Once the kingdom of Favre, Green Bay now is ruled by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has the Packers feeling fine and looking like Super Bowl contenders
Diane Modrow was voted Miss Wisconsin in 1973, a decade before Aaron Rodgers was born and 35 years before he became her favorite team's starting quarterback. Modrow has been a member of Green Bay's Golden Girls cheerleaders. She has met Packers fans from as far off as China. She has spent her life watching football in a town she feels is nothing less than blessed. ("When they print your birth certificate," Modrow says jokingly, "they put PACKER FAN right next to your name.") On Sundays when the Packers are home, Modrow runs a merchandise tent across the street from Lambeau Field, selling green and gold beads for one dollar and Brett Favre DRAMA QUEEN T-shirts for $15. Packers history lessons are free.
"Aaron stepped into some big shoes, but his character throughout the whole process is what has been so stellar," Modrow says of Rodgers's winding road from California outsider to Green Bay's favorite son. "Everything he did revolved around the positive. He came here to do a job, and that's what he has done."
Modrow is wearing a black jacket over a green Packers shirt. It is sunny and cool, just the kind of autumn football day she knows like an old friend. She's asked whose jersey she's wearing—in this 2010 season it could be any of several. Linebacker Clay Matthews (number 52) has seven sacks. Receivers Donald Driver (number 80) and Greg Jennings (number 85) have three touchdown catches each. Cornerback Charles Woodson (number 21) has two forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown. Modrow unzips the coat and reveals the jersey: It's the number 12.
October 10, 2010
I can probably say this now," Rodgers begins. He is sitting in a lounge at the Packers facility, days away from the start of a season in which Green Bay will win three of its first four games, including last Sunday's 28--26 victory over Detroit during which Rodgers threw three touchdowns. He is the face of the franchise, one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks and a player most observers feel has yet to reach his peak. But the 26-year-old Rodgers is also shaped by the circumstances of his career, obstacles that have blocked his path since he was a high school quarterback seeking a Division I scholarship, a college QB sitting agonizingly in the greenroom on draft day as team after team passed him over and a pro looking for a graceful entrance amid the final chaotic days of a legend.
So, yes, he can probably say this now about the 2008 season in which he replaced Favre, got booed during the Packers' Family Night scrimmage and grew a Tom Selleck mustache to give the media something to talk about besides his predecessor. "The questions got old," says Rodgers, "and I realized that if I could cut my facial hair into something crazy, maybe they'd ask me about that and every question wouldn't be about the guy who played before me."
All he has done in his 36 starts as a Packer is make a once skeptical town fall hard for him. The Packers were just 6--10 in 2008, but Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. Last year he led the Pack to an 11--5 record and into the playoffs. This season the expectations in Green Bay are much loftier. Largely on the strength of Rodgers's right arm—Jennings says he throws "the prettiest deep ball you'll ever see"—the Packers are a bona fide threat to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Against the Lions last week Rodgers finished the first half with a perfect quarterback rating (158.3). He moved nimbly around the pocket, tossed perfectly lofted touchdown passes to Jennings and Driver, and zipped a fastball in the end zone to tight end Jermichael Finley for his other TD.
"In his first year starting he'd throw a pick and go in the tank a little bit because everyone was holding him to such a high standard, with Brett leaving and him taking over," Jennings says. "Now he's at the point where he trusts himself and the guys around him. He plays with a certain confidence and a certain swagger, which he should. You can't play timid, especially at that position."
Says linebacker A.J. Hawk, "We've seen him go through a pretty unique situation. We saw how well he handled it, how he never lashed out. I invited him to my wedding in Ohio, and my family members still ask me about him. I think he's the poster child on how to handle a tough situation."
The NFL may be a molder of men, but Rodgers points to an earlier time for his defining quarterback moment, a time when his center was a bouncer from Canada, his left tackle had come from the U.S. Army and his free safety had served time in prison. Rodgers was an 18-year-old freshman quarterback at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., a junior college not far from his home in Chico, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
"You had guys that had been in construction jobs and grocery store jobs and club jobs," says Rodgers. "Some were bounce-back guys or, like me, guys who'd been overlooked. Everybody was hungry. Guys were playing for the love of the game because they didn't want to start in the workplace."
