This is an article from the July 7, 2008 issue
IT'S A Thursdaynight in Green Bay in June, the dry season for football. Of course, that's arelative term this far north in Wisconsin. At the Titletown Brewing Companydowntown—identifiable by the enormous statue of a Packers receiver in mid-snareout front—it is, as always, the perfect time to talk about Aaron Rodgers. ¬∂"He's the topic these days," says bartender Jeremy (Double J) Jasicki.Scruffy and laid-back, Double J grew up in Green Bay. He was here during theglory days of the '90s and was at Lambeau Field last January for that fatefulNFC Championship Game, when the Pack lost to the New York Giants in OT and justmissed a trip to the Super Bowl. And, like most in this neck of the woods, heis a Brett Favre man through and through. "My entire adult life, he's beenthe quarterback," says Jasicki, 34. "Around here he's the higherpower."
Double J pauses toserve two shots of SoCo to a brunette in a push-up bra. "Well, I'd say halfthe people are nervous and half are cautiously optimistic," he says."At this point, though, I don't think even Brett Favre could escape BrettFavre's shadow. I don't envy Rodgers one bit."
Who would? Thisfall, Rodgers, a thoughtful, self-aware 24-year-old from Chico, Calif., who'snever started an NFL game, will take over the Packers from Favre, the NFL'salltime leader in pretty much everything. The local papers have dubbed it theA.F. Era, and if that religious symbolism seems absurd, then you haven't beento Wisconsin lately. This is a state, after all, in which it's not uncommon tohave a Favre shrine in your basement or, as La Crosse middle school secretaryLinda Kouba does, a life-sized cardboard cutout of number 4 greeting visitorsto the school office. He is deity and hall monitor, everything to everyone.
Aaron Rodgers'stask—be yourself; forget Favre—seems nearly impossible. All he has to do isavoid the Brett Favre Steakhouse (20,000 square feet of memorabilia and priceysirloin), refrain from playing video games (Favre is on the cover of Madden NFL09, the first retired player to be so honored) and stop reading magazines like,say, this one (three Favre covers and counting in the last nine months). Bestnot to follow online Packers coverage either, lest he notice, for example, theitem on packersnews.com during June minicamp reporting that Rodgers had"his worst practice of the off-season." During minicamp.
Then there are theother headlines, the hopeful ones, like the recent Green Bay Press-Gazette blogentry titled FAVRE THROWS PASSES ... TO MIDDLE-SCHOOLERS. (It is not mentionedwhat routes the youngsters were running, but no doubt Favre hit them perfectlyin stride.) But, really, who can blame Wisconsinites for entertaining thenotion of Favre's return when he seems to be? In April, when asked about acomeback were Rodgers to get injured, Favre said, "It would be tempting,and I very well could be enticed to do it."
See? Real easy toforget the guy.
For his part,Rodgers focuses on the positives. He's played in just seven NFL games, mostnotably coming in for an injured Favre in the second quarter against the DallasCowboys last season, and completing 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards. But he sayshe's been preparing for this opportunity ever since he was drafted out of Calwith the 24th pick in 2005 and pegged as the Packers' quarterback of thefuture. He says he embraces the opportunity, that there are "zeronegatives." He keeps a diary, because as an "internal processor"(his words) he finds it a good release. "I'm someone who likes to churn onthings and analyze," he said last Friday, "and I find if you don't getstuff out, it will tear you up." He claims to be his own "mediaadviser," and says the key is to "get your message out" and notdwell on critiques: "You can either get better or get bitter."
Talking to Rodgers,who is earnest and optimistic, is a bit like talking to a Dust Bowl farmerwho's sure that, come sunup, the rains will arrive. You hope he's right, evenif you know the odds are against him.
At least that'swhat history tells us. Over the years there have been a dozen or soquarterbacks who've been in the same situation as Rodgers, guys who'vesucceeded alltime greats. Only one, Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers,escaped with his reputation intact. And even he had a rough go, finding theghost of Joe Montana far tougher to elude than any defensive end. Upon finallywinning a Super Bowl in his fourth season as a starter, Young said to hisNiners teammates, "I'm going to take this monkey and pull it off my back.I've had it too long."
The others? Theyare men like Jay Fiedler (who followed Dan Marino), Marty Domres (heir toJohnny Unitas), Richard Todd (Joe Namath), Brian Griese (John Elway) and CliffStoudt (Terry Bradshaw). Talented players, to be sure, but none are bound forthe Hall of Fame, and certainly none are icons. Instead, they are rememberedfor what they didn't do, for who they weren't. Scott Hunter, who succeeded BartStarr in Green Bay in 1971, proposes a name for the group: the We FollowedLegends club. Motto: "We Carried Coffee for [Fill in Blank]."
