GREEN BAY -- Back in the spring and summer of 2008, Aaron Rodgers was still an unproven curiosity. He had been drafted 24th overall out of Cal by the Packers three years earlier (after an long, embarrassing wait in the Draft Green Room, video of which Rodgers has never watched, because, in his words, "I don't have to; I was there.'') and in those ensuing three seasons had thrown just 59 passes. His experience seems almost old school at this point, with rookie QBs now being regularly force fed (Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Matt Ryan, among others).
But that was, in fact, Rodgers's experience. He was the quarterback-in-waiting who might turn out to be Drew Brees or Cade McNown. Nobody knew for sure. And that was the easy part. He had been sitting in Green Bay behind Favre and here in '08 a spectacular soap opera had been unfolding. Favre was staying. Favre was retiring. Favre was being forced to retire. Favre would be made Rodgers's backup. The fan base was splintered. Rodgers, who just wanted to play, was stuck in the middle, a supporting player in a bizarre Favre World production (the first of many, as it turns out). It wasn't until seven days into August of that year that Favre was traded to the Jets and Rodgers fully became the starter.
A potentially great player replacing a legend in a city where the legend was beloved, inducing a civic and national drama? It was almost unique to the game. Almost. Two decades earlier, Steve Young had been through almost the same thing as Joe Montana's replacement with the 49ers. "It was pretty obvious that Aaron's experience and mine were going to dovetail at some point,'' says Young. And Rodgers knew it. He was a smart kid from Chico in northern California. He had watched (and loved) Montana. He had watched (and loved) Young. He knew the story. So he reached out.
"I think you can always learn from people,'' says Rodgers. ``I asked my agent to get Steve's number.''
Rodgers retold the story this week while sitting at his dressing cubicle in the Packers' locker room at Lambeau Field. Three years is a long time. Rodgers is no longer a curiosity. He will be the Packers' starting quarterback against the Steelers in the Super Bowl, and in three seasons and one remarkable postseason he has ascended to the level of the best quarterbacks in the game. But in '08, he needed counsel from someone who could understand his circumstances.
"I had always been a fan of Steve's,'' says Rodgers. "And back then, it seemed like he was somebody who would know exactly what I was going through. It's turned out that there were a lot of very similar stories from early in our careers.''
Young played one season in the doomed (but in his case, lucrative) USFL and two with the Bucs before coming to the 49ers in 1987, where he spent four seasons as Montana's backup. There are some differences in their career paths: Young was 30 when he succeeded Montana, who was injured. Rodgers was 25 when he took over for Favre, who was traded. And: "Aaron never had to play with Brett standing on the sidelines watching him,'' says Young, who played in front of Montana in 1992. But in other fundamental ways, they are mirror images.
"You're an NFL quarterback, so there are very few other human beings who share that perspective,'' says Young, now 49 and working as an analyst for ESPN. "Then when you look at the specifics of Aaron's situation, the number of people who share that situation really starts to dwindle, who you can talk to and who can understand what you're going through.''
When they first communicated in '08, Rodgers laid out his issues for Young. "Basically what he said to me,'' says Young, "Was this: 'How did you deal with the rigors of having somebody like Brett -- in my case it was Joe -- being the king that he was and how he dominated the locker room conversations and day to day life around the team? Now I'm the quarterback and I'm trying to make a place for myself. How did you get through all that? How did you make sense of it?''
Young's most forceful advice was that Rodgers, essentially, keep his emotions in check. Don't criticize teammates or complain about the difficulty of walking in Favre's shoes. Don't throw anybody under the bus. Suck it up.
"I told that him what's really important,'' says Young, "is never, ever allow yourself the cheap thrill of saying something just to make yourself feel better for a moment because something is unfair or not right. That always backfires on you. It never works out in the long run. And I'll tell you what: I've given that advice to other people and they have not heeded it, because it's hard. But Aaron, he absolutely took the high road. He's managed through a tough situation in a really gracious, awesome way. There are things that he went through that no one knows about. Just do your job. Play football. And the benefits are great when you just hang tough. Don't play the victim. Don't complain.''
The Packers went an injury-riddled 6-10 in Rodgers's first year. Pressure mounted. The Pack went 11-5 last year, but lost twice to Favre and Vikings -- home and away -- and lost in the first round of the NFC playoffs (a game in which Rodgers was brilliant) while the Vikings went to overtime in the NFC title game. More pressure. Still Rodgers stayed cool. This year the Packers overcame 15 players on injured reserve, a negligible running game for stretches of the season, and reached the Super Bowl. Rodgers has been transcendent in the postseason.
Rodgers's maturity -- and, let's be honest, his production -- won the Green Bay locker room a long time ago. Players measure history when they're finished playing. Today they play in the present. Packers' veteran wideout Donald Drivers remembers telling Rodgers back in '08, "You know something? You handled this better than anybody else in this locker room would have handled it. Because when you're following in somebody else's shadow, it's so hard to overcome that. When I first came in, people said to me, 'Donald, you remind me of Robert Brooks. But I said I don't want to be in the shadow of Robert Brooks. And that's Aaron's attitude right now.''
Rodgers has achieved this much as Young directed, without engaging in drama or controversy, without seeking empathy as he learned the nuances of his work. "I still routinely bounce things off Steve,'' says Rodgers. "He's a great reference for me. So many very similar situations, even now.''
There could be one more. Only once in NFL history has a Hall of Fame quarterback been succeeded by another Hall of Fame quarterback: Montana followed by Young. "I think Brett and Aaron will be the second,'' says Young. "[Rodgers] has a long way to go still, but that's the trajectory he's on.''