Driver's U-turn

December 09, 2002

If you think Green Bay Packers wideout Donald Driver is fast now,
you should've seen him when he was stealing cars.

"I was quick," says Driver, who went by Quickie then. "My older
brother taught me. He was in eighth grade, I was only in
seventh." Hey, when things are so bad you have to live in the
back of a U-Haul truck with your mom and four siblings for a
month, you go with whatever skills you have.

"The easiest cars to steal were those old Cadillacs," says
Driver, who sold the stolen cars to guys who stripped them and
resold the parts. He'd stake out a Caddie on the streets of his
hometown Houston, a T-shirt wrapped around his right fist. In a
flash he'd punch out the back window and be inside.

You look at Driver's big, soft millionaire hands and notice all
the scars. From the windows or football? "Windows," he says.
Within 30 seconds he'd be ready to roll, though he was just tall
enough to see over the wheel.

"I could drive pretty good," Driver says. "Anytime anybody in my
family needed a car moved, I'd say, 'I'll do it.' That's how I
learned to drive. I probably stole 20 or 30 cars and only had to
jump out once."

But that once changed his life.

Just as Driver was starting the car, he heard sirens. He floored
it. He was flying along, checking the mirror to see how close the
police were, when he T-boned an old woman's car as she backed out
of her driveway. Driver jumped out and started sprinting. He had
the cops beat by a block or so, but something made him circle
back to check on the old woman.

She was all right, but by then the police were around the corner.
"Go sit on my porch," the old lady said.

For some reason he trusted her. When the cops came, she told them
the perp had run off. "So who's that on your porch swing?" one
cop wanted to know.

"Oh, that's just my grandson," she said.

After the police left, the old woman said to Driver, "Get in this
house!" There, she scolded him, saying, "Why do you do this,
young man? You could be doing so much more with your life!"

Her kindness that day changed Donald Driver. Not overnight, no.
This isn't a made-for-TV movie. He stole another car or two, took
that money and bought drugs, which he says he never used, only
sold for more money. But her little kindness grew in him.

About a year later his mom, Faye Gray, sent Donald to live with
his grandmother, Betty Lofton, who lived close by. He joined the
drill team at Lofton's church. He played three sports at Milby
High, including organized football for the first time.

You could be doing so much more!

Not that he had a choice. Lofton sort of insisted. "She'd come
into my room with a baseball bat and say, 'You either gettin'
your butt outta bed or I'm gonna bust you across your nappy
head!'"

That's when he found out quick feet and good hands can do more
than steal Cadillacs. He starred in football and track at
Division IAA Alcorn State, got his accounting degree--"I always
wanted a job where you wear a suit," he says--and wound up as a
grand theft by the Packers, the 213th pick, in the last round of
the 1999 draft.

With his family still hurting, Driver needed an NFL paycheck the
way he needed air. Every training camp practice became the NFC
Championship Game. He busted his gluteus on routes, special teams
and wind sprints--and played in six games as a rookie. Eventually
Green Bay coach Mike Sherman figured it out: When in doubt, use
your Driver. Now that Antonio Freeman is gone Driver has become
Brett Favre's favorite UHaul, carrying the Packers' receiving
load with 58 receptions for 935 yards and seven touchdowns. "I
hate to put this out there," Sherman said recently, "but why
didn't he play more last year?"

All the hell raised by Driver the kid has been paid back a
hundredfold by Driver the man, who just signed a five-year
contract extension worth $11.5 million. The Packers say he makes
more community appearances than any other player on the team.
"He's a wonderful man," says Cathy Dworak, the team's manager of
community relations. "He's always smiling, fun, positive. He
calls me up and asks if there are any appearances I need done.
Can you imagine?"

He's done more than 300, and any honorarium he is given goes
straight to his Donald Driver Foundation, which helps a variety
of people in need. Funny how one little kindness can get so big.
His grandmother and mom are fine and proud now, and so are his
siblings (brother Marvin became a Baptist minister).

Oh, and so is the old lady with the porch swing--the one he calls
Grandma Johnson. Quickie usually calls or visits her whenever he
goes back to Houston, just to say thanks one more time for saving
his life.

You run into the nicest people, don't you?

So the car thief has become a redeemed and joyful man who never
takes a single day in the NFL for granted. Or in life, for that
matter. And it makes you wonder....

Is Randy Moss listening?

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

The car thief has become a redeemed and joyful man who never
takes a single day in the NFL for granted.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)