football game against Fort Union Military Academy, then an annual event featuring Hokie reserves who had seen little action on the Saturday afternoons of the regular season.
"This game" was the last thing on Freeman's mind that autumn. "Man, I didn't want to play in that game," he said. "It was like my Mama telling me, `Antonio, you know you can't go out and play until the dishes are washed and the floor is scrubbed.'"
But Beamer and his assistants had no weekend off either, and they were there, along the sidelines and in the press box, when the Hokie JV team, including Antonio Freeman, lined up against Fork Union.
Despite his protestations, "this game" became "THE game" for Antonio Freeman: THE game as in wonderful and inspirational.
"They tell me that to this day, Coach Beamer still tells freshman about what happened to me in that game," Freeman said, yielding to a bit of pride. "Any time I get back to Virginia Tech, Coach wants me to tell that story."
What Freeman did was catch six passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns. But it was more than mere statistics.
"I had a great day," Freeman said. "It was the game that probably turned my whole career around. That's unheard of for a JV game.
"If there was any doubt in my mind, that game cleared up all of that. I could see it in the faces of the coaches. It was like they had discovered something special in that game.
"Maybe they had. I know that all of a sudden, I felt like I belonged. I can tell you this: I never looked back after that."
He and the Virginia Tech coaches did look at the film of the JV game, and they looked again and again. And Freeman himself never tired of watching the replay of the game.
If he wasn't by the time that long-ago JV game ended, Freeman is known today as one of Virginia Tech's premier pass catchers and punt returners in history. He also is among the best ever to chase down passes for the Green Bay Packers from the arm Brett Favre.
To this day, they still marvel at the touchdown catch Freeman made to win the "Monday Night Football" game against the Minnesota Vikings on November 1, 2000. Like his career overall, that catch is the stuff of legend.
The game, played on a miserable, rainy Monday night in soggy Lambeau Field, had gone into overtime. On third-and-four from the Minnesota 43, Favre dropped to pass putting the ball up into the rainy night in Freeman's direction down the right sideline.
Freeman saw the ball come spinning through the steady rain. It was slightly off target, as one would expect under such conditions, and Freeman launched his 6-feet-1 frame hoping for a diving catch. But Viking defensive back Chris Dishman had a better angle on the ball. Dishman hit the ball with his outstretched right hand batting it back toward himself in the process. But the ball bounced off his shoulder pad and stayed in the soggy air.
Freeman was body surfing along the soaked turf and turned to his side just in time to see the ball falling away from Dishman. Freeman reached for the ball, bobbled it momentarily, and then clutched it safely to his soaked No. 86. Still on the ground, Freeman realized that no one had yet touched him. He arose from the turf, got his footing and trotted the final 15 yards to the end zone. Even the Monday Night Football announcers were incredulous.
For more than 10 minutes, the 60,000 Packer fans in Lambeau remained in the stands, ignoring the rain, chanting again and again for Freeman. "I guess I got an early Christmas gift," Freeman told a reporter minutes later.
"We practice that all the time," Favre dead-panned.
But Freeman is a hard sell. Although his Monday Night Football reception in the rain has taken its place as one of the NFL's greatest catches of all time - and still can be seen on an online site near you - it is not his personal favorite. That would be the 81-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XXXI (one of two in which he starred), and second would be an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in a playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Like the ancient JV football game, that punt return has a special place in Freeman's memory. "That really left a mark that I'd arrived," he said.
That any of this happened to the kid from Baltimore was not a matter of personal planning. Divine providence, perhaps, but not personal planning. Truth is, Antonio Freeman had planned on being a wonderful basketball player in college.
"I was the basketball player in our family," he said. "My brother, Clarence, was the football player, all-state his senior year in high school."
Clarence recently completed 20 years of service in the Marine Corps. "I would have followed in his footsteps if the football thing hadn't worked out," Freeman said.
But Freeman found more than once that plans changed, sometimes overnight. He had initially planned on playing both football and basketball in Blacksburg.
"Didn't take me long to figure out that I wouldn't be playing basketball at that level."
It simply took him a bit longer to find out that his athletic career was suddenly down to only football, and that he was about to become a star.
Wilt Browning is a special contributor to theACC.com. He spent more than 40 years as a sports editor and columnist in the Southeast. He worked for the Greenville News, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Greensboro News & Record and the Asheville Citizen-Times. His numerous awards include five North Carolina Sports Writer of the Year honors. He is also the author of five books, including Come Quittin' Time which was released this summer.
This article can not be copied or reproduced without the express written consent of the Atlantic Coast Conference.