DALLAS -- Almost every Super Bowl has its sentimental favorites. Someone whose wait for this big-stage moment has been long and agonizing, or a player, coach or owner who has given much to the game and now gets a late, career-capping reward for all the blood, sweat and tears.
But not every Super Bowl has a Donald Driver story. Those are far rarer. There are sentimental favorites, and then there are those whose turn in the Super Bowl spotlight is the kind of karmic payback that we all want to believe is possible if our choices in life are well made, and for all the right reasons.
Driver, Green Bay's 12th-year receiver, is the senior-most Packer in terms of continuous service, and the franchise's all-time leading pass catcher with almost 700 catches and more than 9,600 yards. This is his seventh trip to the playoffs, but first Super Bowl, and he's making the game in his home state of Texas, where he grew up on some mean streets in Houston and now makes his home right here in the Dallas area. And did we mention that Driver turns 36 on Wednesday, with hopes of receiving the best birthday gift he could ever imagine Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium?
"It's been hard. It's been a long road,'' Driver told me last week at Lambeau Field, before the Packers arrived in Dallas on Monday afternoon. "When you go back and think of your career, you always think that you could have and should have made it here a long time ago. But those dreams always seemed to slip away.
"I'm so excited that now I finally have the opportunity to reach one of my dreams, one of my goals. You do dream as a kid of playing in a Super Bowl. I know on Monday, when I hit that runway, I'll start to believe it's real. But you've got to enjoy the moment. Because it was a long time coming.''
Everybody at the Super Bowl has a tale to tell and can recount for you just how their lives and their football careers delivered them to the NFL mountain top. It's just that Driver's saga is better than, well, anyone's. At least this year.
Simply put, Driver has a been a survivor. Through his troubled teenage years in Houston, where he and his family were homeless at times, living even out of a U-Haul trailer, to the modest beginnings of his NFL career, as an afterthought seventh-round pick in 1999, 213th overall out of Alcorn State. Driver caught just three passes as a rookie, and only had 37 career receptions through his first three NFL seasons. But he finally broke through as a starter and favorite target of Brett Favre in 2002, and went on that season to become the lowest-drafted Packer to play in a Pro Bowl in almost 20 years.
Nothing has come easily for Driver, but his journey has molded him and made him into the man he is today. He's a beloved figure in Wisconsin, with a Q rating to match, and the only thing that might top his body of work as a Packers receiver is the litany of good deeds he and his foundation have accomplished in Houston, Green Bay and other parts of both states. The Packers estimate that Driver has made more than 500 community appearances over his career, and his particular work on behalf of assisting the homeless and underprivileged children is a reminder of his own past and what he overcame.
"I think you have to embrace that past, and your role,'' Driver said. "This week is a gift that's going to be given to me, but I haven't had too much given to me my whole career. I always had to work for it. I think I still work for everything I get. But it makes me appreciate it all the more, and take it to heart, because I know it doesn't come often.
"I've been through a lot, but I think I've been a survivor to this point. When you go through things in life, you try to figure out what the main focus is, and that is all about survival. There are going to be things, and adversity, that you face throughout your life. But it's about how you come through those times.''
Driver doesn't intend to make his Super Bowl week into a long and detailed re-visitation of the troubles he endured as a child and a teenager. But growing up in Houston, he and his mom and his four siblings (he was the middle child) were evicted from their house by a collection agency, spending some nights in low-budget motel rooms, U-Haul trailers, or even the streets. Driver and his older brother, Marvin Driver III, stole cars, sold drugs and did whatever else they could to generate cash for a family that had little.
Driver's mom, Faye Gray, eventually agreed to let Donald and Marvin go live with their paternal grandparents, and the move brought some structure and a sense of discipline and hope to Driver's life. Football, track, basketball and baseball soon came to be Driver's focus at Houston's Milby High, but he credits his grandparents and his mom with saving him from a life spent heading in a dead-end direction.
"They had a big role in my life,'' Driver said. "I would say they saved me. My mom realized that by keeping us she was going to hurt us more than by letting us go. I've always said my mom and my grandparents were my backbone. Without them, I don't know how far I would have gone.''
From being embittered by his past, Driver has used it to help teach others what's possible with hard work and dedication, and it's still a reminder to him of the importance of making good choices in life.
"I appreciate what I've been through and I also appreciate what I've come to be,'' he said. "Maybe there aren't too many who would say that. They'd say they appreciate who they are now, but maybe not what they once did. But it's your past that helps make you who you are today. My past has made me a better husband, a better father, a better person. All the things I went through in my life have made me better for it, and I don't take anything for granted.''
Driver said it can still bring a smile to his face just seeing a U-Haul trailer. It reminds him of the odds he beat, and the success he has made from a story that so easily could have ended badly.
"I laugh whenever I see a U-Haul,'' Driver said. "All the time. I even laughed when I got in one to help move my foundation's stuff to another storage facility. Those memories just pop back into your head. But those nights in that U-Haul truck were probably some of the best nights of my life. Cooking food in a little pan, and putting the canned goods in the boiling water. Those are the things I'll never forget.
"I tell people all the time, I wouldn't change anything. I wouldn't go back and say, 'I wish I could do this over or change that.' I just laugh at remembering what it was like to not have lights [in our house], to not having food in our refrigerator, to not have many clothes. I can laugh now knowing that my kids, my wife, my family doesn't have to go through that. I know this, if I ever have to go hunting to live, I know how to do it. I can survive, I promise you that.''
Who knows exactly what constitutes coming full circle in anyone else's life, but being back in Texas this week, preparing to play in the Super Bowl before his family and friends is pretty close to a round trip for Driver. Though he has played in the era of the look-at-me-receiver, Driver has never been one to call attention to himself or his play. Perhaps this long-awaited turn on the Super Bowl stage will finally serve to win him the national respect that has been slow to come his way. A much-needed late-career course correction, if you will. Even for a three-time Pro Bowl pick.
"I've never been that way, because I've always thought the way I played the game would earn me the respect of being one of the best receivers in this game today,'' said Driver, who along with Indy's Reggie Wayne were the only two NFL receivers to put up 1,000-yard seasons every year from 2004 to 2009. "I have family and friends and business associates who said maybe we could get you out there more if you talked about yourself. But I never did. I still feel I'm one of the best receivers in the league, but I don't feel like I have to boast or brag about it.
"I just think you go out there and play, and when it's all said and done, being the Packers' all-time leading receiver, and winning the Super Bowl, that speaks for itself. That takes you to that next level.''
Win or lose against the Steelers on Sunday, Driver's success in the face of hardship is my favorite story of this Super Bowl this week in Dallas. There's sentiment on the behalf of someone at most every Super Bowl. But there's only one Donald Driver story, and it's a tale of perseverance that very much deserves its day.