From humble beginnings and bumpy roads, I talk candidly about the man on and off the field, giving insight into why Aaron Rodgers is more than just the best quarterback in the NFL, but a unique and likable individual. A man who didn't always have things go his way; yet through his struggles, he was able to find his strengths, his humility and his humanity.
I remember the first time I saw Aaron Rodgers, sitting in the back of a bus loaded with college recruits and family. My first observation was that he looked like a little high school kid who had just discovered hair under his armpits.
He wore a baseball cap which seemed to cover his face, yet I could still make out his idealistic smile and wisdom behind the eyes. I sat down in his general area, and at some point he and I introduced ourselves. I remember how surprised I was when he told me he played quarterback. My initial impression was that he was a place kicker or punter, judging from his frail and meager stature.
Coincidentally, Aaron’s first summer in Cal was spent living in an old, enormous, relatively empty frat house just off campus right across the hall from myself. There were a few of us temporarily lodged away there for the month; we paid rent by doing odd clean-up jobs around the house.
Aaron shared a room with his Butte junior college teammate, tight end Garrett Cross, while I was in a room with running back J.J Arrington. That summer month in the dirty frat house gave Aaron, Garrett and I time to get to know each other well enough to all agree to become roommates once the season and fall semester started.
During that time, I would say Aaron was a fairly reserved guy who had a distinct sense of humor, which he seemed reluctant to unleash because of its “nerdish tendencies.”
I could relate to this feeling. We shared some similarities in our hesitation to let people in right away, so Garrett became more of a buffer between us as we slowly improved our comfort levels with each other. However, this comfort was always kept at a relatively distant level.
It’s hard for me to analyze the dynamics at play between our personalities, but it seemed we both had a strange disconnect, preventing a deeper comfort level and trust, yet we both were fond of one another and enjoyed our living arrangement and friendship. After all, we liked each other well enough to become roommates during our first year in college.
The Emergence of a Legend
That July, during practices on the rugby field above the stadium, Rodgers showed off his arm for the first time in the presence of the Cal football team. It didn’t take long before whispers regarding such impressive strength began to circulate around the team.
After enough talk had consistently found its way into my dense skull, I decided to assess things for myself. So when I had a free moment away from defensive line drills, I focused in on the mechanics and arm strength of Cal’s new QB acquisition.
At that time, Reggie Robertson was slotted in as the solid starter after the recent departure of Kyle Boller, who was drafted in the first round earlier that same year. Robertson was a senior that season who had waited patiently over four years for his opportunity to start.
The difference in spin and velocity between these two guys as I watched them throw passes to receivers running routes was astounding. Aaron's throws were crisp, tight spirals which zipped through the air in a straight line as if on a rope. Reggie’s throws were soft and wobbly by comparison. He was reasonably accurate, but his lack of velocity would allow for defenders to close the gaps on his throws much quicker.
Even so, no one really knew what was to become of Aaron. Hundreds of quarterbacks have come and gone, all of whom could launch the ball with robot-like power. But the mark of a great QB is not measured in arm strength or physical dimensions; although many experts are likely to tell you differently. A quarterback’s true greatness resides in his heart and his mind—two places scouts have yet to accurately measure or predict.
This common erroneous emphasis was in fact one of the main reasons Aaron's destiny had led him to Berkeley, as the guy nobody paid any attention to.
Even the great ones have growing pains. Sometimes these struggles can be so painful they can forever destroy confidence. Other times, they can be that key element in the very necessary maturation process.
On October 4 , 2003, Cal was set to play Oregon State at home following an unbelievable upset over USC. This would be only the third start ever for Aaron. He started the first half of the USC game but was replaced by Robertson in the second half after his confidence began to falter as the game wore on.
I can only imagine what the pressure must be like to be the starting quarterback of a big-time college football program, performing in front of thousands of fans. Unless you have ice in your veins, adjusting to a stage of that magnitude seems to be a major process.
Aaron started the game playing horrible football. He was extremely uncomfortable, completing just two of his first 14 passes. The speed of the game and constant pressure Oregon State applied to our offense was clearly giving Aaron more than he could handle at the time. Head coach Jeff Tedford decided to let the young quarterback play his way through the struggles.
By the time the final whistle had blown, Oregon State had won 35-21. Aaron finished the game despite the paralyzing boos of the home crowd. He completed just nine passes on 34 attempts for only 52 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception.
I was too busy playing in the game to really notice how well Aaron had publicly handled such a terrible performance in what was his first complete home game in front of his family, friends, and the home crowd in general. Unfortunately, this was a bad day in Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood.
That night, back in our dorms, Aaron had been in his room all night with the door closed. So one of our roommates Francis and I decided to check in on him to see how he was holding up. When we went in the room, Aaron was laying in bed crying, profoundly disappointed in his performance. He told us that he felt as though he let the entire team down and the entire loss was his fault.
I could remember us trying to offer up some words of encouragement, which did seem to dilute his state of utter despair. But for the most part, this was an emotional process that Aaron absolutely had to go through to become the quarterback he is today. That was the worst game Aaron had ever played in his entire football career. In the end, he emerged a stronger person, better leader, and will be forever reminded of his own humility.
