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.
By April 2005, most experts had pegged Rodgers as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, ticketed for the San Francisco 49ers, the team he’d grown up worshiping. A week before the draft, Rodgers sat in the office of the 49ers’ offensive coordinator – Mike McCarthy, who wouldn’t become Green Bay’s head coach until 2006. Rodgers was convinced the 49ers would make him the first pick. The scenario was simply too perfect.
Then the 49ers didn’t take him, and the rest became dramatic draft history. Players expected to be high picks are invited to attend the draft, where they walk out on stage to soak in the moment once a team selects them. So as team after team bypassed Rodgers, he spent 4 1/2 humbling hours waiting on-camera in the green room, an unwanted man yet again, only this time on national TV. Around came the 24th pick, owned by Green Bay. And the Packers, well, they already had a quarterback: Brett Favre. They just weren’t sure for how long.
“There was talk [Favre] was going to retire the next season,” remembers John Dorsey, Green Bay’s director of football operations, then the team’s college scouting director. “Obviously he didn’t, but in order to sustain a high success level, you’d better have a young quarterback in the fold who’s ready to step onto the center stage when it’s time. And we’d always said three years is the optimal time for a young quarterback to sit there and learn everything.”
That’s how long Rodgers would get. For those three years, he was back to being a nobody, a bench player whose highlights were seen only by coaches reviewing practice film. But he made the most of it, turning practice into his personal proving ground while winning the respect and support of his fellow nobodies.
Meanwhile, Favre wasn’t interested in mentoring his eventual successor. Shortly after Rodgers was drafted, Favre made it clear in an ESPN interview that coaching the new QB wasn’t part of his job description. So Rodgers had to learn by watching, not only noting what he should do when he got his shot, but also what he shouldn’t.
His cold relationship with Favre colored how Rodgers eventually forged strong relationships with his own backups – Matt Flynn, who’s now in Seattle, and new backup Graham Harrell. More recently, Rodgers extended that approach to rookie seventh-round draft pick B.J. Coleman, who, in the most ironic of twists, was mentored in the days leading up to this year’s draft by none other than the now-retired Favre. Coleman and Favre are both represented by agent James “Bus” Cook.
In fairness to Favre, neither Flynn nor Harrell were first-round picks like Rodgers. They didn’t represent the big investment (and accompanying threat) that Rodgers did. But Rodgers watched the Packers use a 2008 second-round pick on quarterback Brian Brohm, who some NFL analysts predicted would wrest the starting job away from Rodgers. (A fact Rodgers most assuredly has not forgotten.)
“No matter who it is, Aaron is always very helpful,” Harrell said during the 2012 preseason. “And that doesn’t change no matter where you are on the depth chart. I feel like he’s pretty secure in his position, so he does everything he can to help everyone else.”
And why shouldn’t Rodgers feel secure? After all, he survived the summer of 2008.
It tore Wisconsin in two, becoming nothing less than a football civil war. In March 2008, Favre announced his retirement. Then he rescinded it and wanted to keep playing. But the Packers had already given his old job to Rodgers, so they told Favre thanks, but no thanks. They’d eventually trade Favre to the New York Jets, but across the state, battle lines were drawn. Fans rallied to one banner or the other, to Favre or the Packers.
In the middle of it was Rodgers, who’d gone from nobody to lightning rod, the innocent bystander replacing the most beloved player the franchise had ever known. In time, public opinion would change, helped by Favre’s choice of playing for the archrival Minnesota Vikings after the Jets. But in that summer of 2008, Favre supporters took their frustration out on Rodgers.
If it wasn’t a U.S. serviceman during Rodgers’ goodwill military mission to Alaska telling him he’d never live up to Favre, it was a “fan” standing outside the Lambeau Field players parking lot lobbing F-bombs. If it wasn’t walking out to practice and hearing a 10-year-old shout, “Rodgers, you suck!” it was that faction of “railbirds” who made “We Want Brett!” their mating call throughout training camp.
The soap opera played out daily on TV, from breathless minute-by-minute updates on ESPN to Favre’s angry three-part interview with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. He passive-aggressively pointed out Rodgers’ thin resume, among other things: “I do feel bad for Aaron a little bit. I think he’ll do a fine job. … He has been injured.” It was true. Rodgers had hamstring issues in 2007. And while playing in relief of an injured Favre during a 2006 game, Rodgers suffered a broken foot. Although he finished the game, it cost him the rest of that season. Still, Favre’s reminder came off as petty.
Through it all, Rodgers largely refused to be drawn into the controversy. There was one seized-upon quote in a July 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated, when he said fans needed “to get on board now or keep their mouths shut.” When that went public, Rodgers insisted the quote was creatively edited, saying it would bother him “if anybody would be offended by the things that were stated because I do care about the fans.” Beyond that, you’ll find no record of him lashing out – not at Favre or the incessant media coverage – nor will you hear stories of him complaining how unfair and ridiculous the whole thing was.
“I think he handled the whole Brett Favre thing with the utmost class and respect,” says Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Daryn Colledge, Rodgers’ friend and teammate for five years in Green Bay. And Greg Jennings, who caught the ball that gave Favre the most touchdown passes in NFL history, says this of Rodgers: “I’m not sure if anybody else could’ve stepped up to the plate and answered the bell the way he has.”
