From Junior College to 1st-Round Pick: The College Recruitment of Aaron Rodgers

Tyler Donohue@@TDsTakeNational Recruiting AnalystFebruary 2, 2016

Photo courtesy of Butte Community College

Ron Souza fielded a consistent question in varying forms as the 2005 NFL draft approached. 

What was wrong with Aaron Rodgers

Professional football scouts wanted to know how the potential multimillion-dollar franchise quarterback failed to land a single Division I scholarship offer just three years earlier.

"One general manager told me, 'Guys like this don't just fall out of the sky. People find out about this kind of ability when they're 15 or 16 years old.' I got a chuckle out of that," Souza said.

Souza, Rodgers' former position coach at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, California, would politely field these inquiries while examining a photo collage of former players on his desk. 

"There's Aaron as a sophomore at about 5'6", 125 pounds. He's just a midget. How did people miss on him? Here it is," Souza said. 

Once overlooked with regularity, Rodgers now resides in the middle of the NFL spotlight.

"He's the type of person that doesn't have doubt in himself," former Pleasant Valley head coach Sterling Jackson said. "You knew that can-do attitude would take him as far as he could go. We weren't sure where that would be, but now we know."

Rodgers won his first Super Bowl title a decade after struggling to attract interest from colleges.
Rodgers won his first Super Bowl title a decade after struggling to attract interest from colleges.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

Long before he became a Green Bay Packers icon and Hall of Fame lock, Rodgers was a football savant whose mental maturity in the sport surpassed his physical growth.

"The reality is, he arrived as a 5'3" freshman, his [junior varsity] year I think he was 5'7" and his senior year he started at 6'0", 180 pounds," Souza recalled. "But Aaron always had an incredible understanding for the game."

Rodgers' passion for football drew him to the San Francisco 49ers, who played just a few hours away from his home in Northern California. Even at a young age, he would do more than simply watch as a fan.

"He loved the 49ers, but he also studied them," Jackson said. "Aaron was one of those kids who just wanted to dive into the sport and all of its aspects. He would come in Mondays after seeing something happen over the weekend and be able to recite every dynamic of the game."

This quickly became a staple of early game-week preparation during high school seasons.

"He would talk about defenses that the 49ers saw, whether it was a nickel or dime package that he could relate to the high school level, and look at ways to create mismatches," Souza said. "He would apply that to high school competition and coordinate routes that were best suited for our personnel instead of Jerry Rice."

Rodgers stepped into the starting quarterback role at Pleasant Valley in 2000 as a junior. Despite his lack of prototypical size, he was ready for the moment.

It didn't take long for Rodgers to find his rhythm behind center, earning the trust of Pleasant Valley's coaching staff and later going on to set the school's single-season record for passing yards (2,303) during his senior campaign in 2001.

"Aaron has always handled himself well under pressure," Souza said. "He didn't get rattled and remained undaunted in situations where other players would lose focus. He has that ability to rise above and make the people around him better."

That effort warranted All-Section honors but didn't do much for the quarterback's collegiate outlook.

The only consistent contact from college coaching staffs came from lower-tier programs in the Northwest, such as Southern Oregon and Lewis & Clark College, among others.

Jackson attempted to help elevate his star's status shortly before the 2001 season, when they attended a camp at the University of Illinois. 

"We took him to this camp at Illinois and [it] felt like he was the best quarterback on their campus. The frustrating part for us was trying to convince coaches to look past his size and give him a little time to mature," Jackson said. "College coaches wanted highly rated quarterback recruits who they felt were already proven and physically prepared. We just wanted someone to give him a chance."

Rodgers added approximately two inches and 15 pounds as a senior, according to Souza, and even though he also excelled as a student, he still struggled to attract attention as a possible Division I scholarship athlete.

"Our society in sports, especially football, is so driven by the 'eye test.' At quarterback, they want you to look a certain way. I'm sure that definitely deterred some people from giving him an opportunity," Jackson said.

Souza, also the head baseball coach at Pleasant Valley, convinced Rodgers to spend his final high school spring on the mound. A natural athlete and competitor, he was hurling 90 mph pitches before long.

"He was pretty dejected about the lack of recruiting interest, so we got him to come out for baseball, and he had a lot of success that season," Souza said. "I think it was great to get his mind off football for a bit in order to help him get over that frustration. There's no doubt in my mind he could've had a future in baseball, but Aaron wasn't ready to walk away from football."

Rodgers, who grew up a San Francisco fan, has thrown 14 career touchdowns against the 49ers.
Rodgers, who grew up a San Francisco fan, has thrown 14 career touchdowns against the 49ers.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Craig Rigsbee, then the head football coach at nearby Butte Community College, reached out about the overlooked quarterback. Following a phone conversation with the Rodgers family, Rigsbee realized the quarterback lived just one cul-de-sac over from his home.

"It's amazing how things worked out like that," he said. "I was at their door in a hurry."

Rigsbee, now the athletic director at Butte College, made the short walk through a field to the Rodgers home and immediately understood he might be facing an uphill battle to bring in the quarterback.

"Aaron's mother was like, 'Hey, my son has worked too hard in school to attend a junior college.' So I really needed to take my time explaining our football program and the situation," Rigsbee said. 

Rodgers was searching for increased credibility as a college recruit, and Butte at least offered him a shot. 

