GREEN BAY – There was something different about Aaron Rodgers on Thursday afternoon.
Now, the Green Bay Packers quarterback didn’t burst into song, belting out “Let It Go,” Idina Menzel’s Oscar-winning song from the hit Disney film Frozen or anything.
But he might as well have.
Sitting in the cramped equipment office in the recesses of Lambeau Field, Rodgers had just finished the Packers’ final organized team activity practice of the spring. As he leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head, wearing a black t-shirt from Whole Body Fitness, his gym back home in Chico, Calif. – and one of the few shirts he has in his laundry rotation these days, it turns out – he was totally at ease.
As he sat at one end of a cluttered table with ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. Open playing in the background – muted, but still catching his attention from time to time – he smiled often as he talked about his evolution as a person, about how enduring the first major injury of his professional football career and then turning 30 last December had altered his perspective on things.
He sounded downright liberated.
“Someone real close to me said, ‘You can’t write the story of your life, but you can write your character,’” Rodgers explained. “And that, I thought, was really interesting. It has a lot to do with the fact that you can’t control everything. But you can control the way you respond to it and control the things you do, the decisions you make, and that’s definitely stuck with me.”
That was much was evident late last week, when photographs of Rodgers with his new girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn, began circulating around the Internet (including one oft-discussed photo of him kissing her.) It was the kind of thing that Rodgers, who has always tried hard to keep his private life private, would have been less than thrilled about in the past.
But on Thursday, he simply smiled. While he hasn’t lost his competitive edge or the world-famous chip on his shoulder – try asking him whether last year’s collarbone injury might alter his style of play, and you find that out immediately – he is clearly in a happy place, focused on expanding his legacy while not fretting about everything that may or may not affect it.
During a half-hour sit-down with ESPNWisconsin, Rodgers' discussion ran the gamut of topics. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
ESPNWisconsin: So, I’m curious. Do you have a bunch of those purple NYU Law Deans’ Cup t-shirts, or do you just do laundry that frequently? Because I saw you wearing it on Tuesday at your locker after the OTA practice, and I could’ve sworn I saw some pictures of you on the Internet wearing the same shirt over the weekend, too …
Rodgers: Yeah, it was one of my only clean shirts from the weekend when I was out West. I actually just got that shirt recently from a buddy of mine when I was at a wedding out in Portland. It’s actually his jump shot [silhouetted on the t-shirt]. Joey Kaempf, I think I’ve talked about him before. His dad was Big Joe Kaempf, who taught me the value of visualization [as a coach in the Raleigh Hills Little League]. And yes, I was wearing that on-set at The Newsroom and at my locker.
ESPNWisconsin: Those photos, and the attention/scrutiny that came after it, would seem to be something that would really bother you. Did it bother you?
Rodgers: No. For one, I’m real happy in my relationship. And I understand what comes with it. And two, the last couple years I’ve learned a lot about perspective and what’s important. And, that you cannot, when you’ve had success individually and collectively as a team and you are highlighted for the things you’ve done on the field and off the field, you cannot hide from the spotlight. You have to learn to embrace it.
I think it’s a process for me. I think it really took a while for me – and you still work through it – to get to a comfort level with that. But finally, you say, ‘You know what? It comes with the territory.’ It’s not what I signed up for. I signed up to play football, because I love it, and have as long as I can remember – watching the Niners on TV as a kid with my family to watching my favorite players and following them in high school and college and becoming a professional. This is what I always wanted to do. You don’t realize what all comes with it at times, but I think on some level, you have to embrace that. And the older you get, you focus on the things that are most important, and you learn to deal with or embrace the things that are more difficult.
ESPNWisconsin: So what prompted that change? Because you’ve always been fiercely protective of your private life in the past.
Rodgers: I think I am still protective of that. But there’s always going to be attention or scrutiny, and you can either understand it comes with the territory and embrace it, or you can lock yourself away. And I just can’t do that. I need to be living my life. And I’m going to continue living my life and enjoy my public life and enjoy my relationships and not worry too much about that other stuff because it’s like in football – there’s some things you just cannot control, and that’s one of them.
ESPNWisconsin: Listeners to your radio show know you were a big fan of The Newsroom on HBO before this. Can we expect a cameo from you in the show’s final season?
Rodgers: I’m strictly a commercial actor. I’m going to keep it to that. I dabbled on The Office, but I’m going to keep it to the commercials.
