To the surprise of no one, Antonio Freeman bet on the Green Bay Packers.
It was a fitting gesture years after the organization gambled on the wide receiver from Virginia Tech in the third round of the 1995 NFL Draft. The Packers got their just returns in a franchise Hall of Fame talent.
Freeman was on hand Wednesday to place the first bet at the grand opening of the Diamond Jo Casino’s FanDuel sportsbook in Dubuque, months after sports gambling was legalized in Iowa.
Freeman, who played 10 seasons in the NFL — eight with Green Bay — and finished with 477 receptions for 7,251 yards along with 1,007 career kickoff and punt return yards and scored 61 touchdowns, placed an $86 bet (his jersey number) that the Packers would score more than 21.5 points in the season opener tonight in Chicago against the rival Bears.
“This is great,” Freeman said of the grand opening. “It’s on the outskirts of Madison and borders Wisconsin, and I’ve been to Dubuque before. It’s just a great opportunity for sports gamers and sports bettors to come and have fun. They’re comfortable here.”
Freeman will return to the sportsbook tonight to host a watch party of the highly anticipated Packers and Bears season opener at Soldier Field to kick off the NFL’s 100th season.
“(The) 100th year with the Packers involved, on a Thursday night, it’s going to be crazy in Chicago,” said Freeman, 47, who resides in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. “There are going to be a lot of fans (at the watch party) that support both teams, so I expect opening night to be crazy.”
In 12 games with Green Bay against the Bears over his career, Freeman racked up 67 catches for 922 yards and eight touchdowns. Both teams feature passionate fan bases and are considered heated rivals, and Freeman agrees that at least during game time the rivalry for the players is real, too.
“Oh yeah, the rivalry is there for the players,” he said. “The good thing for the players is that the hate only lasts three hours. But with the new age of technology and social media and texting, it’s always there now, but I didn’t have those things. Guys can reconnect now with opposing teams and congratulate each other or talk trash back and forth. Thanks to the new age of technology, it’s always sort of there, but for most players that heated rivalry only lasts for those three hours.”
Freeman saw minimal playing time his rookie season, but exploded in Year 2 in helping the Packers win Super Bowl XXXI. His favorite moment against the Bears came that season on Oct. 6, 1996, at Soldier Field where Freeman hauled in seven receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns, one being a 50-yard Hail Mary TD from Brett Favre right before halftime. The Packers won in a rout, 37-6.
“My second year when I became a starter, I had a two touchdown game at Soldier Field,” Freeman said. “In Chicago I just remember Brett Favre throwing a Hail Mary before the half, and you can practice those things a thousand times, and they might work once. For me to catch a Hail Mary at Soldier Field at the end of a half, man that was one of those, ‘What just happened?’ moments of my career. It was pretty special.”
The peak of Freeman’s career was from 1996-98. Freeman was key in Green Bay’s 35-21 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, catching a Super Bowl record 81-yard touchdown pass from Favre that has since been eclipsed. He finished the game with three catches for 105 yards in helping Green Bay to its first championship since 1967.
The following year, Freeman gained more than 1,200 receiving yards as Green Bay advanced to its second-consecutive Super Bowl. Freeman caught nine passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns in the 31-24 loss to the Denver Broncos. His 230 all-purpose yards in the game was the third-highest total in Super Bowl history at that point.
In 1998, Freeman had his best NFL season, catching 84 passes for a league-leading 1,424 yards and career best 14 touchdowns. In 2009, Freeman was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame.
“It’s amazing to even realize I was a part of something so phenomenal and important,” Freeman said. “As a player you’re just playing football and not realizing the impact that it’s having on the fan base and community, things like that. We’re just football players. We come home (after Super Bowl XXXI) and I remember seeing thousands and thousands of fans in Green Bay, and it was below freezing. That really intensified the magnitude of what we’re able to do as players.”