"Aaron's main concern was whether he could leave after one year for a Division I opportunity," Rigsbee said. "Of course, I'm thinking he needed to slow down there because we already had a starting QB who was returning. I explained the depth chart to Aaron, but all he wanted was for me to look him in the eye and promise I would give him a chance."

By the time Rodgers enrolled at Butte College in 2002, his physical stature was beginning to match his already impressive mental makeup. He arrived as a freshman standing about 6'2", 200 pounds, immediately entering a position battle with the program's incumbent starting quarterback.

"They were actually very close during the first week of practice, and then we saw some separation," Rigsbee recalled. "The other guy had been there for years and Aaron had only been there for days, but he already knew the offense better. Aaron started making plays we weren't used to seeing at practice."

Rodgers arrived at Butte College intent on starting as a freshman.
Rodgers arrived at Butte College intent on starting as a freshman.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Despite a consensus among assistants that the veteran "deserved" the spot, Rigsbee simply couldn't see the season unfolding with his intriguing freshman playmaker sequestered on the bench.

Rodgers, then just 18 years old, was anointed the starter on a team featuring multiple players in their mid-20s. His competition quit the team weeks later, leaving him as the unquestioned offensive leader. 

"Once he gained that confidence as a freshman, there was no turning back," Rigsbee said.

Rodgers spearheaded a 10-1 season for the Roadrunners, who claimed a NorCal Conference championship and climbed to as high as No. 2 in the national junior college rankings. He completed nearly 62 percent of his pass attempts, compiling 2,408 yards, 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions on 265 attempts. 

The school's record book was rewritten, as Rodgers set new single-game marks for total yards and touchdowns.

Along the way, he caught the eye of Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, who established his reputation teaching eventual first-round NFL draft picks Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, David Carr and Joey Harrington. 

Kyle Boller, Tedford's first starting quarterback at Cal, would become the Baltimore Ravens' first-round pick in 2003. It was time to find his next project.

Tight end Garrett Cross, the recipient of 10 Rodgers touchdown tosses in 2002, compelled Tedford to turn on the Butte College game tape that fall.

"We were looking for a tight end, so I was watching Garrett's tape and I was really impressed by the quarterback. He jumped off the screen at me as a guy who had a lot of good things going for him," said Tedford, who most recently served as head coach of the BC Lions franchise in the Canadian Football League.

He didn't hesitate to call the school.

Jeff Tedford watched Aaron Rodgers throw for 43 touchdowns in two seasons at Cal.
Jeff Tedford watched Aaron Rodgers throw for 43 touchdowns in two seasons at Cal.DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press

"Jeff Tedford gets on the phone with me and he's asking all about Aaron, saying how impressed he was by the film," Rigsbee said. "He asked me who else was recruiting him. The answer was nobody, and he said, 'Good. I'll be up there tomorrow.'"

Though he didn't meet with Rodgers during that visit as he awaited word on whether the QB could leave Butte after one year, Tedford gathered plenty of positives while watching him practice.

"He was very talented throwing the ball and athletic moving around, but I came away even more impressed by his leadership ability," Tedford said. "His team followed him, and he was in command. He was running the show."

Rodgers' attitude, combined with physical attributes that no longer failed the eye test, compelled Tedford to pull the trigger.

"Once I was there and saw his demeanor, leadership, athleticism and other characteristics that are important for a quarterback, it was an easy decision for us to offer him," he said.

Tedford called Rodgers hours later. A scholarship was formally extended before the Cal coach arrived back in Berkeley.

Less than a year after choosing between junior college and Division III possibilities, Rodgers relished the milestone moment.

"Aaron was grateful for the chance, but he's too smart to jump at something unknown," Tedford said. "It was a matter of him learning more about Berkeley and our situation. He did his research and gave us a chance to build a relationship."

Rodgers was ready to commit within weeks, though he considered coaches and teammates at Butte College before taking the plunge.

"Aaron comes in to tell me he's excited about his offer from Cal, but he's also saying he's not sure if he's going to take it because we had a chance to be really good the next year," Rigsbee said. "I told him even if I had to drive him down there myself, he was going to Cal."

Rodgers would win the starting job during his first year with the Golden Bears and ultimately play in 25 games at Cal. He threw for 5,469 yards, 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during two seasons in Berkeley before declaring for the NFL draft as a junior. 

Just like that, the kid who couldn't convince a top-notch college coaching staff to accept him out of high school was charting his own career path.

"I got to sit and learn and be with the disappointment," Rodgers told author Bruce Feldman. "Those experiences can either strengthen your character or make you really bitter. Thankfully for me, it really strengthened my character and gave me a good resolve."

Green Bay selected Rodgers 24th overall in the 2005 NFL draft. Since replacing Packers legend Brett Favre, he has earned a Super Bowl title and two league MVPs.

"Aaron has been striving for perfection for a long, long time," Jackson said.

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

The scrawny teenager pictured in Souza's collage already holds dozens of Packers franchise records and is presently the NFL's all-time leader in career passer rating (104.1).

"He's always had the mental sharpness and fundamental mechanics. These are basic attributes he's built on over the years," Souza said. "What we're seeing him do now, though, it's at a Ph.D. level. He's changing the way quarterback is played."

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue. Recruit ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake.