Sitting behind one of the best quarterbacks in football is a lot like stalking prey: You bide your time and prepare as best you can, because you never know when the chance might come
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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Brett Hundley has yet to bag a deer in his short hunting career. He’s been bow-hunting just twice, once earlier this winter and now today, in the stand affixed 20 feet up in a tree in teammate Jeff Janis’s backyard. Janis, an avid hunter, keeps an eye on a monitor in his home that’s wirelessly connected to a camera surveying the area immediately in front of the stand. Just before Hundley arrived on Tuesday afternoon, Janis observed an eight-point buck standing smack in the middle of the clearing. “If we had showed up sooner,” Hundley says, “we could be done by now.”
There’s a metaphor to be drawn here between the life of the backup quarterback in the shadow of Aaron Rodgers and the patience it takes to sit in a tree with light snow accumulating on your lap while waiting for a deer that may never come. But in reality these are entirely disparate experiences. Life in the tree is monotonous in a way that is oddly romantic. Rabbits and small birds and squirrels snack on the feed scattered through the clearing to attract deer, and you giggle morbidly at the thought of sending a Spartan Black Eagle arrow through a rabbit’s furry little chest, but mostly you just appreciate the creature’s great fortune at having discovered a free meal in early December. You browse Twitter, then Snapchat. You read articles on your phone in silence until the device gets so cold it shuts down unceremoniously. And then you just watch, and wait.
Life as a backup to one of the greatest quarterbacks walking is not a mindless waiting game; it’s a mental race. Aaron Rodgers will fall. This is a certainty—in the NFL, time is undefeated. Until then, the 2015 fifth-rounder will prepare as best he can as though he is the starter. Because there are few first-team reps for backup quarterbacks in the new-CBA era, that means downloading game plans to the hard drive without ever actually running the program. Hundley will observe and catalog Rodgers’ demeanor in critical situations and marvel at how the man never overstudies but always seems prepared; how he never overreacts, despite the waves of criticism that come and go with each sub-MVP performance.
“There’s a calm and collected sense about him,” Hundley says of Rodgers. (We discuss this over coffee later on Tuesday, because there’s no talking in the tree stand.) “I feel like sometimes people get too stressed and bogged down with responsibility on the field, and that’s why you start not playing as well. As long as you’re having fun and enjoying the opportunity that comes with being out here, you can get your mind off of football for a second and experience the highlights of this job we get to do.”
That’s why Hundley likes coming out here, to the woods in Janis’s backyard, because you can’t do this in Chandler, Ariz., where he went to high school, or Los Angeles, where he attended UCLA. Hundley says that when he’s older he’d like to know that he took every opportunity to discover, and never got bogged down by things out of his control. He’s been cliff jumping in Malibu and now deer hunting in the frozen tundra, because when in Rome.
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Hundley was drafted by Green Bay not to compete with Rodgers, who is 33, but to serve as an insurance policy or a trade chip, whichever comes first. In 2014 he was a preseason Heisman favorite, but the Bruins did not improve on their 10-3 record from the previous year and Hundley drew knocks from draft pundits as a less-than-cerebral quarterback prone to miss reads and take sacks. The former blue-chip high school recruit was chosen 147th overall in 2015, a number burned in his memory. “I’ll never forget how many teams passed up on me,” he says.
When the Packers and coach Mike McCarthy called on draft day, the first person Hundley thought of was Rodgers. “Just knowing immediately that I was not going to start or compete to start but that I was going to learn—that was fascinating and humbling. I take it as an opportunity to grow into who I want to be as a quarterback in the NFL.”
He came out blazing in the 2015 preseason with a 129.6 passer rating on the strength of seven touchdowns with one interception, but it was a short-lived triumph. Rodgers, like many of the greats, takes every first-team rep now that offseason and in-season and practice time is shortened by the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011. “Here, and I’m sure dang near every other place, the backups don’t see the reps, so you don’t get those reps, the plays you’re putting in for the week,” Hundley says. “It hurts rookies and young guys wanting to learn. You have to take the practice script, mentally every day, and run through it.”
Over the summer Hundley got married to his college girlfriend, former UCLA sprinter Dawnielle Baucham, and took a three-week break from football for the first time since the beginning of his final season at UCLA. Hundley’s a big believer that it’s possible to overprepare as a quarterback. Quarterback Joe Callahan came to the Packers as an undrafted rookie in May, then spent time in New Orleans and Cleveland before returning to the Packers this fall (he’s now on the practice squad). Callahan described a routine in New Orleans that included his arriving at the facility around 5 a.m. to watch film with Brees, hours before meetings, and leaving after nightfall. “There are studies that show that at a certain point you’re just not retaining any of the information,” Hundley says.
Time spent hunting is a chance to relax and retain absolutely nothing. Actually, it's not fair to even call this hunting—we're more like armed observers, flirting with boredom until a stunning red cardinal flits into view and steals a snack. I think Hundley wants to know what it feels like to kill a deer more than he actually wants to kill a deer.
“He’s open-minded enough to understand that I’m just learning,” Hundley says of Rodgers. “I can ask anything and get a real answer.”
He seems to be driven by the unknown. He says he spends parts of his days on the road at away games exploring NFL cities, learning everything he can about each community. He’s fascinated by quarterback development and what makes a successful passer. Before the draft he sought advice from any NFL QB whose cell phone number he could get his hands on, from Kurt Warner to Philip Rivers to Brock Osweiler. He wonders, as we all do, what it is about Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston and the teams that drafted them that enabled them to thrive as Day One starters. And he wonders why others in the same situation go bust. He quizzes Rodgers about the beginning of his career, and asks him to explain on-field decisions. He says he prayed he’d meet a teammate like Rodgers, and then he did.
“He’s turned into a brother,” Hundley says of Rodgers. “I say I love him because I really do. He’s the big brother and teacher I never really had. I ask 10 million questions and get 10 million answers. He’s somebody who’s open-minded enough to understand that I’m just learning. I can ask anything about football, life, and get a real answer.
I ask if Rodgers’ relationship with Packers legend Brett Favre early in Green Bay, when Rodgers was drafted to play much the same role Hundley plays now (albeit four rounds earlier), factors into the way Rodgers treats his backup.
“He learned a lot from Brett,” Hundley says, “but I think there are things he wanted to change about how it was for him when he first got here. He took an understanding to why I’m asking questions and not resenting me, because he probably doesn’t want anybody to feel what he may have felt when he started.”
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After about 90 minutes in the tree stand Hundley decides the spot is dead, or it’s too cold, or both. He climbs down without a kill for the second time, no less determined to bag his first buck next Tuesday, or perhaps the Tuesday after that. “Let’s go get some Starbucks,” he says, but on the way he sees a Festival grocery store and remembers the 72-ounce steak in the butcher display on his last visit. If we can’t kill, clean and cleave the meat with our own hands, we will purchase in bulk. Hundley wants to try to cook it in his oven, though he says you need an industrial-sized kitchen oven to do it right. Another challenge.
Alas, Festival is out of the monster cuts. In the parking lot at Starbucks, a fan wishes him good luck against Seattle. The man in khakis and a button-down says he watched the Seahawks’ last game, and “they’re not that tough,” then admits, “but I'll just be in the stands, watching.” Hundley laughs and agrees. He can relate.
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