For his part, Rodgers never felt sorry for himself. “I didn’t look at it like I was going through something that was unfair to me,” Rodgers says. “I was going to get an opportunity to do something I always wanted to do. So until I heard differently, that was my focus.”
It didn’t take long for Rodgers to vindicate the Packers’ faith. On Feb. 6, 2011, he led the Packers to a 31-25 win over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV. He was the game’s MVP, and his celebrity status beyond Wisconsin took off – appearances on David Letterman, offers to do “Saturday Night Live” and starring roles in national advertising campaigns.
But for him, the ascension was marked by simpler things. Like finally being seen as a “celebrity” in Lake Tahoe’s American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, an event he’s played since 2005.
“Before winning the Super Bowl, the people at the Tahoe tournament probably wouldn’t even know how many years I’ve been there,” Rodgers says. “And last year, they put me on the cover of the program. And to me, that’s the coolest thing – to see the change from being a nobody rookie, and a nobody backup, and then finally a starter, and now …”
Rodgers won’t call Michael Jordan his friend. He intentionally uses the word “friendly” to describe their relationship. He also admits to not having Jordan’s cell phone number because he doesn’t want to ask for it before Jordan asks for his. But they’ve played golf together on multiple occasions, including at the Tahoe tournament. And both men are grinning in a banner photo on the Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational golf tourney’s website.
Rodgers remembers Jordan’s Basketball Hall of Fame acceptance speech, and when pressed on the subject, he acknowledges there might be a similarity or two in their personalities. But if someday Rodgers finds himself in Canton, Ohio, wearing a goldenrod sports coat as the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s newest player, it’s hard to imagine his own induction speech sounding similar. For the better part of nearly 23 minutes, Jordan rattled off every snub, every instance of disrespect – real or concocted – he’d endured. He didn’t come off well, but he made his point.
Someday, Rodgers could make the same point using college coaches who didn’t recruit him (to Purdue and elsewhere), NFL execs who didn’t draft him (22 teams, including Dallas, which passed twice), TV talking heads who’ve doubted him and Packers fans who didn’t think him worthy of Favre’s turf.
Rodgers admits that’s all part of what drove him, but only part.
“I have a really good memory,” Rodgers says. “But I think most of that stuff is outside motivation, which is important but doesn’t equal my own motivation. I’ve been motivated since I was young, just because I wanted to be the best at what I did.”
And now he is. You can no longer have a conversation about the NFL’s best players without mentioning his name. His 2011 MVP award commemorated one of the greatest statistical seasons in NFL history. He threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. His 122.5 passer rating (a formulaic but ultimately unscientific way of measuring quarterbacking greatness) is the best single-season mark ever. And the Packers, despite having the league’s worst defense in 2011 and the worst pass defense in the history of the game, flirted with a perfect campaign. They finished the regular season with 15 wins and 1 loss, settling for a franchise-best mark.
All that mattered little in January, when the Packers picked the worst time to play their worst football in a playoff loss to the New York Giants, the eventual Super Bowl champs and a team they’d beaten in December. Rodgers insists he got over the loss quickly, a surprising claim for a guy who’s called himself “obsessively competitive.”
“Vince Lombardi had a great quote about, ‘Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.’ I think that’s pretty true in my life,” Rodgers says. “I’m not really OK with losing; for me, it’s about realizing that I don’t find my identity in football, and that helps me to move on past difficult times. Otherwise, it would eat me up for an entire year.”
But for the rest of the world, his identity is football. It has catapulted him to stardom, and he is caught in a paradox.
The word lingers on Rodgers’ tongue. For all of his success, he misses one good thing that came with being a nobody: He got to be normal.
“I like my anonymity, I like my privacy,” Rodgers says, knowing he may be tilting at windmills given his level of popularity.
But he can’t fathom the next strata of fame. He’s spent time around a few uber-celebs, including actor/musician Justin Timberlake, whom he met through mutual friend Chad Clifton (the former Packers lineman). When Timberlake came to Green Bay for a game a few years back, Rodgers watched intently to see how Timberlake interacted with people – from friends to fans. And from his own observations – the two never discussed the topic – Rodgers came away convinced his fight for courtesy and normalcy was worth the effort
“He’s one of those megastars – the George Clooneys, the Brad Pitts, Michael Jordans. And those people really appreciate a normal conversation,” Rodgers says. “I learned being around Justin just how important that was. I’m not anywhere close to their stardom, and I hope I don’t get there because they have a ridiculously scrutinized lack of public life.”
Here in Wisconsin, where nobody’s bigger than the former nobody, it’s hard to imagine Rodgers as anything but scrutinized. Even the Milwaukee Brewers called upon him to help sell tickets in a summer ad campaign. And where in this state could he possibly go without being hounded by starstruck fans?
Well, maybe somewhere. He hopes, anyway.
“In my opinion, there are times when I should be ‘on’ as Aaron Rodgers the quarterback, and there’s times when I should have the freedom to be a normal person. And in those situations …”
He trails off. For a moment, he’s back in the Pfister Hotel lobby.
“It shouldn’t be that hard,” he says softly. “Should it?”