For a Sports Illustrated cover story this week on Aaron Rodgers, I spent a week with the Packers back in August, where I spoke with Rodgers, coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson among others, and made about 30 phone calls to people who have known Rodgers since he was growing up in Chico, Calif.
GREEN BAY, Wisc. – For a Sports Illustrated cover story this week on Aaron Rodgers, I spent a week with the Packers back in August. I spoke with Rodgers, coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson among others, and made about 30 phone calls to people who have known Rodgers since he was growing up in Chico, Calif. I also visited Ryan Capretta of Proactive Sports Performance, who trains Rodgers and other NFL stars, in Southern California.
Here is some of the most interesting stuff that didn’t make it into the story:
• The Packers changed their schedule in recent years. On Fridays they don’t conduct actual practices but instead focus on rest and recovery and treatment. Then they resume football practices on Saturday. The Packers call this their Soft Tissue Activation and Application (STAA) program. Options include yoga and massage treatment. McCarthy also moved Green Bay’s start time back 15 to 30 minutes three days a week to allow players to get more sleep. “We call it the REM-12 program,” he joked, because Rodgers in particular likes the extra rest.
For what it’s worth: Of the Packers' projected starters before last season, only one, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, landed on injured reserve for the season.
“Aaron was involved in those discussions,” McCarthy said. “To really figure out how to help guys take care of their bodies and get into the right rhythm. Historically, we’re always young. That’s our blueprint. But I can’t wait for everybody to take five years to figure it out. So we would talk about those things. Besides our trainers and our strength coach, he was the biggest influence on the number of changes we’ve had in our program.”
• Rodgers is a conspiracy theorist—or so say his teammates. Guard Josh Sitton: “He’s kind of a conspiracy theorist. I don’t know if he’d want me telling you that. He’s got some crazy ideas on some events that have happened over time. Anything, you name it. He’s on that side of the fence a lot of the time.”
• In recent years, Rodgers has continued to add to his training regimen. That includes Pilates and core work and boxing and yoga. He also altered his diet. This is a trend he sees across the NFL. “The league in general is going that way,” Rodgers said. “A lot of people are getting into a more holistic approach. Core is a buzzword. It’s legs and midsection, trying to get strong, because those are your stabilizer muscles. People are more aware of what they’re eating. Vegetarian, vegan, juicing, it’s all mainstream now.”
I asked Thompson about all this training. He, too, said that you see it across the league. Then he said something that was both true and bound to make anyone feel old: “When you’re not 22 anymore, you’re not 22 anymore.” Ain’t that the truth.
• Teammates described how when Rodgers spent three years backing up Brett Favre, he would be uber-competitive in Saturday walkthrough practices, when the first-team defense wants to rest. Thompson said that Rodgers even injured himself once while celebrating a touchdown in one of those walkthroughs. “I think he got injured once,” Thompson said. “Sprained an ankle or something. Something with his foot. Because he was celebrating after we scored a touchdown in practice.”
• In terms of smarts, Rodgers reminds Thompson of one of his former teammates, Houston Oilers QB Oliver Luck. Thompson noted that Luck was a Rhodes Scholar, and he thinks that Rodgers could have been one, too.
• Rodgers has won one Super Bowl (XLV, at the end of the 2010 season) and came close to a return trip in 2011, when the Packers went 15–1, and last season, when they led by 12 with five minutes left in the NFC Championship Game and lost. What drives Rodgers is getting back to a Super Bowl and winning it. “That’s what drives us,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We were so close. People wonder if it’s going to hang over our heads. It hasn’t. It’s driven us, to be able to get back and finish it this time. To think how close we were, for everyone to feel that, it’s palpable. Now we just need to finish.”
• Rodgers's mother, Darla, was a dancer. And if you watch the way Rodgers moves in the pocket, the off-balance throws he makes look easy, how he’s always targeting receivers on the run, it seems like he inherited his feet from her. It was interesting how many different answers teammates and coaches gave when asked what separates Rodgers from other quarterbacks. Matt Blanchard, a free agent quarterback who spent most of this summer in Packers training camp, didn’t even mention Rodgers’s arm. He pointed to Rodgers's feet. “It all starts with his feet,” Blanchard said. “His motion is controlled through his feet. That’s where his motion starts, where his arm strength starts.”
“If you watch his feet, they’re hardly ever set,” added receiver Randall Cobb. “He’ll move to his left and be able to turn his body and throw across his body and sling it on the run. It’s insane.”
• Several Packers said that Rodgers likes to needle McCarthy about how, when McCarthy was on the 49ers' staff, they drafted Alex Smith with the first pick in 2005. The Packers got Rodgers at No. 24, ending his famous first-round slide. I asked McCarthy if Rodgers had brought up the Smith selection this year yet. “Hasn’t this year,” McCarthy said. “Yet. But we do play Kansas City Week 3. We won’t make it through the first half of the week without something I’m sure.”
• Thompson, on waiting on pins and needles to see if Rodgers would fall to No. 24 in that draft. “Oh, I didn’t even want to say it. Or speak it. I just kept looking at him. We had guys in the room. They’d catch my eye, and they didn’t know who we were going to take. The room didn’t really know how we were going to do that. But I knew. And when it got to be our pick, then I got up and I talked with Mike Sherman, who was our head coach at the time. And told him what we were going to do. He said, ‘OK, sounds good.’ ”
• Mark Murphy, Packers president, on why Rodgers fits so well in Green Bay: “I’ve never been to Chico, so I don’t know what it’s like, but I envision it’s probably even more laid-back, a California version of Green Bay. I think he feels comfortable here. And obviously the success that he’s had … the way he handled the situation with Favre, I think that endeared him to a lot of people. I think Aaron has said it—the 2008 season, our very last game of the year was a home game against the Lions. And I think, as I recall, he got a standing ovation. Or we won the game, but I know that meant a lot to Aaron. Here we have a down year, losing season, but fans still were supportive of him.”
• When tackle David Bakhtiari won the starting job two seasons ago, he said Rodgers gave him a hug and told him, “Don’t get me killed.” Last season, though, Bakhtiari said Rodgers became more of a vocal presence in the locker room. “Now after practice he’s asking them how everything’s going,” Bakhtiari said. “I’m like, That’s nice. Where was that when I was a rookie?”
• The crazy part: Teammates think Rodgers can still improve, even at 31 and after two league MVP awards. “Can he get any better?” tackle Bryan Bulaga asked. “He seems to every year.”