My Sportsman: Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers does many things well. Right at this moment, he throws a football better than anybody else on earth. This can be supported statistically (33 touchdowns, four picks, 9.6 yards per completion and a 127.7 quarterback rating for the only unbeaten team in the NFL) and viscerally (even among the very best throwers, Rodgers's ball comes out a just a little tighter and sharper than others, a widely acknowledged fact in the NFL quarterback underground; and he's arguably the best on-the-run thrower in history, certainly the best since Joe Montana and Rodgers has a much bigger arm than Montana did, which is not to say he's better than Montana was but maybe that he's headed in that direction).
And he wins. The Packers have won 17 consecutive games (four short of the NFL record), a streak that (obviously) includes last year's four-game run to the Super Bowl title. The Pack hasn't lost since last Dec. 19 at New England, a game in which Rodgers didn't play, because of a concussion. (Their last loss with Rodgers in the lineup came a week earlier at Detroit, a game in which Rodgers was knocked out: their last defeat with Rodgers going the distance was more than a year ago, Nov. 28 at Atlanta).
For more than a year, he has been the best player at (by far) the most important position in American professional sports and led a storied franchise to its most recent championship. For these reasons alone, Rodgers belongs in the Sportsman of the Year discussion. He deserves to win it because he's even better at something else: Waiting.
This, of course, is a lost art in nearly all of sport. Waiting is for the foolish, the unambitious, the unglamorous. Junior high basketball players land on recruiting lists. High school football players graduate in January so that they can attend spring practice at their chosen college, play sooner and possibly leave for the NFL after three years. College basketball players play a single, perfunctory year before jumping to the NBA. And that old staple, the young quarterback understudy, standing dutifully on the sideline beneath a baseball cap, waiting his turn -- that image has been trampled by a stampede of Newtons and Gabberts and Daltons who were too ready to just sit and watch.
Rodgers sat. Not that he wanted to sit, but there are two kinds of athletes. You know them from your youth. Those whose size and talent are so overwhelming that they simply can't be held back. They play with the older kids. And those who have talent, but are forever being forced to prove themselves. That was Rodgers.
He was late growing, and so he waited four games to start a game on his eighth grade team in Chico, Calif., and that was the weaker of the two eighth-grade teams in town. He played on the freshman team as a tiny, big-footed 14-year-old and on the JV as a sophomore, as he waited for varsity spots to clear. He stayed in on weekends and hung out with his buddy Ryan Gulbrandsen, while others went out and partied.
As a junior, Rodgers was elevated to the varsity and made the starting quarterback at Pleasant Valley High, but only because there was nobody else to do the job. As a senior, he grew to 6-2 and 180 pounds and broke a bunch of school passing records, but Division I recruiters showed no interest. They would make him wait, too.
He did that waiting at Butte College, where he lit up defenses for a year and then went to California and waited while well-liked senior Reggie Robertson started the first four games of the 2003 season. Rodgers led Cal to a 10-1 regular season record in 2004, losing only at USC, and then famously waited 24 long picks in the green room on draft day before the Packers plucked him from his embarrassing vigil.
Most of all, he waited three long years in Green Bay, while Brett Favre -- one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game but a drama queen to his marrow -- played the last three years of his Packers' career and flirted with a fourth well into August 2008. Rodgers threw 59 passes in those three years, some of them significant but most of them not. (JaMarcus Russell, who was drafted first overall two years after Rodgers, threw 66 passes in his rookie season of 2007, meaning that entering '08, Russell had thrown seven more passes than Rodgers).
Through all this waiting Rodgers never lashed out at the nonbelievers. His default response is "I'm blessed with a very good memory,'' and it's a good response, because you can read into it whatever you like, but it leaves open the possibility that Rodgers wakes up every morning with a chip on his shoulder. He has forgotten none of what's transpired or who made the journey with him.
(I wrote a story on Rodgers last month in SI; during the reporting we were talking about some of his high school receivers and I asked if he had cell numbers for those old friends. Rodgers looked at me incredulously. "Of course I do,'' he said. And while it may have seemed obvious to him, it's rare that a celebrity athlete stays as grounded and connected to old friends as Rodgers has. That's another thing he's good at).
Rodgers' dignity while awaiting his chance to play made him a fan and media curiosity. Potential is always intriguing, especially in a backup quarterback. In his own locker room, that same dignity stockpiled belief. When I was in Green Bay last month, guys like Jennings and James Jones told me they knew how good Rodgers was going to be, because they were playing with him on the scout team every day. The saw the arm. The anticipation. The study time. Players know talent.
But even more, they saw the willingness to just keep his mouth shut when a very hungry public wanted him to demand playing time or a trade, or to take a shot at Favre, who was doing absolutely nothing in the way or mentoring Rodgers. That's a rare form of toughness.
Rodgers had help. Early in his career, while still sitting behind Favre, he sought out Steve Young, who had endured a similar, difficult apprenticeship behind Montana. I wrote about their exchange last January, but some of Young's advice bears repeating in this context:
"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.''
Now the benefits are measurable. One Super Bowl. Seventeen consecutive wins and maybe soon, another Super Bowl. Maybe more after that with a young team just hitting its prime. Maybe someday a trip to Canton. All to be determined. But for now Rodgers has done something truly rare: He's achieved greatness patiently.