By Jason Wilde
Somewhere, in Ed and Darla Rodgers’ attic or basement – their son isn’t quite sure just where – there is a very large box, filled to the brim with late 1980s and early 1990s football and baseball cards.
“Tons. Tons. I still have ‘em,” Aaron Rodgers says, proudly. “I think they’re in storage. I know my mom wouldn’t have thrown those out.”
And long before he was the Green Bay Packers’ Pro Bowl quarterback, before he was a rising NFL star and TMZ-worthy celebrity, he was just a kid living in Chico, Calif., and rooting for his two favorite teams – the San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants.
“My three most collected cards that I tried to get were Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and …” – Rodgers pauses, slightly embarrassed – “… Kevin Mitchell. Remember him? Played for the Giants and had that one real big year in ’89. So those three, I tried to get as many cards as I could. I probably have … I have tons of all of ‘em. Probably Montana is No. 1, Mitchell No. 2 and Jerry No. 3.”
Jerry, of course, gets first-name basis treatment from Rodgers because the two got to know each other while playing together on the final two days of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Lake Tahoe in July. Rice, who is the NFL’s all-time leader in virtually every receiving category and a three-time Super Bowl champion, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.
Rodgers’ other playing partner on the final day of the tournament? None other than Michael Jordan.
“I tried not to be that little kid who got to play with his idols, but that’s what I was,” Rodgers confesses.
Then, it is pointed out to Rodgers that he went from collecting Rice’s football cards to playing golf with him.
“Maybe I should’ve stopped and thought about it, but I really haven’t – until right now. It is amazing,” Rodgers says. “It’s a little mindboggling.”
That’s quite the confession coming from Rodgers, who since taking over from Brett Favre – perhaps you remember that summer of 2008 and the circus it became – hasn’t seemed overwhelmed by much of anything.
On the field, he has been outstanding, completing 691 of 1,077 passes (64.2 percent) for 8,472 yards with 58 touchdowns and 20 interceptions for a passer rating of 98.5 while also rushing for 523 yards and nine touchdowns. Last season – his fifth in the NFL – Rodgers threw for 4,434 yards (just shy of Lynn Dickey’s team record of 4,458 in 1984), threw 30 touchdowns versus seven interceptions, had a passer rating of 103.2 (fourth-best in the NFL) and earned his first Pro Bowl selection. His career passer rating of 97.2 would be the highest in NFL history if he had enough attempts to qualify (Hall of Famer Steve Young owns the record at 96.8).
“I never sat down and said, ‘Here’s what I expect …’ but I expected him to play well. I knew he had the talent, I knew he had the desire and I knew he had the mental qualities to do well. It hasn’t surprised me that he’s done this well,” Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements says of his thought process during the transition from Favre to Rodgers. “He had a great first year as a starter, and he’s had a better year (in his second year), because he’s more comfortable doing what he’s doing.”
But it is the way Rodgers has handled himself off the field – amid the controversy of Favre’s departure and the divided Packer Nation it caused – that impressed so many people.
“I can’t say enough about Aaron, (given) what he’s been through the last two years,” Packers veteran cornerback Charles Woodson says. “I’m very impressed. The numbers speak for themselves, (over) back-to-back seasons. (But) I don’t know too many quarterbacks that have gone through the transition that he had to go through, when Brett left the team.
“(It was difficult) for him to go through that, and then to go through the numerous amount of sacks that he (absorbed) and taking a lot of heat for supposedly holding on to the football too long and that sort of thing. He comes to work every day, prepares every day like a winning quarterback and then on Sundays keeps showing up. He keeps getting off the ground and making plays for this team, and there’s not enough that can be said about that.”
Added wide receiver Greg Jennings: “You would think that they would all come around, but there are still some loyal Brett fans that just can’t give that up. But it is what it is. He’s his own player, he’s making a name for himself. He’s doing an outstanding job. He’s at the helm, he’s making it happen, and I’m happy for him. Just the way he’s handled everything, he’s been a true professional throughout the entire ordeal. I’m not sure if anybody else could’ve stepped up to the plate and answered the bell the way he has.”
For his part, Rodgers says he never felt sorry for himself. As a 49ers fan, he remembers the awkward transition from Montana to Young and remembers being torn about it, since Montana was his favorite player. But he grew to appreciate Young, just as most Packers fans have come to embrace him.
“The reason I didn’t feel sorry for myself is because I feel like a stance like that would have portrayed me as wanting some sort of sympathy or self-pity on my part, and I never felt like that,” says Rodgers, whose only crime against Favre had been to fall down the 2005 draft board to the Packers at No. 24 and get picked by general manager Ted Thompson as Favre’s heir apparent. “I felt like I’d waited for three years to do something that I always wanted to do since I was three years old watching Joe Montana and running pass patterns with my dad in the back yard. That’s the way I looked at it.
“I didn’t look at it like I was going through something that was unfair to me, or I was innocent. I just tried to stick to my true character, answer questions honestly and realize that … I still felt at the time like I was going to get an opportunity to do something I always wanted to do. So that’s how I viewed it.”
Not that it was always easy. In the days leading up to the 2008 regular-season opener, Rodgers recalled how he had a U.S. serviceman in Alaska tell him during a goodwill mission that he’d never measure up to the legend he was replacing; one fan hurl an F-bomb at him as he punched his code into the players’ parking lot keypad; had a 10-year-old yell “Rodgers, you suck!” at him on his way to one training-camp practice; and endured chants of “We want Brett! We Want Brett!” as he went through individual drills on the practice field.
“I just tried to stay focused on the things I can control. I think I learned that as a 21-year-old sitting in the green room at the 2005 NFL Draft firsthand. So through the entire process that summer, 95 percent of it was out of my control. The thing I could control was getting ready to play. And everything I was hearing from the organization was, I was going to be the guy, so until I heard differently, that was my focus.”
And now that he is the guy, Rodgers has successfully won over most of the fan base. His name is now being mentioned in the same sentence with the Mannings and Bradys of the world and his popularity is soaring with Packer fans in Green Bay and on a national level. Rodgers has become one of the hobby’s most sought after athletes, whether it’s his rookie cards or the countless autograph requests he receives. Despite the rapid rise in popularity, Rodgers remains a little uneasy with all the added attention.
“Honestly, I still am slightly uncomfortable signing my autograph. It’s still slightly awkward to me. It’s still just a little bit different for me,” Rodgers said. “I guess it’s just different. I was never huge on autographs, so maybe that’s part of it, and I guess I don’t ever take myself so seriously. So the fact that someone would actually want my autograph, that it actually has a monetary value to it, it’s a little hard for me to totally comprehend. That being said, unfortunately sometimes the people who are purely there to sell your autograph can skew your view of signing autographs for the people who actually want it.”
Rodgers enters the 2010 season leading what many see as a Super Bowl-caliber team with a myriad of offensive weapons – and mindful of the fact that despite his statistical accomplishments, he has to improve on his 17-15 regular-season record as a starter and 0-1 record in the playoffs.
“I don’t know what I’ve won yet,” Rodgers says. “My personal goals, our team goals are bigger than the Pro Bowl, and they include winning multiple championships. The Pro Bowl is a good individual honor, but we have bigger goals as a team.
“The measuring stick is obviously not the Pro Bowl, it’s the number of championships. And that’s what I’m going for.” SCM
Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPNMilwaukee.com and ESPNMadison.com. He has covered the team since 1996.