GREEN BAY – 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 are 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 prepare 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 already gone 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 Brett 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 ...
“I think a lot of guys carry stuff like that around. I would never fault anybody for whatever motivates them. Whatever drives you, man, that’s your deal. You think about it, all of us have had people in our lives who told us we couldn’t do something. Even if you grew up in a country club, behind some gates, you still had people tell you you couldn’t do something. We’ve all had that.”
Greg Jennings has had it happen, too. A second-team all-state wide receiver in high school in Kalamazoo, Mich., Jennings desperately wanted to wear the maize and blue of the University of Michigan. He even orally committed to the school without visiting it. But then-Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr decided he wanted another prep wide receiver from Detroit – Braylon Edwards. Jennings ended up at Western Michigan instead, intent on showing Carr the error of his ways.
It still motivates him, even now, in his seventh season in the NFL.
“Knowing him and how he is, he’s definitely thought about it,” Jennings said of Rodgers and his 49ers snub. “This is a chance to stick it to the team that could’ve drafted him. This is his chance to say again, ‘You were wrong.’ I’m sure it’s in the back of his mind. I don’t think he’d say so. But it’s definitely something that he probably would love to do.
“His memory is unbelievable. I find it very impressive that he’s able to use that as fuel and actually utilize that. A lot of guys can take that and can try to use it as fuel and it’s hurting them because they’re carrying too much of it and they let it affect him. But him, it drives him. It drives him.
“When somebody tells him he’s not as good as some other guy, he won’t say anything about it. But he may subtly throw out a comment, and he means every bit of it.”
Jennings paused and pointed to the Nike Jumpman logo on the 1/4-zip pullover he was wearing, referring to Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived – and a legendary grudge-holder who once used his Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech to detail every slight, real or perceived, that ever motivated him.
“(He’s like) this guy,” Jennings said, smirking. “For someone to pretty much tell you that you’re not good enough … When you get rejected, if that doesn’t propel you and drive you to want to prove everybody wrong, something’s really wrong with you in my humble opinion. Some people can sit back and say, ‘You know what? They may be right.’ My mindset, the way I’m built, no.
“In my case, it was as pretty much, [Michigan] chose Braylon over me. And Braylon’s had” – pause, smile – “a great career.” (Edwards’ career NFL numbers: Eight years, 112 games, 359 receptions, 5,522 yards, 40 touchdowns, no Super Bowls. Jennings’ career numbers: Seven years, 96 games, 425 receptions, 6,537 yards, 53 TDs, one Super Bowl XLV ring.)
This week, Rodgers has been his typically media-savvy self with the storyline. He’s diffused it with humor, pithy quotes (“Different coach, different me”) or by changing the subject. He’s made no reference to the draft-day snub during preparation, according to his coaches and teammates.
“He was hopeful at that time to be drafted by them, but I think he’s happy with how it turned out. He never talks about it,” said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach until this season and confidant since his arrival in Green Bay. “It’s a playoff game, a game away from the (NFC) Championship Game. I don’t think he’s worried about what happened eight years ago. He’s concerned with what’s going on now.”
That, he is. And what he can do now is get his team to the NFC Championship Game – something he’d want to do regardless of the opponent. But don’t discount how much it would mean to him to do it at the expense of the team that didn’t want him.
“He was like this in the playoffs (the last two years) – just real intense, real focused. He’s not saying too much. You can tell on his face he’s just focused,” said wide receiver James Jones, another of Rodgers’ friends who grew up in the Bay Area.
“But if you’re an athlete and you’re competitive and they take another guy over you, I would hope you would want to knock that team out. I’m sure he has that in the back of his mind. If you felt like you should’ve been the first pick in the draft, and you felt like you should have been with the Niners, I’m sure anybody with pride wants to play well against them. I’m sure that’s all he’s getting at. I’m sure he wants to put them out, the team that didn’t draft them.”
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.