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Brady vs. Rodgers: The Unlikely Rises of Two Unrivaled Stars

As the new millennium began, one was a sixth-round pick sitting behind a veteran who had just signed a record contract, and the other was a high schooler who would fail to get a single scholarship offer. As they prepare for their second—and perhaps final—head-to-head matchup, a look at the parallel rises of two all time greats

This story appears in the Nov. 5, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

The last time Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers met was on a below-freezing November afternoon at Lambeau Field. The CBS broadcast turned to a double box late in the game. Rodgers was on the right, helmet on, about to take another knee to drain the final seconds of a 26–21 win over New England. On the left was Brady, wearing a red, white and blue striped knit cap, vapor condensing as he breathed through his nose—an apt visual for a competitor fuming that he couldn’t get the ball back for a final chance to win the game.

When two great quarterbacks face off, we’re often reminded that, because they’re never actually on the field at the same time, it’s not truly head-to-head. But have no doubt: They are dueling, as Brady and Rodgers did on Nov. 30, 2014, in Green Bay. Neither threw an interception; both had triple-digit passer ratings. When Rodgers pump-faked before launching a 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers, and when Brady fired a dart to wideout Brandon LaFell in the corner of the end zone, the TV cameras quickly cut to the other quarterback. Each was watching his peer’s throw on the stadium video screen, silently preparing for his next chance to top it.

That game four years ago was the only meeting between Brady and Rodgers, making the Packers’ trip to Gillette Stadium this weekend a delightful novelty. But perhaps the real novelty is that, when they meet for perhaps the final time on Sunday, the football world will be watching two living legends who were once so easily, and so often, overlooked.

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Mike Riley was going through some old stuff at his home in Corvallis, Ore., after a recent move, when he found an 8x10 pocket planner. It was from more than two decades ago, but this was something he will not throw away. Written down in pen was a memorable appointment in December 1994: “Tom Brady home visit.” The former Oregon State coach, now consulting for the team, brought it to campus to show some of the Beavers staff. “This was my shot to coach Tom Brady right here,” he told them.

Riley was USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach back then, in charge of recruiting the Bay Area. He was returning to college coaching after stints in a couple of pro leagues, and wasn’t sure where to start recruiting. A Bay Area high school coach pointed him to San Mateo to check out the QB, who was getting more attention as a left-handed hitting catcher prospect at Junipero Serra High. “He was a skinny kid, but he threw the ball so easily,” Riley says. “There’s those intangibles at that position that are difference-makers, and I could say I knew all that, but really, I just liked how he threw.”

The quarterback’s interest was mutual, and Brady came down to Los Angeles a few times to watch the Trojans play. After the home visit in San Mateo, Riley returned to USC to meet with coach John Robinson. That’s when he learned that the team’s top quarterback target that year, Quincy Woods, from the Chicago suburbs, had already committed. USC would pass on Brady (as would crosstown rival UCLA after signing Cade McNown, a prospect out of Oregon who was taken 12th in the 1999 NFL draft). Dismayed, Riley took the unusual step of flying back to break the news to the Brady family in person. “That was a bad trip,” he recalls. “I was worried he’d end up at Cal.” Ultimately, it was Michigan.

Several years later, in a different pocket of northern California, a young assistant coach at Pleasant Valley High in Chico, Calif., was also quite frustrated over the recruitment of a high school quarterback—or lack thereof.

“This kid I’m coaching is good,” Ron O’Dell would vent over the phone to his mom. “I don’t know why no one is offering him.” Aaron Rodgers was unwanted.

O’Dell’s mom, Wanda, has two brothers in football: Norv Turner, the longtime NFL head coach and offensive coordinator, and Ron Turner, then the coach at Illinois. O’Dell took Rodgers, along with a few of his teammates, to the Illini’s summer camp before his junior and senior seasons, trying to showcase a quarterback O’Dell saw as hypercompetitive, with big hands and feet, who told him he wanted to be a better passer than Joe Montana. But to other observers at the camp, Rodgers looked a bit slow, was wearing a knee brace and was still growing into his current 6' 2" frame. Illinois didn’t offer him a scholarship, and neither did any other Division I schools.