ESPNWisconsin: Your success has led to some friendships or relationships with high-profile people – Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, the actors from The Office, Justin Timberlake, Olivia. Did you talk to them at all about this, in terms of handling fame and the good and bad aspects of it? Did you ever talk about that with any of them?
Rodgers: It’s more, for me, observing some of those super-famous people you mentioned. Being around Michael and being around Justin, the few times I have, that’s a different type of fame and attention than what I experience. And it’s interesting to see how they handle things. I think whether it’s in football when you’re dealing with teammates or coaches, or whether it’s in life dealing with the fame and stardom that comes with being successful, it’s always good to watch how people handle it and try to either incorporate some of the things that they do that you like, or it gives you things that you might want to do differently if given the opportunity. I can’t say I’d ever like to have the kind of fame that Michael and Justin have, because I think it’s really hard for those guys to do anything. But I realize that I’ve always wanted to be really successful in football, and the more success that you have in your work, the more attention you’re going to have come your way.
ESPNWisconsin: Is there anything you’ve taken specifically from them or from being around them that you’ve been able to apply to your own life?
Rodgers: I’ve always thought that Mike does a real nice job with the fans up in Lake Tahoe [at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship]. He’s always very gracious with the fans, signing autographs after rounds and … I mean, he was millions and millions of kids’ favorite player. He was definitely mine and my older brother Luke’s favorite growing up, and then now we’re all grown up. You think about, when I was a kid, the kids that were in high school and college then, those are grown men now – 40-year-old men who are still geeking out like I am when I play golf with him or am around him. It’s different now being friends with him, but the first interaction with him is, I mean, he’s a larger-than-life figure. Having watched him on TV for so long, I think there’s the – and I’ve talked about this before – the 3D vs. reality theory. Where, you see somebody on TV all the time, and when you see them in person, it’s hard to kind of be normal because it’s so different than seeing them in the 2-Dimensional realm and then seeing them in actual reality in the 3-Dimensional realm. Some people have a hard time settling their nerves down at times. But I think Michael and Justin both do a good job of being real gracious with their fans.
ESPNWisconsin: I know you’ve said repeatedly that Bart Starr is your role model and that you want to be respected and remembered half as fondly as the Packers legend is. What is your friendship with Tom Brady like? He seems to have handled everything in a more contemporary era – having a famous wife, fame, team success, personal on-field success – in a similar way. What is that relationship like?
Rodgers: Yeah, Tom’s been a good buddy for a couple years now, and I enjoy speaking to him about football – he’s very knowledgeable and loves the game, is passionate about it. And it’s been fun to run into him at various events. I know the (Kentucky) Derby most years, he brings some buddies from growing up and brings a lot of his players and former players – they’ve got a great group of guys that goes down there and has a blast. He’s just a well-respected guy who I’ve enjoyed being around and trying to garner some knowledge about the game and how to be successful, and he’s been successful for a long time and wants to keep playing into his 40s. So he does a lot of things off the field, I know, to keep himself in really good shape and some cutting-edge exercises and eating right that I’ve really tried to incorporate into what I do.
ESPNWisconsin: You’re a smart guy, but you’ve always seemed like you were also smart enough to learn all you can from others. Have you gotten any other lasting advice in recent years that has really had an impact on you?
Rodgers: You know, someone real close to me said, ‘You can’t write the story of your life, but you can write your character.’ And that, I thought, was really interesting. It has a lot to do with the fact that you can’t control everything. But you can control the way you respond to it and control the things you do, the decisions you make, and that’s definitely stuck with me.
ESPNWisconsin: Have you been guilty of trying to control everything in the past?
Rodgers: I think we all are, to a certain extent, and being a quarterback, and in a leadership position, you love having the responsibility and opportunity to make an impact on every play, and that can’t help but carry into your personal life, you know? Wanting to be in control of things and control situations. And you realize you can’t always do that.
ESPNWisconsin: You’re obviously a movie guy. Judd Apatow did This is 40 a while ago. What is This is 30 like for Aaron Rodgers?
