Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Rest of the Story

I think the American sports media can go a little overboard with human interest stories. I appreciate the sentiment of humanizing (or, "feminizing", depending on your perspective) sports and adding a different dimension to broadcasts, but they frequently take it a little too far.

Everyone loves a good "feel good" sports story. Hollywood has made millions on movies depicting stories such as the 1980 US Men's Hockey team, Michael Oher, Herman Boone, Vince Papale, Don Haskins (and the 1966 Texas Western Men's Basketball team), Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger and, most importantly, the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team.

Bonus points to anyone who can correctly identify all the movies referenced above ... no "real" prize, just the pride and self-respect of knowing that you're a sports/pop culture guru.

But, outside of these infamous stories, the media (especially on TV) frequently falls short, in my humble opinion. We endure segment after segment on sports shows about players' troubled childhoods, international mission work, community outreach and devastating life tragedies. Of course these stories are important, and of course they deserve a chance to be heard; but I think there are many other stories which illuminate who players are off the field and teach lessons that can be applied to the everyday person with a life in the real world.

Now, please know that this blog is not going to turn into a platform for my pick of human interest stories week after week.  However, in my last post
, I wrote briefly about Aaron Rodgers and I felt like the rest of his story deserved a chance to be heard (or rather ... read).  


Aaron Rodgers was nothing special.

Few would believe that if you look at the presence the 6-2, 225 lb quarterback has on the field today, as the starter for one of the most elite NFL franchises in America.

But it's true.

Rodgers played high-school football at Pleasant Valley High School in a small, Northern California town. Although he put up impressive numbers as starting QB his Junior and Senior year, setting single game and single season records, he was not aggressively recruited coming out of high school. In fact, Rodgers was hardly recruited at all. The University of Illinois offered him the chance to join their team as a walk-on, and he received polite condolences from other D-I schools, such as Purdue, wishing him the best of luck with his "attempt at a college football career".  He did receive offers from smaller programs, such as Occidental, although they would require him to wait at least a year to play.  But, that was it. No magical recruiting trips to sold out stadiums and rivalry games, no wining/dining in college towns across the country, no 5-star Rivals rating and Army All-American Game, and no college scholarship.

Here is where the story ends for most kids. And, to be perfectly honest, I can't blame them. If that was me, or my child (someday), facing graduation with no clear plan for the future, I'm not sure what I would do. I've been in a similar situation in my own life, and I can tell you with 100% clarity, that it's an absolutely gut-wrenching, panicky, consuming feeling of helplessness ... and most people can't handle it. So - they do the next best thing, they pick door #2, they head down the path more frequently traveled, and they choose the safe back-up option.

But, Rodgers chose none of the above.

He knew he was something special. Or maybe he was borderline irresponsible by blindly chasing a dream, or maybe he simply couldn't admit that he had failed. But, for whatever reason, known only to him, he didn't. He enrolled in Butte Community College in Oroville, CA with the sole goal of continuing to play football ... and he did. He led the Roadrunners to a 10-1 record, a #2 national ranking and a victory in their bowl game. He would later speak of this time in his life with a reserved fondness; about how it molded him into the unyielding player and quiet leader that he is today, and taught him lessons he would never have learned sitting on a bench somewhere. Rodgers would do plenty of bench-sitting and behind-the-scenes-learning later in his career, but not now, not at this stage.

Sometime during Rodgers' first (and only) year at Butte, Jeff Tedford, the head coach at Cal, made the 150 mile trek to Oroville to check out a TE on the team named Garrett Cross. That trip ended with two scholarship offers to play football at the University of California-Berkeley: Cross and an unknown QB with a rocket arm named Aaron Rodgers.

Many would say that the Disney-story ends here. The obstacle was surmounted, the goal attained. Cue the James Horner score and role the credits. Right?

I would argue - not quite yet.

From here the story is more familiar. Rodgers eventually filled out his size 12 (or 13) shoes and became an extremely successful and prolific QB in his two years at Cal.  He passed for almost 5500 yards, throwing 43 touchdowns and just 13 INTs, all while leading his team to records of 8-6 and 10-2 in 2003 and 2004, respectively. Although Rodgers' college career had its highs (a 34-31 triple OT victory over #3 ranked USC) and lows (losing out on a 2004 BCS Rose Bowl berth after Mack Brown's pleas to the media to rank the 10-1 Longhorns over the 10-1 Golden Bears); it was undoubtedly an exhilarating time for the young QB, who probably could never have dreamed that he would have such success in a Division I college program.  