The quip isself-deprecating, but it's not far off the mark. There is little glory in therole, and plenty of pathos. So as Rodgers prepares for his first season as astarter, it might behoove him to listen to the stories of his predecessors.Because if anyone can answer the questions he'll have, it's these guys. Whetherhe likes what he hears, well, that's another thing.
How bad can it be,really?
Ask Stoudt, whotook over Bradshaw's job with the Steelers in 1983 after six years as a backup.During his first season as a starter, Stoudt launched almost twice as many INTsas TD passes (21 to 12) and was booed so relentlessly in Three Rivers Stadiumyou'd have thought he'd canceled Christmas. His only defense was a sense ofhumor, and a dark one at that. As he later put it, "I tried to commitsuicide, but the bullet got intercepted."
Perhaps wisely,Stoudt fled after that season, signing with the Birmingham Stallions of theUSFL. But even then he couldn't escape Pittsburgh. The third game of the 1984season, the Stallions played at ... Three Rivers Stadium. It was the onlysellout in Pittsburgh Maulers history. Fans arrived wearing BOO STOUDT T-shirtsand buttons. They threw snowballs, beer cans and anything else they could lift.Three times during the game Stoudt got popped in the helmet by a projectile.Once, play was stopped when an official unlucky enough to be in Stoudt'svicinity got nailed by a full beer can. "It was pretty nasty," recallsStoudt, now a financial adviser and youth coach in Ohio. "The perfect stormof circumstances, and I was at the center."
Stoudt had itrough, but at least he got out early. Richard Todd not only followed Namath inNew York but also stuck around for eight long years. It began well—New Yorkfans held DRAFT TODD banners when he was taken out of Alabama (Namath's almamater as well) with the sixth pick in 1976—but the good will didn't last.Despite putting up respectable numbers and leading the Jets to the playoffstwice, Todd was regularly booed. At one point, he stopped leaving Shea Stadiumwith his wife after games so she wouldn't be pelted by the trash fans hurled athim. It didn't help that instead of courting reporters, as Broadway Joe had,Todd stuffed one in a locker in 1981. (The New York Post and reporter SteveSerby filed a complaint that was later dropped.) Todd recognizes that he couldhave handled things better. "I was very immature," he says from hisoffice in Atlanta, where he's a financial manager. "There are some things Iregret." He pauses. "But no matter what I did, I wasn't going to be JoeNamath." Asked if he ever wishes he'd been on a different team, he iswistful. "It does no good to think like that. That's like saying, 'I wishI'd won the lottery.'"
The list goes on,one abused successor after another. Griese followed Elway in Denver and wasbooed until Jake Plummer came in, and then Plummer was booed. (He respondedwith a middle-finger salute to the fans, as Todd had two decades earlier.)Danny White took over for Roger Staubach in Dallas, and his inability to comethrough in the playoffs vexed fans to no end. When White got into a trafficscrape with a 17-year-old in Dallas in 1984, the boy, upon exiting his car andrecognizing White, reportedly called him a "choking dog." It's doubtfulStaubauch ever heard that.
Isn't what happenson the field all that matters?
The only thingharder to replicate than the performance of an alltime great quarterback may behis aura. As Todd puts it, "We could all throw a 20-yard out. Joe justlooked better doing it." The only way to contend with such mythology is towin a Super Bowl, as Young did. Though sometimes even rings are irrelevant.Marino never won in Miami, but that didn't stop Dolphins fans from expecting itof Jay Fiedler.
Remember him?Fiedler seemed the ultimate underdog story. An Ivy Leaguer from Dartmouth (andonly in the sports world are Ivy Leaguers considered underdogs), he played oneyear in the NFL and then spent two out of football before getting another shot,with Jacksonville in 1999. After a strong half-season for the Jaguars, he wassigned by Miami in 2000, and—wham!—he's succeeding Marino, the man with thegolden arm and the Hasselhoff tan. From the start, it was a like/haterelationship with the fans. Only when Fiedler was injured in 2002 and hisbackup, the hapless Ray Lucas, directed the Dolphins to four losses in sixgames did the fans come to appreciate Jay. Even that was short-lived; whileFielder went 37--24 as a starter for Miami, he was an unforgivable 1--2 in theplayoffs. "It was tough, because everyone down here thinks the glory daysare right around the corner," says Fiedler, 36, who runs a Florida-basedentertainment company and co-owns the East Kentucky Miners of the CBA."Sometimes they don't realize how hard it is."
You can alwaysjust get on with your life, right?