Rodgers: It’s been great. It’s been a great year, and it’s been fun. I was talking a little tongue-in-cheek about the fact that you’re 30 and you’ve got it all figured out. I don’t truly believe that – yet – but I think you go through a lot in your 20s. You learn a lot about yourself, and your 30s is about achieving your goals and understanding what’s really important. And that’s what I’m trying to do this year by focusing on things I can control on and off the field and not letting things that maybe used to bother me more really get to me. Because the things that I can control, the things that are important, the people close to me in my life right now who are important, that’s what’s important. And the things I can’t control, I’m not going to let weigh me down anymore.
ESPNWisconsin: You mentioned Brady wanting to play into his 40s. Peyton Manning is on his way there, Drew Brees is getting up there and isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. You’re not there yet, but you did have your #9in9togo Tweet. Have you changed your timeline? Has the NFL game changed to allow you to change your timeline? A few years ago, you basically said you wouldn’t play as long as, say, Brett Favre, did. Is that possible now?
Rodgers: I think the way I’ve been feeling the last two years, with changing some things off the field in the offseason with my eating patterns, my body’s been feeling really good. To the point of, I feel like I can really keep my legs underneath me for a long time and as long as I have my legs, I feel like I can play the position the way I want to play it. I’d love to be able to play this contract out and then do a few more [years]. I think that’d be a lot of fun. This is a great place to play and live and work, and this is what we do. This is what I’m talented at more than anything else in my life, and I want to keep doing it.
ESPNWisconsin: So was there a change? Because it wasn’t long ago when you talked about only playing until you were 36 or 37.
Rodgers: Maybe a little bit. My body changed. I feel like I’ve gotten myself in good shape and I’m eating better and I feel healthier – less worn-out, maybe – than I did a couple years ago when I may have said something like that.
ESPNWisconsin: What will it take to do that? There was a report that you came in 11 pounds lighter than in previous offseasons …
Rodgers: We cleared that up. It wasn’t just yoga.
ESPNWisconsin: So have you made drastic changes aimed at longevity or what exactly is different?
Rodgers: It’s just being smarter about taking care of my body, and flexibility and eating right have been really important.
ESPNWisconsin: You’re like Brady in that interview with theMMQB.com, ‘I’m not going to give away any state secrets.’ You’re not going to delve into specifics about your offseason, are you?
Rodgers: Yeah, I’m not going to give away any trade secrets. But flexibility and eating right has really helped. Just making sure I’m eating the right way. And then you add some yoga into that, which is enjoyable and fun, and some workouts, and you lose a couple pounds every now and then. You should try it.
ESPNWisconsin: Speaking of Brett Favre, do you guys talk at all? Do you keep in touch? What’s the status of that friendship/relationship?
Rodgers: Yeah, we’re on good terms, and it’s a friendship. We talk every now and then.
ESPNWisconsin: Neither one of you are big phone guys, as Davante Adams can attest.
Rodgers: No, we’re not, as I said when Davante called me. But I did call him back after he left a nice message.
ESPNWisconsin: Favre admitted late in his career that it was tough for him to connect with younger guys because of the age difference. You’re not there yet by any means, but there are some guys on this team who are almost a decade younger than you are now. Is it strange to be one of the ‘old guys’ now? There aren’t many of you.
Rodgers: There’s not, and I enjoy that opportunity to be one of the old guys and I think that’s part of your legacy – what kind of teammate you are and how much time you spend with those guys. I enjoy our quarterback room, working with Scott (Tolzien), working with Chase (Rettig). Matt (Flynn) and I have been together for awhile, working, and we know each other well. But I think that’s the exciting part, especially about this time of year.
When we come back to training camp, it’s about, ‘What can you do for this team? How can you help this team win?’ But right now it’s about team-building and building that chemistry. I like our guys, the fact that we hang out a lot together off the field – whether it’s playing golf or going bowling or getting together to go to the movies or something. The guys spend a lot of time together, and it’s a real fun group.
ESPNWisconsin: We know how you feel about giving guys nicknames and remembering guys’ birthdays, and how that’s part of your leadership philosophy, but do you have to alter your leadership style at all to connect with ‘the kids’ now?
Rodgers: Well, I think you have to be relevant to what’s important to them. I mean, everybody’s on their phone and it’s a different locker room than it was 10 years ago. You come in the locker room after a meeting now, and most guys are checking their phone and what-not. I don’t feel like that was the case 10 years ago when I was a rookie. So that’s different. So some of the requests I get from my younger teammates are, ‘Hey, follow me on Twitter,’ where before it might be, ‘Hey, do you want to grab some lunch or something?’ But I enjoy it. It’s a good locker room, and Mike (McCarthy) promotes an atmosphere of friendship and respect and I like to promote that as well.
