FOR MOST SPORTS FANS, A-ROD AND RYAN BRAUN MEAN ONE THING. IN WISCONSIN, THAT PAIRING MEANS SOMETHING ELSE: BETRAYAL, YES, BUT THEN UNDERSTANDING
This is an article from the Aug. 12, 2013 issue
WHERE SOME saw a star, others saw an asterisk. Everything else about the 8* Twelve MVP Bar & Grill in Brookfield, Wis., seemed perfect. This was not to be a typical Famous Athlete's Name Here Restaurant, selling simple, overpriced steaks or greasy bar food. It would represent the best of Wisconsin—a locally sourced, farm-to-table eatery presented by the state's two premier draft-to-field superstars: Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun (jersey number: 8) and his friend, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12).
They just had to tweak that name. Braun had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs following the 2011 season. He won his appeal (on a technicality, cynics were eager to point out), but still, he did not need to be anywhere near an asterisk—even if it was really a star. And so, before it ever opened last year, the 8* Twelve MVP Bar & Grill became the 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill.
One year later Braun, having been busted for PEDS again, is serving a 65-game suspension. Rodgers has had to admit that he was wrong when he called the original allegations against his friend "garbage," and when he told one Twitter follower that he would bet his entire 2013 salary on Braun's innocence.
On the opening day of Packers training camp, Rodgers told reporters that Braun had looked him in the eye on multiple occasions in the past and denied that he had doped. "It doesn't feel great being lied to like that, and I'm disappointed about the way it all went down," he said. It all seemed like a public-relations nightmare for one of the best players in the NFL. But Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk, another close friend of Rodgers's, says, "It's just another situation that will endear him to these people."
Hold on. Being connected to a known drug user and liar will endear Rodgers to his fans? In our snark-and-scandal sports culture, that is hard to believe. But it's true.
In the Braun case, and in several others, Rodgers has combined his understanding of his fan base with deft media relations to enhance his stature among Packers fans. Rodgers never chose Green Bay; he wasn't all that happy, in fact, when the Packers took him with the 24th pick in the 2005 draft. And yet the California native says now, "I'm a Wisconsin guy. I'm here nine months out of the year. This is home for me." Entering his sixth year as a starter, Rodgers has the hand-shaped state in his palm.
IN GREEN BAY, Rodgers says, "people enjoy being able to see you at the Piggly Wiggly and say hello."
Is that where he shops? The Piggly Wiggly?
"I mix it up, but people enjoy it when I drop the Piggly Wiggly name," he says knowingly, with a laugh. "That's better than Festival Foods for the West Coast and East Coast readers. They think, Really rural Midwest."
In truth Green Bay is not that rural, but it is very Midwest. Most stories about the Packers or about the city focus on the snow, the remote location and the fans' passion. But the difference between Green Bay and most major markets is more nuanced than that.
The attention in Green Bay is relentless but adoring. As Packers radio broadcaster Wayne Larrivee says, "People here enjoy building the hero. They don't relish taking the hero down." Every state has its crooks and criminals, but a general friendliness permeates the fan base in Wisconsin, where you're likely to find the type of courteous people who wash their rental cars before returning them.
"Wisconsin fans are special," says Hawk. "Sometimes you don't believe how nice they are—like it's not even reality. My wife will be in the grocery store and people will just randomly grab her bags and help her out if I'm not with her. That happens every day. People will plow your driveway if it snows, if they see you're not there for a day. That happens all the time around here."
Fans anywhere would love Rodgers. But fans anywhere would not love Ryan Braun. Put Braun in New York and he would be Alex Rodriguez. New Yorkers have beaten up the pin-striped A-Rod not just for his real sins (performance-enhancing drugs, general self-absorption) but also for trivial ones (being fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz at the Super Bowl, for example). Rodriguez has won as many MVP awards in that city (two) as Braun and Rodgers combined. But even before his most recent PED-related takedown, New Yorkers did not like him. Moreover, they've seemed to enjoy disliking him.
Braun in Wisconsin, however, is a different story. Witch-hunting senator Joe McCarthy was from the state, but Wisconsin's fan culture is the antithesis of McCarthyism—fans wave their fingers and declare an athlete's innocence. That's precisely what happened with Braun. He said he was innocent; he got off on a technicality, which he bragged proved his innocence; and Rodgers backed him up. To outsiders, Wisconsinites looked like rubes for believing, but seeing the good in people is a point of civic pride. Most people weren't just shrugging their shoulders and cheering for a guy who could help their team win. They genuinely wanted to believe Braun. Were they naive? Sure. But if the alternative is cynicism, Wisconsin fans will take naiveté any day.