After one season playing at Butte Community College in Oroville, Calif., Rodgers sent O’Dell a disc of his season highlights. O’Dell showed it to his brother, Dan, who was the QBs coach at Illinois. “Yeah, we screwed this one up,” his brother told him. “He’s really good.”

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Rodgers committed to Cal about a week later. Ron O’Dell joined his uncle’s staff at Illinois. The next year, the Golden Bears visited Champaign. With O’Dell watching from the opposite sideline Rodgers led Cal to a 31–24 win.

Riley can relate to that feeling. He was the coach of the Chargers in 2000, when Brady entered the NFL draft. Brady had lived up to his recruiting reputation as a good prospect, but not one who would change a program. He famously spent his senior season at Michigan platooning with Drew Henson, a much-hyped two-sport star. Nothing about Brady looked exceptional to NFL teams—certainly not his combine workout—but Riley saw that same passer he’d taken a liking to years before.

San Diego was looking to draft a QB in the later rounds and develop him. When GM Bobby Beathard asked Riley on the second (and, back then, final) day of the draft whom he liked, he answered, “Tom Brady, Michigan.” Every team, including the Chargers, passed on Brady multiple times, until the Patriots took him in the sixth round, pick No. 199. At No. 205, San Diego chose Ja’Juan Seider, out of Florida A&M.

The Patriots were pleased with Brady’s progress as a backup, but they didn’t yet view him as a franchise cornerstone at that point. After Brady’s first full season in New England, the team gave a then-record 10-year, $103 million contract to starter Drew Bledsoe.

In the fall of 2001, the Chargers traveled to Foxborough. They had Doug Flutie; Brady was making his third-ever start for New England, replacing an injured Bledsoe. San Diego was up by 10 midway through the fourth quarter, but then came Brady, leading the Patriots to two scores in the game’s final minutes and winning in overtime. A few months later Riley lost his job, and Brady was on his way to winning his first of five Super Bowls.

“I always felt a guy like Tom always knew,” Riley says. “Maybe somebody else didn’t, but he knew, and he proved it through his play. It can be a dangerous world when you go into projections, but you’re when forced to do it, you can come up with a Tom Brady.” Or an Aaron Rodgers.

His draft-day freefall wasn’t nearly as steep as Brady’s, but Rodgers sat in the green room at the 2005 draft as 23 picks went by. Green Bay scooped him up, ensuring he’d hold a clipboard and watch Brett Favre to start his career. In 31 mop-up duty pass attempts over his first two seasons, Rodgers posted a passer rating of 43.9, but the Packers’ faith didn’t waver. After a 13–3 season in 2007, they traded Favre to the Jets, paving the way for Rodgers to become the starter. Even as that year’s team regressed to 6–10, Rodgers was awarded a lengthy contract extension. In 2010 he led Green Bay to a Super Bowl title. One year later he had the first of his three MVP seasons.

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It seems bizarre that Brady and Rodgers have met as starting quarterbacks only once, considering that their professional careers have been concurrent for 14 seasons and counting. The NFL scheduling rubric matches up NFC and AFC divisions once every four years. In 2006, Rodgers was still Brett Favre’s backup (though he threw 12 passes in relief after Favre injured his elbow). In 2010, Rodgers missed the game with a concussion. And while there have been a few near misses, including later in that 2014 season, they have not yet met in the Super Bowl.

Even more bizarre, of course, is that while both have been constants in the NFL, Rodgers was a high school senior the season Brady won his first Super Bowl. Rodgers, 34, has a copy of Brady’s TB12 Method book. In an interview with SI’s Albert Breer this summer, Rodgers said he marveled at Brady’s ability to play past 40 with no decline in motivation. Longevity—rather than the slights of having been passed over by college or NFL teams—was now Rodgers’s challenge.

But even that is rooted in others’ doubt—the idea that someone else thinks you can’t do something you are certain you will do. That was what fueled two overlooked kids from northern California to reach the highest peaks of the football world. With that in mind, we’ll simply call this their “next” meeting—there’s always 2022.

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