Undersized, from a football backwater and perceived to lack athleticism and football smarts, Rodgers was passed over by Division I recruiters. At Butte he learned how to lead a locker room, despite being nearly a decade younger than many players. In Rodgers's only season there he led the school to a 10--1 record and a No. 2 junior college national ranking. "That's where I got my confidence," Rodgers says, "and I've never lost it."
Still, he struggled to gain attention. Rodgers landed at Cal only after Bears coach Jeff Tedford had come to Butte to recruit a tight end. "Everyone has always underestimated his intelligence," says Craig Rigsbee, who coached Rodgers at Butte and is now the school's director of athletics. "I'd be screaming, 'I got the wrong play,' and he'd say, 'Don't worry, I know what you meant.' Then he goes right from our place to Cal, and I knew the kid was going to go far."
After two years during which Rodgers set the Cal mark for career passer rating, more complications came during the first round of the 2005 draft, when he and Utah's Alex Smith were viewed as the top two quarterback prospects. Smith went No. 1 to the 49ers, the preferred pick of then offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy. Rodgers slipped to No. 24 and Green Bay—where McCarthy would be hired as head coach the following year.
"The first day he got here, he wanted to table it right away and I wanted to talk about it," Rodgers says of McCarthy. "He said, 'We didn't pick you. Now I'm here—let's move on.' I was like, 'Hey, let's rewind this a year. What did you guys not see?' I got after him a little bit because he's made some comments in the years since, like 'We didn't know he was that athletic in college.'"
Both laugh about it now, but the coach also knows the perception has motivated Rodgers, who has proved to be an adept scrambler and routinely makes plays with his feet. McCarthy says, "He moves better than I graded him coming out of college. I've admitted to that. I took some body shots on that."
As with Steve Young and Joe Montana, it's unfair but unavoidable to look at Rodgers through the lens of Favre. While Favre's faux retirements and his signing with rival Minnesota make him an easy target for scorn (someone has stickered over the P on the BRETT FAVRE PASS street signs near Lambeau Field), Rodgers has emerged in Green Bay as his own man. He is the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in each of his first two years as a starter. His 4,434 yards and 103.2 passer rating in 2009 were both better than Favre had in any of his 16 seasons in Green Bay. Rodgers has been active in the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer Fund, which supports pediatric cancer and blood-disorder research in Wisconsin. And he has been on the other end of telephone calls from Green Bay's mayor, Jim Schmitt, who last season renamed Minnesota Avenue "Aaron Rodgers Drive" for the week before Favre and the Vikings came to Lambeau Field. What about this season's visit, on Oct. 24? "The only plan this year," Schmitt says, "is to beat them."
The town's expectations are no greater than Rodgers's own, forged in the face of what his backup Matt Flynn calls character builders. "I don't think he has a chip on his shoulder, but it gave him fuel to work a little bit harder," Flynn says. "Everything he went through has helped him become the man he is now."
It may be why Rodgers looks so comfortable, whether he's in the Packers' two-minute offense or lounging in the team's practice facility telling stories. One of his favorites involves the training camp dormitories at St. Norbert College, which many of the players believe are haunted. Two summers ago Rodgers borrowed a Scream movie mask from a neighbor's kid, somehow secured the dorms' master key and spent a good part of the night popping in and out of his teammates' rooms, a 6'2", 220-pound apparition trying to stifle a laugh. "There's our starting quarterback, in a Scream outfit, running around St. Norbert," Flynn says.
Yes, Green Bay is head over heels for a strong-armed quarterback, an unflappable leader who's not above pulling a prank or two on his teammates. These days his name is Aaron Rodgers.
"HE TRUSTS HIMSELF AND THE GUYS AROUND HIM," JENNINGS SAYS OF HIS QUARTERBACK. "HE PLAYS WITH A CONFIDENCE AND A SWAGGER."
ASKED IF ANYTHING SPECIAL IS PLANNED FOR THE VIKINGS' VISIT, THE MAYOR SAYS, "THE ONLY PLAN IS TO BEAT THEM."