Seeing the man and quarterback he has become, it’s always interesting when I look back on that night in his bedroom, watching a boy become a man almost overnight.
After that game, Aaron Rodgers and the Golden Bears would go on to win five of the next seven games that season, including a barn-burner and major upset over Virginia Tech in the Insight Bowl.
It was in this game that Aaron took his skills to the next level and became one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. This inertia guided Aaron and the Bears into the 2004 season with great momentum.
Early on in the 2004 season, the Golden Bears had established themselves as a top-10 team in the nation heading into the much-anticipated undefeated matchup against the top-ranked USC Trojans at the Coliseum. A team who we had beaten last year handed us our only loss of the season. There was clearly a lot of bad blood going into this game, and the atmosphere was one of the craziest I had ever been a part of.
In a hostile environment and a nationally televised game, Aaron not only played great, but he tied an NCAA record with 23 straight completions. And he did this against one of the best defenses in the nation, on the road, and in front of one of the noisiest crowds I have ever experienced.
It was on this day that the nation began to hear the name Aaron Rodgers. It was this game that catapulted him into the first round of the draft and truly displayed what appeared to be unlimited potential. His poise in the pocket and total command of the offense, coupled with pinpoint accuracy, is the reason why Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game today.
The Man Behind the Scenes?
Some interesting tidbits about Rodgers are bound to emerge after spending nearly every single day for almost two years with him.
During college, Rodgers was ridiculously enamored with Jessica Simpson; he seemed to even have it in his head that they were somehow going to get married. I believe this was around the time that she and Nick Lachey were newlyweds and had their own reality TV show.
Ironically, since that time, Aaron established himself as one of the best athletes in the world and Jessica actually dated another NFL quarterback in Tony Romo.
Funny to think of all the fantasy crushes men have in a lifetime, Aaron actually had a legitimate shot at his fantasy girl, but his desire for her fizzled out right around the time he was actually in a position to get hooked up with her. But “hooking up” with girls was never something Aaron prioritized in life.
Aaron was raised a devout Christian, and lived a life of strong religious values. He never spent his time in college drinking or partying. His discipline in life and foundation of beliefs were very admirable in an environment where he was often the odd man out.
This speaks strongly to the type of character it takes to be a great quarterback in the NFL. Dedication, self control and passion are often undervalued intangibles when you consider some of the first overall picks that have come and gone recently—guys like JaMarcus Russell for example.
Aaron was rarely, if ever, a guy you would find giving fiery speeches to his teammates, nor was he a big vocal leader. Rather, he would come in every day completely prepared to succeed at his job. I often wonder how much Aaron must have learned over the years from Brett Favre in terms of leadership and earning respect from his teammates. I’m sure, however, Aaron will always prefer to lead with his actions first and foremost.
An interesting tradition Aaron had was wearing an old, worn out, white Joe Montana T-shirt under his shoulder pads for every single game. Montana was always his favorite player growing up.
The world may know a charismatic, somewhat-stylish guy with lots of cool and a personality made for marketing. But the Aaron we all knew in college was much different. He used to drive around campus on a small scooter with a big bike helmet and the exact same hair cut as Lloyd Christmas from the movie” Dumb and Dumber,” which ultimately became one of his nicknames.
For being the starting quarterback of a Pac-10 football program, Aaron was surprisingly unknown and low-key around campus. There was little fanfare surrounding him, and he was often lost among the crowd in our locker room.
There was an obvious confidence and likability with the way he carried himself, yet he also managed to keep a distance from most people through school and even on the team. One of his favorite pastimes, and an alternative to college partying, was a nice poker game with a select group of friends.
The biggest complaint Rodgers consistently received as a roommate from the guys at the dorm was he routinely poured himself bowls of cereal and would never wash his dishes. He was the main culprit for creating a sink full of dishes that he would never clean, no matter how long the dishes sat there, or how many times you said something to him.
Aside from that, he was always a joy and a pleasure to be around. Very upbeat, positive and willing to be silly and let loose with the guys.
In closing, I remember a few conversations I had with Aaron in regards to quarterbacking. I remember we were discussing the differences between Joe Montana and Steve Young. I believe I gave him a convincing argument about one of the highly underestimated skills that Young brought to the table with his fantastic ability to scramble. I remember emphasizing how important that was and what it can do to defenses.
A scrambling QB never has to force passes into coverage because, if nobody is open, he can just tuck and run for a first down, thus keeping the chains moving. This is a great alternative to throwing the ball away as well.
Basically, a QB who can both throw and run at an elite level is virtually unstoppable. I was telling him that I love it when he takes off and runs and that he should always keep that option in mind.
Watching Aaron Rodgers play the quarterback position at a level which I’ve never seen in history makes it fun to imagine that, in my fantasy world, I helped to create his dual-threat style as perhaps the most effective and efficient scrambling QB in the game today.
C’mon, every guy can dream right? After all, Aaron has undoubtedly shown me that dreams can come true.