GREEN BAY, Wis. — There’s a rock star element for the players and formers players who take part in the Green Bay Packers annual Tailgate Tour. Every stop the bus makes, they’re treated like one. Whether it’s the planned tour stops or at one of many surprise appearances along the way, fans quickly make them feel special.
Even for alumni like Antonio Freeman and Gilbert Brown, the reaction now is no different than it was when they played for the Packers in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"I haven’t played football in Lambeau Field in over a decade, but anytime — and I’m sure any other former Packers, anyone that’s put on that green and gold jersey when they come to town, the state of Wisconsin just does a great job of rolling out the red carpet," Freeman said. "Always making us feel like we’re at home and always making us feel like we’re still superstars. So that’s always great. Just the response we get when we come. It doesn’t have to be at Lambeau, it can be just walking around or eating, fans are still just so respectful, seemingly overly excited to see us every time."
As Brown stood in the middle of the basketball gym floor at Shawano Community High School, the majority of his listening audience wasn’t even born during the early stages of his career with Green Bay. But as the slimmed-down former nose tackle spoke with bravado, it was obvious how much his presence meant to the excited students.
"It’s a great response when any Packer comes into the building," Brown said. "We’re a different team from everybody else in the NFL. We’re the teams that has all the championships, we got all the tradition and everybody else sucks. Pretty much."
Transitioning away from the spotlight isn’t always easy for former players. They had been accustomed to experiencing all of the prestige that came with the life of being in the NFL.
"It sucks, because to me, football is in your DNA," Brown said. "Sometimes in the summertime I come outside and the grass is being cut and it’s nice and warm. You get to sweating and you get the jitters. You don’t get to choke nobody no more. They put you in jail for that now. I try to do what you’re supposed to do. You do a lot of different things to try to keep your mind off of it. I figured it out and everybody else will, too."
For Brown, it’s meant coaching and being involved with his kids.
"There’s a lot of different things you can hang your hat on to try to keep your mind off of it," Brown said.
When Freeman encounters fans, they often bring up the same thing about his playing days with the Packers.
"They always talk about the Minnesota Vikings catch," Freeman said, referencing his improbable, nearly incomplete overtime touchdown reception on Nov. 6, 2000. "That’s pretty much it. They want to talk about the Viking catch. Every now and then they want to talk about the 81-yard touchdown in the Super Bowl. But primarily it’s the Vikings catch."
Freeman won’t be the focus of the festivities the next time he’s in Green Bay. He confirmed that he’ll be in attendance for Brett Favre’s jersey retirement and Packers Hall of Fame induction on July 18.
"If my math serves me correctly, he and I combined for the most touchdown combinations, definitely for the Packers," Freeman said. "I think we are top-10 in the league. That is definitely something that’s on my calendar that I’m looking forward to being a part of. Looking forward to catching back up with Brett, and a lot of these other guys, and the alumni that are coming back. It should just be a great few days for the Packers Hall of Fame."
There’s a different former Packers player, though, whose post-career life has gone a terrible direction. Darren Sharper, a teammate of Freeman and Brown for six years, was recently sentenced to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault.
"I am definitely stunned," Freeman said of Sharper’s case. "That’s not the guy I remember being a teammate with. But things happen in life. It’s very unfortunate. I’m not speaking just for Darren Sharper, I’m speaking for the young ladies that were involved and taken advantage of. Just very unfortunate. I have a daughter, I have a mother, I have a sister, and some things just aren’t right. He’ll deal with the legal system and his attorneys and all those things that go with that.
"I still wish him the best, but I also wish the best for those young ladies who were affected by it, as well."