Aaron Rodgers remembers when you didn't care about him. He even appreciates it, and sometimes, he's nostalgic for it. But he'd still like to remind you to be polite.
Photos by Adam Ryan Morris
The lobby lounge is packed, the cacophony of conversation drowning out a jazz number the pianist is quietly playing in the background. Only Pfister Hotel regulars know that the man sitting at the baby grand, Dr. Jeffrey Hollander, is internationally renowned, and at the moment, the guy checking in at the front desk can only wish to be so ignored.
Instead, a woman in her mid-20s has set her sights on him. She barges in, oblivious to a conversation already underway, her iPhone camera at the ready. Nothing is about to stop her from Instagramming, tweeting and Facebooking her brush with stardom, certainly not the schmo he’s talking with.
“I’ve got to get a picture with you,” she says to him, in a way that suggests she’s not about to take no for an answer.
This is not the way Aaron Rodgers would like the interaction to play out. He understands the woman’s excitement, appreciates the fact that meeting him is so important to her. But there has to be a better way.
These days, the Green Bay Packers star quarterback and reigning National Football League Most Valuable Player has plenty of projects he’s working on: leading his team to another Super Bowl title, avenging last year’s excruciating and premature playoff exit, winning another MVP award, earning a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – all items on his personal to-do list. But Rodgers has another endeavor, too. One so simple, and yet elusive: He wants people to be polite.
“This is not a ‘me’ issue or a ‘she’ issue. What you have to realize about this fight is, one, it’s a losing battle. And two, they’re probably never going to get it,” Rodgers explains.
He knows it’s one thing for Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy on HBO’s “The Newsroom” to be on a “mission to civilize.” That guy’s got Aaron Sorkin writing his lines, and the fictional backlash only lasts for an episode. But Rodgers, who knows full well that this can come across as preachy or self-righteous, insists it’s important.
“Can we have a normal conversation?” he says. “That would be so refreshing. But it’s not even a question anymore. It’s, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get a picture with you.’ And saying no is like you punched their grandma. I’ve always been a firm believer in a solid handshake and eye contact and trying to remember people’s names. It’s disappointing to me when the pleasantries are forgotten.
“I’m never giving up that fight.”
Rodgers, as self-aware as any player in any sport in today’s age of TMZ and Deadspin, knows how his little Emily Post routine could make him look. But Rodgers is not just another professional athlete who wants the best of both worlds, who absorbs the adoration of millions of fans while refusing to interact with them. He says he sincerely enjoys talking with fans – and are there any more passionate fans in American sports than Packers fans? – but he’d like to run to the Oneida Street Shopko to pick up a waffle griddle (as he did on the day after Christmas last year) and blend in with every other bargain shopper.
A few weeks after the Pfister encounter (he didn’t pose for the picture), Rodgers is in Los Angeles. It’s the offseason, and he and some of his buddies have driven up from his San Diego home for the night. There are definite perks to being the hottest name in (sorry, baseball) America’s most popular sport. One of them is entry to A-list clubs. The place is teeming with Hollywood glitterati, but Rodgers, in designer jeans and an untucked dress shirt, is more bemused than impressed.
“I stick out like a sore thumb, I think. I’m in the scene, but not of the scene – to use a Bible reference,” he says. “It’s like Vegas. You can do a couple nights there, and then you’re worn out. A lot of people take themselves a little too seriously down there. Some people have to make sure they have their $100,000 car and their expensive wardrobe and their hat and their sunglasses and their certain look.
“I can’t be that person.”
Late in the night, a well-known actor – Rodgers won’t out him, only saying he’s played a superhero on the big screen – arrives at his table. And just like Miss Instagram, while playing up to the football hero, he ignores everyone else. That includes Rodgers’ older brother, Luke; his lifelong friend Ryan Zachary, who sports a Zach Galifianakis beard and answers to the nickname Papa; and his personal assistant, Kevin Lanflisi. Rodgers is not impressed with the actor’s act.