Asked about theFavre comparison, Rodgers says, "It's going to be with me my entire careerin the NFL, and I'm fine with that." But that's not the whole story. Theseassociations stick for life. Just ask Marty Domres, who replaced Unitas inBaltimore in 1972 and started for two seasons before finishing his career as abackup with the 49ers and the Jets. To this day Domres receives about 30letters a month, some at home and some at his office in Baltimore, where heworks as a financial adviser for Deutsche Bank. Most of the notes mentionUnitas—and if they include football cards to sign, they're usually of Johnny U."Mine aren't worth much, signed or not," jokes Domres, who remainedgood friends with Unitas until Unitas's death in 2002. Likewise, Todd andNamath were close, and remain so. Namath still calls Todd by the nicknamebestowed upon him 30 years ago, Double Duty, because as Todd explains, "Ihave a big butt."
The We FollowedLegends club is not, however, clubby itself. Most members have never met. BrianGriese does not call Cliff Stoudt in the middle of the night for aheart-to-heart. Some, like Hunter, think it would be fun to get together.Others, such as Fiedler, prefer not to make the association. "I've alwayslooked at my career the same way," he says. "What I did on the fieldhas no bearing on who was before me or who was after me."
A healthysentiment, certainly, but sometimes the best thing that can happen is when thenext quarterback comes to town. And the next. And it turns out that none ofthem is a legend either. Suddenly that first replacement looks a lot better."It seems like I'm more popular now than when I was playing," saysFiedler. "Miami fans have had a rough go of it the last few years, and alot of them kind of look back and say, 'Hey, we really respect you. It was toobad you had to be compared to Marino.'"
Stoudt's moment ofreconciliation came in 2004, when he returned to Pittsburgh for a celebrationof the Steelers' 1979 Super Bowl team. It had been 20 years since he'd left,but Stoudt was nervous about running back out in front of the fans. Would theyboo again? Would he get nailed by an airborne can of Iron City? He beganwalking across the turf, and as he did it was like shedding weight with eachstep—and each roar. The Pittsburgh fans were cheering. "It's nice that timehas healed some wounds," says Stoudt. "In some ways, I guess it's neatto be part of history. As long as they spell your name right and keep tellingthe stories, you live on, right?"
So how will itturn out for this kid?
Ask these menabout Rodgers's situation and they see it as double-edged. On the one hand heinherits a good team—the Packers went 13--3 last season—but on the other hand... he inherits a good team, which means he's expected to do well.
He'll have theadvantage of playing in a ball-control offense, where he doesn't need to passfor 300 yards a game ... but then so did Fiedler, and he was booed for theslightest mistake because the job is presumed to be easy.
He's familiar withthe system and the players after three years in Green Bay ... but that means hecan't hide behind the excuse of a breaking-in period.
He'll have greatfans ... but great fans pay awfully close attention. The same goes for themedia, local and national, who will dissect every audible, every snap, everythrow. "That's the biggest difference today," says Domres. "Back inour time every reporter was a homer. Now you get watched every which way.Hopefully [Rodgers] won't pay attention to that, but it's hard not to."
It is, though, anarea in which Rodgers feels prepared. He grew up admiring how athletes likeMontana, David Robinson and Michael Jordan handled the press, and he canalready mimic their measured, bland responses. He even has a checklist of sortsfor interviews: Be available, be friendly, be brief and be "mostlyhonest."
On occasion,however, he forgets his own checklist and is perhaps too honest. Asked whetherhe feels pressure to connect with the fans the way Favre did, Rodgers answersunequivocally. "I don't feel I need to sell myself to the fans," hesays. "They need to get on board now or keep their mouths shut."
While suchsentiments probably won't encourage much in the way of shrine construction inGreen Bay—or recommend Rodgers's services as a "media adviser"—they areconsistent with the advice the old QBs provide: Don't change a thing. "Iremember going out there in my first game, versus the Seahawks, and I think myfirst pass hit the dirt around the receiver's feet," says Fiedler."From then on I said to myself, Jay, just go out and play the way you'vebeen playing for the last 20 years. Because that's all you can do."
Of course, it'seasier said than done, especially if, as in Rodgers's case, you haven't beenplaying much these last three seasons. Still, now is his time, even if hislong-awaited debut, Sept. 8 against the Vikings at Lambeau on Monday NightFootball, just happens to be ... the night they retire Brett Favre'sjersey.
Just perfect,right? The kid finally gets a chance to take the spotlight, and Favre will bethere, looming over him, not just metaphorically but physically. It's best forRodgers to get used to it. Because that's how it is in the NFL: Legendaryquarterbacks never go away, even when they go away.
"I don't need to sell myself to the fans," saysRodgers. "They need to get on board now or KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT."
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