May 27 marks the birthday of one Hall of Famer and two Pro Bowl Packers. Beefy Walt Kiesling, who played guard for Green Bay in 1935 and ’36 and later had anineffectual coaching career, is the first of our troika. More recently, Antonio Freeman and Nick Barnett had substantial Packers careers.
Kiesling was a large and well-traveled guard and later coach for a series of teams. He is listed as a Steeler in Canton since he both played and coached there. He played longest for the Cardinals, five years, and made All-Pro there. He also played two years for the Duluth Eskimos who then ceased operations, one for the Pottsville Maroons who then went out of business, one for the Chicago Bears, two for the Packers, and three for Pittsburgh. Despite playing for a 13-0 Bear and the 1936 10-1-1 champion Packers, the record of the teams for whom Kiesling played was 66-82-11.
After retiring from playing, Walt coached Pittsburgh from 1940-42 and from 1954-56. Most of the intervening years, he spent as a line coach either with the Steelers or the Packers. The high point of his coaching career was the 1942 season when he led Pittsburgh to its first ever winning year with a second place 7-4 record. It would be the only winning year he would ever have as a coach, and his lifetime coaching record in 30-55-6.
Antonio Freeman took the baton seamlessly as Brett Favre’s go-to guy from Robert Brooks when Brooks was injured during the 1996 championship season. Since Freeman was a third round draft choice out of Virginia Tech in his second year, the quickness with which he assumed the leading receiver role was a delightful surprise. His descent to ordinary receiver five or six years later after signing an enormous new contract was equally surprising, but not delightful to Freeman, the team or the fans.
Favre summarized Freeman, “From day 1, the first day he came here, he was never the tallest, he was never the fastest, he never caught the ball with his hands. But somehow he caught the ball and made plays.” Freeman and Favre made a good team, good enough to combine for 57 touchdowns, the most Favre threw to any target in his long career. Favre told Sports Illustrated, “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.”
From 1997-1999, Freeman caught at least 74 passes for over 1,000 yards each year. He also caught 12 touchdowns one year and 14 in another. In 14 playoff games with Green Bay, Antonio caught 47 passes for 10 touchdowns. He set a Super Bowl record by catching an 81-yard touchdown pass in the win over New England and the following year caught two in the Super Bowl loss to Denver. His most memorable catch came in the rain on Monday Night Football against Minnesota. In overtime that night, Favre threw one up to Freeman who was covered tightly by Chris Dishman. Freeman fell down while Dishman reached for the ball and batted it away…except it bounced onto the shoulder of the prone Freeman who snagged it, got up and ran the last 15 yards into the end zone for the winning score.
At his best, the 6’1” 190-pound Freeman displayed great moves and made big plays. At other times, though, he displayed bad hands and dropped too many catchable balls. And then after signing the big contract in 2000, he dropped a level. The Journal Sentinel speculated at the time that defenses were taking away the slant route over the middle and forcing the slow (and getting slower) Freeman to beat them down the field. It’s a plausible theory.
Freeman was released with some acrimony following the 2001 season, but he and Coach Mike Sherman ironed out their differences a year later after Freeman was cut loose by Philadelphia. Freeman had one last disappointing year in Green Bay and then retired in 2004.
Nick Barnett was an emotional, high energy player. However, the 6’2” 230-pound Barnett’s strength was his speed and range from the middle linebacker position in the 4-3 defense. Coach Mike McCarthy once assessed Nick as a player, “He’s a steady, hard worker, tough guy, very explosive.” Green Bay drafted Barnett out of Oregon State with the 29th overall pick in 2003. Nick was a strongside linebacker in college, but the Packers shifted him to the middle in his rookie year. He proved himself a natural in that role. Barnett was the first Packer rookie since Noble to record over 100 tackles, and he led the team in tackles in four of his first five years in the NFL. In his sixth year, 2008, Barnett injured his knee and missed almost half the season.
He returned to the starting lineup in 2009, but at a new position, left inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme of new defensive coach Dom Capers. Barnett led the team in tackles again that season, but did not seem quite the same player. In the 2010 championship season, Barnett broke his wrist in week four and never played again for the Packers. They released him at the end of the year due to a combination of factors: his age, his $5.6 million contract, his injuries, his performance slippage and personality conflicts.
Barnett signed with Buffalo and led the Bills in tackles in 2011 and 2012 before finishing his career as a backup in Washington in 2013. That year, McCarthy told reporters, “Nick was an excellent linebacker for us, an impact player. Our old defense was pretty much built around Nick as the primary tackler and he had a number of great years for us.” At his best, Barnett ranged from sideline to sideline, making tackles in run defense, and dropped into pass coverage with ease.
(Adapted from Packers by the Numbers and Green Bay Gold)
First two custom cards are colorized.