ESPNWisconsin: You are an introspective guy, but did the time that you weren’t able to play last season while you were recovering from the fractured collarbone – the first truly major injury of your professional career – did that have an impact on you?
Rodgers: Of course it did. I think it has to, if you care about what you do and you care about this game. It’s such a privilege to play our game and when it’s taken away from you, it’s a good moment for perspective on what’s really important and who’s important to you and what you’ve got to do to sustain in this league and what it means to you. To me, this game has meant a lot to me since I was a kid, and I care about it, I care about the legacy of this team and I want to make sure that I’m putting myself in position to have a long career and I want to take care of my body off the field.
But, it was tough to be away from the guys and it just reminds you how important those relationships are, because when you’re done, it’s probably going to be less about those individual stats or scores of games – except for maybe the Super Bowl – and more about the friendships you make. It’s been fun to reconnect with some guys this offseason and still keep in touch with guys like (former teammates) Ruvell [Martin], Korey Hall, seeing Mark Tauscher recently, Chad Clifton – some of the guys that have been really important to me over the years. It’s been fun to reconnect with those guys.
ESPNWisconsin: With the foot injury you had in 2006, though, didn’t you say you realized that when you’re injured, you’re not as much a part of the team while on injured reserve?
Rodgers: You feel like it. You definitely feel like it. So for me, I had to fight against that. Part of that is just being a good teammate, and wanting Seneca [Wallace] and Scott and Matt to be ready to play – still watching film, still being vocal in the meetings, letting those guys talk when they needed to because that’s what a non-starter should do as their role, but helping those guys as much as I could. Trying to get those guys ready to play, I think, is part of the legacy of being a good teammate.
ESPNWisconsin: Was there any measure of depression that you went through during that time? Frustration? Disappointment? I assume you felt those emotions at some level.
Rodgers: Oh, for sure you feel those. Definitely. Especially when you’re not sleeping. You’re not sleeping because you’re in too much pain. Because I’m a side sleeper, you’re trying to sleep on your back and you’re restless. So yeah, there’s definitely moments of depression and frustration. But I think as a good teammate and if you want to be someone who is progressing in maturity, you can’t have those moments of feeling sorry for yourself. You need to look at the big picture, and the big picture is this game was going long before I got in it and it’s going to keep going long after I’m not in it. What are you going to do when you’re in it? You want to make an impact. You’ve got to be consistent and make the most of your opportunities.
ESPNWisconsin: In light of the injury, do you have to alter at all …
ESPNWisconsin: … how you prepare or …
ESPNWisconsin: … how you play?
ESPNWisconsin: Because …
Rodgers: I’m not changing the way I play. I’m going to keep playing the same way. I’ve got to be instinctual, I’ve got to rely on my quick reactions, and I’ve got to play the way I’ve always played. At some point, if we’re talking in 10 years and I’m still trying to give this a go, I probably won’t be exactly the same player. But I’d like to think that as long as I have my legs, I’m going to play the exact same way because that’s what gives me those little advantages I can take and make plays with.
ESPNWisconsin: What probably was your most trying year as the starter – maybe even moreso than 2008 after the Summer of Favre – ended up giving you two of your fondest memories of your career: The reaction of the fans as you came out of the locker room in sweats after you broke your collarbone, you called that a ‘top 5’ moment of your career when we talked the following day. And then the 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb – fourth-down, final minute, the season on the line – to beat Chicago and send you to the playoffs. That’s hard to believe considering how disappointing the rest of the year was for you.
Rodgers: It was a tough year. Tough year on a lot of levels. Dealt with the frustration of being out for so long, and I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to play in Chicago. But thankfully, I was … I was … OK’d to play, and we went out there and, it wasn’t the cleanest game, but it was really fulfilling in the end to win with my guys and a couple of guys making some incredible reactionary plays down the stretch to pull that thing out. It was one of the most special moments – at our rivals, with that fan base and that environment, at Soldier Field, with so many big games we’ve played down there, to beat them to win the division and get into the playoffs, that was incredible.
ESPNWisconsin: And yet, ultimately, you still fell short of your goals for the season, as great as that one moment was. What kind of vibe do you get from this team that makes you think that this team can achieve those goals? Because every year, you get further and further away from Super Bowl XLV, and every year there’s fewer and fewer guys from that team in that locker room.
