The Face of the Franchise
In replacing the legendary and beloved Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers had some big shoes to fill.
Good thing he was well-equipped for the challenge.
When Rodgers entered his freshman year at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, Calif., coach Sterling Jackson saw a 5-foot-6 kid who wanted to play quarterback. A fellow freshman with a goal of being a Division I quarterback stood 6 foot.
"Wow, he looks good, but geez, can he see over anything in the pocket?" Jackson remembers thinking after seeing Rodgers sling the ball for the first time.
From high school to college to the NFL, Rodgers faced doubters and critics along the way. His answers to those challenges go a long way toward explaining why Rodgers was named to his first Pro Bowl team and, in the words of coach Mike McCarthy, has established himself as a "franchise quarterback."
Half a lifetime ago, however, Rodgers was just another teenager dreaming the impossible dream of being the next Joe Montana. The 5-foot-6 that Rodgers recalls is a bit taller than Jackson remembers. With a big, talented prospect in his same grade, Rodgers' dreams could have been short-circuited.
Aaron Rodgers, fifth grade
Courtesy Ed Rodgers
"Two things happened," Jackson said. "Our quarterbacks coach at the time, after looking at both of them, was like, ‘Aaron's your guy. He's going to be the guy. He's the kid that's more coachable, has more understanding and there's less things that we're going to have to fix on him.' By the end of the summer, the other kid had moved away."
It didn't hurt that Jackson knew Rodgers' family. Rodgers' older brother was tall, as were his parents. Jackson took one look at Rodgers' size-14 feet and figured that he eventually would grow into those big shoes.
Turns out, Jackson's hunch was right. Rodgers hit a couple growth spurts. As a sophomore, he led Pleasant Valley's JV team to a 10-0 record.
"Before that, I was a basketball player," Rodgers said. "I was a lot better in basketball, but my sophomore year, I started to play really well in football. After that, it just kind of took off from there."
We introduce you to the Aaron Rodgers you don't know to help explain why he's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Best Ever?
Few cornerbacks in NFL history have had the kind of impact that Charles Woodson had in 2009. Just ask the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, who many regard as the top all-around receiver in the league.
"He's the best blitzing defensive back in the league, amazing ball skills, really reads splits and knows route combinations," Fitzgerald said. "I mean, this (was) probably his best year. After 12 years to say that you have your best year as a 12-year veteran is amazing, and it's a testament to his hard work and preparation."
Not often does a cornerback get talked about first for his blitzing skills, but with Woodson this past season, such is appropriately the case. Woodson meant everything to the Packers' defense. He covered No. 1 receivers, he covered No. 1 tight ends and he made plays in zone coverage. He blitzed, he sacked, he forced fumbles and he intercepted passes, often taking them to the end zone. He even played a little safety to mix things up and showed uncommon toughness in run defense.
So good was Woodson that defensive coordinator Dom Capers shaped defensive game plans around him.
"He moves around so much on the field, so you've always got to account for him, not only in the passing game, but blitzing and picking him up in protection," said Fitzgerald, who went up against Woodson in preseason, regular season and postseason games during the 2009 season. "You've got to always watch where he's going. He does a great job of disguising and running across, motioning and blitzing and causing a lot of havoc in the line count. So not only for the receivers but for the backs, the quarterbacks, the offensive line, he causes problems for everybody."
Only four cornerbacks since 1971 — the 49ers' Deion Sanders (1994), the Steelers' Rod Woodson (with Capers in 1993) and Mel Blount (1975), and the Raiders' Lester Hayes (1980) — have been honored with the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Woodson ranks right there with them.
So, where does Woodson's season rank in the 90-year history of the Packers? Matt Tevsh separates the best of the best,
Fire Burns Within Greene
Kevin Greene, with Clay Matthews
Morry Gash/AP Images
But could he coach?
Talk to Greene for even a moment, and his passion for the sport is as obvious as those long blond locks that used to pour out of his helmet.
But could he coach?
With three tours of duty with new Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, few players knew the nuances of the outside linebacker position that he'd be coaching better than Greene.
But could he coach?
That was the question. Greene's track record as a player brought instant credibility. His gung-ho attitude would get the players to listen.
But would they continue to listen?
Outside of some training camp coaching internships, Greene arrived in Green Bay with no professional coaching experience. Sure, he had charisma and passion and energy and playing experience, but professional athletes can see through the bull. Spewing clichés about "heart" and "love" and "fire" only go so far in the meeting room if the guy doing the talking doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.
So, can Kevin Greene coach?
Considering the Packers boasted one of the NFL's best defenses — and certainly its most improved defense — while relying on two rookies at outside linebacker, the answer is ...
"I think he's done an outstanding job," Capers said. "I think these players' play is a real reflection of the kind of job he's done. Obviously, you have two rookies (Clay Matthews III and Brad Jones) that have been performing at a high level. Kevin has taken the same approach to coaching as he did to playing. I think his players relate to his passion and intensity for the game."
Switch Looks Like a Cinch
For about three years, the Packers' Spencer Havner could make his way into a Green Bay restaurant or store and not get noticed. Even in Titletown, where every Packer lives under a microscope, and seemingly everyone in the city has a story about seeing a player in public, Havner could pass as a "normal" citizen.
Not any more.
Just ask Greg Jennings, who after a practice late this season politely interrupted an interview between Havner and Packer Report in the locker room, intimating that his teammate had found a new celebrity status with a simple question.
"Are you asking him how much he's changed?" Jennings asked.
"Has he changed?" this reporter asked back. "Is he big time now?"
Jennings shot back with a nonverbal answer. He gave a smirk, rolled his eyes, and nodded his head "yes" as walked back to his locker.
Jennings, as Havner knew, was just joking around. But the superstar wide receiver was right in one sense. Though Havner has remained grounded, he has become one of the more popular and recognizable figures around Green Bay, thanks to a breakthrough season in 2009.
Catching Up With Forrest Gregg
"Winning in the Trenches"
From winning five world championships under Vince Lombardi with the Green Bay Packers to winning a sixth under Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys, from leading the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl to returning to Green Bay as coach, and from coaching in the CFL to bringing his college alma mater's program to life, Gregg's football career could fill a book.
And indeed, it does: "Winning in the Trenches" is a 320-page book in which Gregg worked with author Andrew O'Toole.
"I have a friend who used to play for me at SMU (Dallas lawyer Greg Ziegler)," Gregg said from his home in Colorado Springs on New Year's Eve. "Every time I'd see him, he'd say, ‘Coach, when are you going to write your book?' I'd tell him, ‘I don't really have any interest in writing a book.' He kept bugging me about it. Then I started thinking about it and thought maybe there's something there that people would be interested in, because I did play football for a long time and coached for a long time and had some interesting things happen in my life."
O'Toole connected with Gregg for his book on Paul Brown, the football pioneer who founded the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. When Gregg mentioned his interest in a book, O'Toole offered to write a chapter. If Gregg liked it, they would continue. Gregg liked it, and the book was published recently.
"Well, I'll tell you what, it has been interesting, I will say that," the 76-year-old Gregg said of his life. "I loved football, loved coaching it, loved playing it. It's something that I'm happy about, my career as a player and as a coach. I didn't mind talking about it."
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.