In another market Rodgers might have been tagged an accomplice—not to the drug use, but to the fraud. After all, some supporters surely believed Braun because Rodgers had done so first. But in Wisconsin, Rodgers was a conduit for people's emotions, and he knew it. He had to say what they felt. "He is very savvy from a media standpoint," says Larrivee. "But he is genuine. [With Braun] he could have said, I was defending a friend and let's go on to the next question."
Instead Rodgers talked two weeks ago about his own hurt feelings, and he made it a point to talk about the fans: "It is disappointing, not only for myself as a friend but obviously for Wisconsin sports fans, Brewer fans, Major League Baseball fans."
Many athlete friendships are media creations, but the one between Braun and Rodgers was the real deal. Rodgers declined to talk about Braun with SI, and he has not discussed the topic since that first day at camp—but he said enough for fans that day. Braun made Wisconsinites look foolish for their most admirable trait. Rodgers both expressed and legitimized their feelings. It was O.K. to believe Braun last time, and it's O.K. to be angry now.
RODGERS HAS already won a Super Bowl, in 2011, and his 104.9 career passer rating is by far the highest in NFL history. But ask him about his football legacy and he says, "My legacy in this locker room is [more important]—how guys are going to remember me."
The words "Greg" and "Jennings" don't appear anywhere in that answer, but you are forgiven if you see them anyway. Jennings, a longtime Packers receiver who caught more Rodgers-rifled passes than any other Green Bay player by a long shot, signed with the rival Vikings in the off-season, then tried to prick Rodgers's ego in a training camp interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"Don't get me wrong, 12 is a great person," Jennings said, refusing to call his old pal by name. "But when you hear all positives, all positives, all positives all the time, it's hard ... when one of your teammates says, 'Man, come on, you've got to hold yourself accountable for this.' It's hard for someone to see that now because all they've heard is, 'I'm doing it the right way, I'm perfect.' "
Rodgers refused to return fire—it would have turned one man's comments into a two-man feud. Instead, he let guys like Packers receiver James Jones, who's the godfather to one of Jennings's children, back him up: "I told [Jennings], 'Man, you're wrong. You got anything to say, you gotta say it to [him]."
Jennings eventually apologized. Sort of. He said he was joking, although he had not said anything particularly funny. Rodgers never joined the fight, but he won anyway.
IN FEBRUARY, shortly before the Super Bowl, Rodgers was asked to appear onstage with former Packers quarterback Brett Favre at the NFL Honors award ceremony. From a distance, Favre appeared to have more to gain than Rodgers. Wisconsinites had defended Favre for years against charges that he was a drama king, but after his unretirement saga in 2008 and his subsequent sojourn to Minnesota, they turned on him—hard. Rodgers had won both the job and the fans' affection.
Like Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, Rodgers has the memory of a legendary competitor, and he carries old slights with him to work every day: being overlooked as a high school recruit; dropping as he did in the 2005 draft when he was considered a potential No. 1 pick. He is quick to remind golf opponents of a shot he hit the last time they played—or the time before that, or the time before that....
But he would not let himself see a retired Favre as his competition.
"I thought about it for a day," Rodgers says. "I didn't contact the Packers or run it by anybody. I felt like it was the right thing to do. It was a good opportunity to start the healing process—him and I, the Packers and him, the fans and him."
Rodgers talked at length with Favre that night, and they have since exchanged phone calls and texts. ("I'm not going to put a number on how often," Rodgers says, "but we're fine.") Further putting old grudges aside, Packers president Mark Murphy says that the team will honor Favre by retiring his number 4 jersey at some point in the future, and G.M. Ted Thompson, who feuded with Favre, says he's thrilled about the reconciliation. When that happens, you can expect an enormous ovation for Brett Favre at Lambeau Field. Aaron welcomed Brett back; now everybody else can too.
Meanwhile, Ryan Braun's Graffito, an Italian eatery in downtown Milwaukee, remains open. Brett Favre's Steakhouse nearby closed over a decade ago. (The one in Green Bay is still operating.) And out in the west Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, the 8-Twelve MVP Bar & Grill could probably use another name change—maybe just the Twelve MVP Bar & Grill. Or Aaron Rodgers' Roadhouse.
Or perhaps Braun will sincerely apologize and explain himself, and Rodgers will publicly forgive him, signaling to the state that it is O.K. to embrace Ryan Braun again.
Last Thursday evening there was a decent crowd at the 8-Twelve, even with tens of thousands of people attending the Wisconsin State Fair. The fried cheese curds and the risotto with shredded smoked ham were both melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Pictures of Braun still hung on the walls, but the suspended Brewer's specter did not seem to hang over anybody. For Aaron Rodgers, business in Wisconsin is always good.
GREEN, GOLD AND GLORY
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