Rodgers' college career culminated with him being selected as a first-round draft pick in the 2005 NFL Draft; although he did fall further than projected, eventually being picked #24 by the Green Bay Packers.

A whirlwind, successful college football career, a first-round selection in the draft to one of the most storied programs in the country, and a reported $1.5 million dollar signing bonus ... it's a good time to be #12.

Or is it?

The next 4 years would arguably be some of the most difficult in the QB's life.  As previously mentioned, the reception Rodgers received in Green Bay was far from welcoming, and not just from Brett Favre.  Green Bay fans can be a little ... possessive, and many of them (like Favre) saw no reason to "waste" a #1 draft choice on a QB.  I mean, Favre would continue to be the QB in Green Bay for at least another 5 to 10 years ... right?

After the initial ice melted, Rodgers spent three years throwing himself into the world of professional football.  He spent hours studying film and learning the plays he would someday be expected to execute flawlessly.  His dedication and leadership of the scout team would prompt his coaches to quietly suggest to him on the sideline that perhaps he should take it a little easier on the 1st team defense as to not make them feel too bad about themselves.  

All in all, Rodgers did exactly what he had to do and should have done during this time.  He was a quiet student of the game and leader on the practice field, and most importantly, he kept his mouth shut.  There were no tabloid headlines detailing the drama between Favre and Rodgers, no "tell all" exclusive interviews with ESPN, no temper tantrums on the sideline or in practice about being the backup, and no division of the Packers squad into Team Favre and Team Rodgers.  It's a sad commentary on our society (and our standard for pro-athletes) that Rodgers gets such commendation for keeping his attitude in check and quietly doing his job (all the while earning $1.5 mil plus); but in reality there are few hotshot college QBs that can successfully master the role of backup for an indeterminate period of time.  I mean, had Favre not botched the concept of retirement so terribly, he could theoretically still be playing football in Green Bay today and Aaron Rodgers could still be sitting #2.

Fast-forward through three years, a broken left foot, a few minutes of real-life game time and lots of learning; and in March of 2008 Brett Favre left the facilities in Green Bay, WI as a Packer for the last time.  Aaron Rodgers was officially #1.  

So let the ice return.  

His teammates were cautiously optimistic about Rodgers taking over control of the offense as he had demonstrated his cool on-field demeanor and and athletic potential while orchestrating a near-comeback for the Packers in a game at Dallas in November 2007 while he filled in for an injured Favre.  However, many of the fans were far less than excited.  Rodgers casually shrugged off multiple death threats, facebook groups calling for Favre's return and the pure hatred from a small group of Packers faithful who were really Favre faithful disguised in green and gold (later to be green and white ... and even later purple and gold).  Instead of complaining, lashing out at the fans or publicly clamoring to be traded, he showed up to work, did his job and earned his millions.  Green Bay finished with a 6-10 record in Rodgers' first year as the starter, but 7 of their games were lost by 4 points or less.  The powers that be in Green Bay bought into Rodgers' potential and signed him to a six year, $65 million dollar contract.  

The next year he led the Packers to an 11-5 season and the NFC Championship Game.    

What has been most impressive to me about Aaron Rodgers is his lack of flash and drama and his ability keep his head down and avoid the limelight, despite being in a place that seems to attract so much media attention.  In interviews he appears casual and relaxed and speaks calmly about hosting team BBQs at his house to improve team relationships, attending teammates' weddings and enjoying a mostly quiet life in his new home in Green Bay. 

I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video that I think sums up Aaron Rodgers perfectly.  Amateur video shot after the Packers 2009 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Detroit Lions shows the QB slowly lumbering through the stadium accompanied by Green Bay staff.  After receiving congratulations on the win, he issues a quiet "Happy Thanksgiving" and discreetly nods at the person on the other side of the video camera as he passes by, low-fiving Green Bay fans that he encounters along the way to the locker room.  

A perfect metaphor for how the QB has won the hearts of the Green Bay faithful: slowly and surely, with carefully spoken words and intentional actions on and off the field.  

The ice has melted and Brett Favre is now only a fond memory and part of the epic history that is Green Bay Packers football.  Even the most die-hard fans now sport their #12 jerseys and eagerly await each home game that Aaron Rodgers will lead the Packers in historic Lambeau Field.  However, in this scenario, I would bet that none of them mind the ice and cold, especially their native-Californian quarterback who has undoubtedly come to embrace it.   

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