He looks so young. That is the first thing you notice.
He is, of course. Very young. Just 21 years old at the time. One day, he will adopt a silly training-camp tradition of growing out his beard and shaving it down into some sort of obscure facial hair pattern – remember the friendly mutton chops? – and turn it into a team-building exercise. He’ll spend his autumns participating in Movember, proudly fashioning a lustrous mustache to promote men’s health awareness, even getting his head coach to join the movement.
But right now, he’s the baby-faced kid with the barely-visible soul patch beneath his lower lip. His hair is close-cropped and spiky, an upgrade over the Lloyd Christmas Dumb & Dumber ‘do he’d worn in college, but still boyish.
He has just been taken by the Green Bay Packers with the 24th overall selection in the 2005 NFL Draft – or 23 slots later than he’d hoped. He’s just watched 22 teams pass on him – the Dallas Cowboys did so twice – but there is really only one team that he’d been hoping would call his name: The San Francisco 49ers, who held the No. 1 overall pick but used it on Utah quarterback Alex Smith.
While the 49ers going ga-ga over Smith, he is about to embark on a journey with the Packers that not even he could have entirely envisioned. He might have set high goals and expected greatness, but there’s no way he could have seen what was coming.
Not the three-year apprenticeship behind a legend who wasn’t particularly interested in mentoring and might’ve even been a bit insecure – at the very least, ticked off – about the whole thing. Not the surreal summer of 2008, when the legend called it a career, then changed his mind and divided a football-loving nation. Not the rapid ascension to being one of the greatest quarterbacks in the game today, complete with a Super Bowl title and a league MVP – the first of what he hopes are many of both.
But none of that has happened yet. Right now, he is standing inside the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center in New York City, and the place looks deserted – kind of like the Green Room had been as first-round draft pick after first-round draft pick was called to the stage by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, leaving him alone with his disappointment.
But disappointment is not the emotion you see in his face at this moment. It’s there, sure, but the way the corners of his lips curl as he prepares to answer the question, that’s not disappointment. That’s flat-out determination.
So when Dennis O’Donnell, the sports director at KPIX-TV in San Francisco, holds out his CBS5 mic and asks him The Question – “How disappointed are you that you will not be a 49er?” – he does so not knowing the succinct answer that he’s about to get in 3 … 2 … 1 …
“Not as disappointed as the 49ers will be that they didn’t draft me.”
That’s what Aaron Rodgers said. Thirteen words, eight years ago, delivered with the undeniable, motivated seriousness that has come to be one of the Packers quarterback’s defining characteristics. While there have been others whose slights have fueled him -- the Purdue assistant coach who sent him that rejection letter (“Good luck with your attempt at a college football career”); that California-Berkeley food appreciation professor who laughed at his NFL dream (“You will never make it”) – the 49ers will forever hold a special place on the list.
They had been his childhood team growing up in Chico, Calif.; when he and his big brother Luke played football in the backyard, they morphed into Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and Steve Young. He’d gone to school across the Bay at Cal, and a week before the draft, he’d fully expected to be the No. 1 overall pick. In fact, to hear Rodgers tell it, the 49ers had told him he would be.
He wasn’t, of course. That story has been told over and over and over again – the infamously excruciating wait, the ESPN cameras invading his personal space after each card was turned in with someone else’s name on it – and as the Packers prepared for Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against those 49ers, it is an unavoidable part of the narrative, even while there are those who wished to downplay it.
Including Rodgers himself.
“I don’t have the same feeling that I did,” Rodgers said Thursday afternoon on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. (He’d watched the seven-second interview clip on YouTube earlier in the week on an iPhone at his locker.) “That interview was right after I did my interview at the podium, back behind the Green Room. I’d been picked probably 20 minutes earlier. It was an emotional day, a long day.
“At the time, I wanted to play right away that day and prove the other 22 teams that passed on me that they’d made a mistake. I look at it differently now. This is where I would have wanted to be had I known then what I know now – about the kind of working environment that this is, the opportunities I would be given, the coaching staff that was going to be here. I mean, I interviewed with Mike McCarthy. He was in San Francisco.”
Yes, yes he was. McCarthy, now the Packers head coach, was then the 49ers offensive coordinator under then-head coach Mike Nolan, who ultimately made the call to take Smith over Rodgers. (In another delicious twist, if the Packers beat the 49ers, their potential opponent in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 20 would be the Atlanta Falcons, whose defensive coordinator is – wait for it – Mike Nolan.)
“If they pick me, both our lives are changed,” Rodgers said of McCarthy, who replaced Mike Sherman as Packers coach in 2006. “What would have happened had they picked me and things been different? I don’t like doing the whole what-if game. I just know I’m really glad that I fell into God’s Country here in Wisconsin and had the opportunity to spend my early years the way I did and now gotten the opportunity to be the starter and play for this team.”
So says the same guy who stepped to the microphone at the NFL Honors event on the eve of last year’s Super Bowl to accept the NFL MVP award from presenter Peyton Manning, looked out into the crowd and saw those 49ers heroes he’d pretended to be in his backyard, acknowledged Montana and Young and Rice and said with a sly grin, “Big Niners fan as a kid. Thanks for drafting me.”
Oh, sure, he’s over it.
“That was more of my Mike McCarthy, ‘A little humor here, a little humor,’” Rodgers said of the acceptance speech, launching into a very bad imitation of his coach. “I was a little nervous up there with Peyton Manning and everybody looking at me. I just don’t do great in those situations.”
There’s no denying that Rodgers’ success in Green Bay has brought perspective. And, in point of fact, this isn’t even the first time he will face the 49ers. He’s going against them as a starter on three occasions in regular-season play, including the 2012 season-opener, although all three of those games were at Lambeau Field. (He’s 2-1 against them.) The only time he’s played at Candlestick Park, though, was a 2008 exhibition.
Other than that, Rodgers has only been to the historic stadium as a spectator – as Favre’s backup in 2006 (on crutches in the coaches box following surgery for a broken foot), as a college kid attending a 49ers game and for a few baseball games as a San Francisco Giants fan.
But this is different, as the only way the stakes could be higher would be if a berth in Super Bowl XLVII were on the line. And to those who know him best, who know all about his grudges and chips and motivational techniques, they are unanimous: There’s no way in God’s green earth that Rodgers has simply moved on from his draft disappointment and that televised one-liner he delivered 2,821 days ago. (Interestingly, O’Donnell said CBS5 has kept track of how many times the station has run that clip over the years. The count, not including this week: 61.)
“Certain people, I don’t think they ever forget. But that’s not something he’d ever admit,” said linebacker A.J. Hawk, one of Rodgers’ best friends on the team. “If that’s what drives you, great. Some guys are driven by money. Some guys are driven by championships. I think Aaron wants everything. He wants to win the most championships, but if he has a chip on his shoulder about something that happened eight years ago.