“I kind of judge how those people are based on how they are to people like Kevin,” Rodgers explains. “Kevin, he’s not a famous person. I want to see if they give Kevin the time of day, or if they big-time him.
Perhaps Rodgers is so keenly aware of how others treat perceived nobodies because, for much of his football life, he was treated like one himself.
The tale of his path from unrecruited high school quarterback in Chico, Calif., to NFL stardom has been well-worn over the years, but there are aspects worth retelling – snapshots that deliver insight into why he’s the way he is, how being viewed as a nobody time and again affected him so much that, upon becoming somebody, he never forgot.
Like one of his occasional golfing partners – a fellow named Michael Jordan – Rodgers has a mental filing cabinet for all the slights and misgivings. Every coach who doubts him, every rival who underestimates him, every big-time media personality who discredits him becomes one more coal in the competitive fire.
The habit started long ago. Despite entering high school at 5-foot-5, 135 pounds, Rodgers never lacked for confidence. His mother, Darla, remembers taking him to an interview for a private Christian school in Chico. The administrator asked Aaron what he’d bring to the school.
“Without batting an eye,” Darla recalls with a laugh, “he says, ‘I’ll make your sports teams better.’”
But despite that confidence, despite a major growth spurt to 6-2, 195, and despite a very good high school career, Rodgers received zero scholarship offers to play Division I football, the top collegiate level.
“I’d go online and look up the top quarterbacks,” Rodgers remembers. “And I was nowhere to be found on any of those lists. And I knew guys who were on those lists.”
Guys he thought he could at least compete with, if not beat outright.
“What am I missing here?” Rodgers would wonder. “That was definitely some motivation for me.”
His dream scenario had him playing for legendary coach Bobby Bowden at powerhouse Florida State. His more realistic targets were middling programs like Purdue and Colorado State. But when his senior season came and went in 2001 with no offers, he turned the tables and started recruiting the schools. He and his Pleasant Valley High School quarterbacks coach, Ron O’Dell, created a package that included game film and a cover letter written by Rodgers. He sent it off to those schools and others, and then waited by his mailbox.
The replies came. Not with scholarship offers. Most were a variation on one theme: You’re not good enough, kid. Only the letterhead changed.
“For a long time, he kept his rejection letters,” Darla says. “He kept them to motivate him.”
Rodgers still has one. It’s from a member of the Purdue coaching staff, and Rodgers can cite it verbatim.
Good luck with your attempt at a college football career.
Rebuffed by the top levels of college football, Rodgers took his 1310 SAT score (under the old scoring system, it put him in the 90th percentile) to play for Butte College. It’s a junior college just up the road from Chico in Oroville, Calif. But he remained determined to make the most of his junior college detour.
“That was the most important year of my young football career,” Rodgers says. “[We had] guys from all over the country and different countries. A guy from Canada, a 25-year-old center, guys who had been to prison, guys who had been bounce-backs from Division I, local guys. Trying to be an 18-year-old and lead those guys, I learned a lot about leadership and a lot about myself.”
He only spent the 2002 season at Butte because a Division I coach finally saw in Rodgers what he saw in himself. It was University of California-Berkeley head coach Jeff Tedford, who noticed Rodgers while watching game film to scout another player. Rodgers threw six touchdown passes.
“I’m thinking,” Tedford recalls, “‘Who is that quarterback?’”
The next Monday, Tedford made the 155-mile drive from Berkeley to Butte’s campus to see Rodgers in person. Butte coach Craig Rigsbee altered practice to let Rodgers show off his arm. On the drive back, Tedford called Rodgers and offered him a scholarship.
By the fifth week of the 2003 season, Rodgers was California’s starter. In two years, he would throw for 5,469 yards and 43 touchdowns with only 13 interceptions. The nation noticed. Unwanted by the big-time coaches out of high school, he finished ninth in voting for the 2004 Heisman Trophy, which goes to college football’s best player. He was just a junior but ready to declare for the NFL Draft. His “attempt at a college football career” had borne fruit after all.