'Grudge' Drives Driver Toward Yardage Record

Donald Driver enters Thursday's season-opener just 42 yards from owning the team's receiving record. "I tell people all the time, if I would have gone first round, I don't know if I would have been as hungry as I am now."

At heart, Donald Driver will always be the seventh-round draft pick who was the 25th wide receiver selected in the 1999 draft.

Never mind that he's a mere 42 yards away from breaking James Lofton's franchise record for receiving yardage and is just two receptions away from becoming the 33rd player in NFL history to reach 700 career catches. Never mind that he's the No. 1 pass catcher in team history by more than 100 grabs. Never mind that he's a three-time Pro Bowler and a certain Packers Hall of Famer. No, the 36-year-old remains hungry to prove his doubters — those who doubted his talent before the draft, those who doubted him early in his career and those who doubt he's got anything left in the tank now — wrong.

"That's the grudge. That's the grudge I carry every day," Driver told Packer Report this week, a few minutes after the horde of reporters left his locker without — incredibly — asking Driver about his pursuit of Lofton's yardage record. "I tell people all the time, if I would have gone first round, I don't know if I would have been as hungry as I am now. God has a plan for everyone. For me to do everything that I've done and then to come back and feel this way — that I feel like I'm not done yet, even when people tell me they think I'm done — for me to come out and just prove week in and week out that I can still play at this high level, that's what I'm grateful for. I love criticism. I can smile about it because it's so fun to know that I can hold a grudge but not to the point where I won't speak to the person. I think it motivates me to go out there and say, ‘You keep writing what you want to write about me and I keep proving you wrong.' When it's all said and done, you'll be like, ‘You know something? He was a great player.' I'm hoping that I can get that respect."

That respect has been earned a million times over. As Driver recalls it, he was the last receiver on the depth chart when he arrived in Green Bay in 1999. Not only were Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder the established starters, the Packers had used a second-round pick on Derrick Mayes in 1996, had high hopes for 1998 fifth-round pick Corey Bradford and had used a sixth-round pick on Ohio State's Dee Miller earlier in the 1999 draft.

Driver celebrates the Super Bowl victory.
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
Driver, however, beat the odds and made the team. Of his 698 receptions, his first career touchdown — an 8-yard score against Carolina that was his only noteworthy contribution during an anonymous three-catch rookie season — was his favorite until his sensational 61-yard catch-and-run against San Francisco last season. However, it was that play as a rookie that showed him he had the ability to play in the NFL. In 2002, he had a breakout season with 70 catches, 1,064 yards and nine touchdowns, with those numbers dwarfing his combined totals from his first three seasons.

A neck sprain early in 2003 led to him catching just 52 passes for 621 yards and two touchdowns. Driver heard whispers that he was a one-year wonder, that his big 2002 was a fluke. Not quite. He bounced back with 1,000-yard seasons from 2004 through 2009. Last year was another injury-plagued season, with his production tumbling to 51 catches for 565 yards and four touchdowns. He wound up watching the second half of the Super Bowl with a walking boot on an injured ankle.

With a Super Bowl ring on his finger and his name printed throughout the Packers' record book, Driver could have exited on top of the world. Instead, he's back with that seventh-round chip on his shoulder as big as ever.

"Given his background, and how he came up through the challenges, where he basically had to fight his way to the top and had to work for everything, nothing was given to him," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "You don't lose that hunger. You don't forget that. And it's just an example of him continuing to put everything he's got into it. By him kind of going through earning it when he first came in, I just think he never lost that hunger."

It's that hunger — not to mention his ever-present attention to detail — that's striking to Joe Philbin, who's been on the Packers' coaching staff since 2003 and is in his fifth year as offensive coordinator.

"Just his competitiveness, his passion for the game. That more than anything" Philbin said on Monday. "He likes to compete and he likes to play. He's one of those guys that, his energy, good things usually happen to guys like that that just keep plugging. He doesn't get down on himself. We talked today about a route, I said, 'You think you might have been a little short on that?' (He said) 'Oh, I don't know, I have to watch the tape, maybe.' He's ready to correct himself if there's adjustments to be made. He's a true pro. Obviously, he can run and catch the ball, things like that. But he's a competitor. He takes his profession seriously."

Just about as seriously as he takes his legacy. By now, his legacy is set in stone. With 698 catches, Driver leads second-place Sterling Sharpe by 103. His nine seasons of 50-plus catches are two clear of Lofton, and his seven seasons of 1,000-plus yards are two ahead of Lofton and Sharpe. His streak of 133 consecutive games with at least one reception, which was snapped last season, dwarf Sharpe's second-place streak of 103 games.

"For me, it's still the legacy," Driver said when asked what keeps him motivated. "I want to be the all-time Packers leading receiver — hoping that can happen on Thursday. I want to be a Hall of Famer one day — not just in Green Bay but maybe one day get to Canton. I don't want anyone to where 80 again. I want the jersey retired. You never know if you're going to get to that next level. If I do, it'd be great. If I don't, I'm comfortable with everything that I've done."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.

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