Rodgers: Yeah, that’s the nature of this game. It’s new guys, it’s new faces. It’s a young-man’s game. You have to stay on top of your body and your ability to stick around. It feels like it’s been awhile since we’ve been there, because it has been – it’s been three years, and we’ve had three tough defeats in the playoffs. We’ve had some consistent regular seasons, had some trying moments. But, we tasted that [success]. A lot of guys are still here from that team who know how special that was. But the fun part is, a lot of the guys that are here weren’t there. So they don’t know what that feels like. And they desperately want it. And you can feel that tangible hunger that we have in the locker room that we haven’t had in awhile.
I think your biggest challenge, as Mike has said, is handling success. When you have success, whether it’s a Super Bowl win or a 15-1 regular season, it can’t help but there be some complacency that seeps into the locker room. For whatever reason, this is a different team with a better focus.
ESPNWisconsin: You’re doing a number of these Q&As, and we all read every word of them. You got a lot of questions about your relationship with Mike McCarthy during the first two you did. How has that relationship evolved through the good times and maybe the not-so-positive times, from your perspective?
Rodgers: I think it’s been a real good relationship. There’s been a lot of growing, I think, on both sides over the years. You see Mike as he was in ’06 as a head coach to now, he’s gone through some changes as he’s figured out what works best for motivating his players and what works best for the schedule and our bodies, and I’ve obviously made a lot of changes as far as my body composition and honing my mechanics. And it’s been fun to go through the process with him.
There’s a lot to be said about, for me, starting and finishing with a team, which is my goal. And for him, being a head coach for a number of years and probably getting another deal done soon. We’ve talked about finishing this thing out together, which would be a lot of fun. We’ve had a lot of successes, we’ve had just a couple rough spots, a couple disappointments that we’ve shared together, but I have a lot of respect for him as a person. He had my back, as did the organization, in 2008, which meant a lot to me and I never forgot that. And he’s believed in me through it all. I think there’s a lot of mutual respect that continues to grow and is there from a lot of time spent together – talking one-on-one, practice time, spending time outside the facility – and I think that only enhances our relationship. And I think it would be really fun to win a couple more and then go out together.
ESPNWisconsin: Obviously, you’re not going anywhere and he’s not going anywhere, and your legacies would appear inextricably linked as a result. Do you both need to be vigilant to make sure that when there is conflict – and he has said before that conflict is good because it leads to resolution – that you guys ultimately end up in a good spot? Especially if, as you told Ty Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, you believe ‘there's two alpha dogs leading the sled, not one.’ Because don’t two alpha dogs usually fight?
Rodgers: Well, when I was in Alaska (on a 2008 goodwill mission to the Fort Wainwright U.S. Army base in Fairbanks), I saw a dog race. And there were two lead dogs. And when those two lead dogs got out of those kennels, the rest of the dogs paid attention to what was going on. I think that Mike’s the lead dog in the meeting room and on the sidelines, and I’m the lead dog on the field. And it takes two guys, connected, to get this thing done. And he understands that, I understand that, and I think we’ve found a way over the years to really make this thing work, and we’re going to continue to make it work even better.
ESPNWisconsin: We’ve used the word ‘legacy’ quite a bit today. Do you think about your legacy – winning more Super Bowls, more MVPs, being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – or are you too busy focusing on the little things that you have to do to build that legacy to spend too much thinking about it?
Rodgers: I think it has to be on your mind. I think it really does. Because it could be done at any point. If you worry too much about it, or you say, ‘Oh, I’ll figure that out when I’m done’ or ‘That’ll take care of itself,’ I think you might miss some things along the way. So I’ve tried to keep that in my mind, that the things I do on and off the field are going to be part of my legacy at the end. And it’s got to be authentic, your leadership does. But it has to be intentional as well. And I think those two can work hand-in-hand. If it’s authentic, but it’s also intentional – spending time with guys, getting to know guys, encouraging guys the right way – that all to me adds up to being remembered as the type of leader and teammate that you want to be remembered as. And then, the stuff that I’ve learned about preparation, and health and wellness, that allows me to be ready to play on Sundays. And then, it’s about execution, and that’s the football part of it. You put those two together, and that’s a legacy. So it has to be on your mind.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.