- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICO, Calif. -- Craig Rigsbee called Ed Rodgers for directions to his house in the winter of 2001.
With directions in tow, the head coach of the highly successful Butte College Roadrunners hung up the phone, walked out his house, took a short stroll to the next cul-de-sac and began the only true college football recruitment Aaron Rodgers received in high school.
And so started the rise of this idyllic Northern California college town’s most successful athlete.
“That’s Chico,” Rigsbee said. “I just walked over there.”
Rodgers‘ journey to the center stage of Super Bowl XLV as the Green Bay Packers' quarterback and his status as the man who allowed the state of Wisconsin to successfully move away from Brett Favre began humbly and with long odds.
Asked last week if Rodgers had the look of a future elite NFL quarterback when he entered high school, Ron Souza -- Rodgers’ high school quarterback and baseball coach -- grew quiet. After a pause, Souza answered honestly and apologetically.
“No, I couldn’t say that,” Souza said. “He was a talented kid and a very hard worker, but I don’t think you could predict what he’d become. No offense to Aaron. I guess we all missed on him.”
Souza shouldn’t be so hard on himself. When Rodgers entered Pleasant Valley High School, he was 5-foot-2, 130 pounds. He didn’t stand out from the other freshman athletes.
Rodgers, the middle of three late-blooming boys (which includes current Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers), grew steadily, but he was never an imposing figure in high school. He was about 6-foot, 170 pounds in his senior season, Rigsbee said.
Unlike so many future professional sports stars, Rodgers wasn’t exactly a household name in his hometown as a high school player. He was known as a talented player, but going to watch Rodgers play wasn’t must-see entertainment on Friday nights in Chico.
Rodgers –- now one of the NFL’s most rugged quarterbacks at a strapping 6-foot-2, 225 pounds -- attended the University of Illinois’ camp his senior season, but the school’s interest in him waned because of his lack of size. Rodgers was a 3.9 GPA student in high school, was involved in Young Life and had (and still has) a pristine reputation in the community. He had the off-field tools to go to any school out of high school that he wanted. He just didn’t have the on-field interest.
Rigsbee was basically recruiting Rodgers against himself. Despite his lack of ideal size, Rigsbee saw a strong-armed player with a natural aptitude for the quarterback position. He stayed on Rodgers’ trail for months, making a point to attend every one of Pleasant Valley’s baseball games in the spring of 2002. With his high school football career over, Rodgers picked up a baseball for the first time in five years that spring. He suddenly was throwing 91 miles per hour as a pitcher and having success as a switch-hitter with some pop.
“Finally, one day Aaron said to me 'Coach, you don’t have to come to my games. I’m coming to Butte,’” Rigsbee recalled.
So, Rodgers traveled the short rural highway ride south to Butte to begin his college playing days. He is five days from becoming the second high-profile former Roadrunner to play in the Super Bowl, joining former Dallas superstar guard Larry Allen, who played at Butte in the early 1990s.
Rodgers -- who was then recruited by Cal when Bears coach Jeff Tedford went to Butte to watch another player -- is clearly proud of his humble beginning. He regularly wears Butte College shirts in interviews and texts his former coach to make sure he noticed the Butte love.
The feeling is mutual in Chico.
“There is a lot of green and gold walking around Chico these days,” Chico Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Jolene Francis said. “This is a Packer town.”
Pleasant Valley had a “Green and Gold” day the Friday before the Packers beat Chicago to advance to the Super Bowl. There is a Facebook initiative for everyone in Chico to wear Packer colors to work this Friday in support of Rodgers. The local sports memorabilia stores can’t keep Green Bay items on the shelves. Sports bars are crammed for Green Bay games and Ed Rodgers said he has been told there is a water tower just west of town that has been freshly painted with a giant “G” on it.
“Chico is really excited for Aaron,” Ed Rodgers said. “It seems like everybody has become Packer fans”
Several Green Bay-themed parties are planned for Sunday in the city. “If there are any Pittsburgh parties in town, I don’t know of anyone who’ll be showing up,” Francis said.
The San Francisco Giants’ improbable World Series Championship run caught the imagination of this city. The Giants chose Chico as one of the 13 cities to bring the World Series trophy to as part of a celebration tour in January. Thousands of people lined up to get a glimpse of the hardware. Rodgers apparently has the same effect on the town.
“I think Aaron is even bigger,” said friend Matt Hock, the director of the local Young Life chapter. “I think Aaron going to the Super Bowl blows the Giants winning the World Series out of the water here, and that was a big deal in Chico.”
The city plans to have a parade in Rodgers’ honor sometime this spring, win or lose Sunday. Rodgers’ parents still live in Chico, where Ed Rodgers has a successful chiropractor practice. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t live in Chico during the offseason, but he does regularly visit. He has an annual golf tournament in the spring to benefit Young Life.
“Everyone who knows Aaron has nothing but good things to say about him,” Francis said. “We are so proud of him and the attention he has brought our city for being such a stand-up young man.”
Souza jokes that Chico and Green Bay are sister cities. Souza said Rodgers has told him the two cities are similar because of their small-town feels. Chico’s population is 87,000-plus. It is a spread-out town known for Chico State University, Sierra Nevada beer and now a Super Bowl quarterback.
Rigsbee credits Rodgers for showing the college football world that it is worth traveling north of Sacramento for talent. Among those who have been recruited from the area after Rodgers are journeyman NFL backup quarterback Brett Ratliff, Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl (who is expected to be a mid-round draft pick in April), Jordan Rodgers and Rigsbee’s two sons. Tyler Rigsbee is at Cal and Jordan Rigsbee is a Cal recruit.
Witnessing his son become a pioneer of local football is one of the things Ed Rodgers is struggling to grasp as he prepares to head to Dallas. As a child in Chico, Rodgers grew up watching Joe Montana and Steve Young lead his beloved 49ers to Super Bowls.
“I can’t wrap my head around the idea that now Aaron is doing the same thing.” Rodgers said. “It’s the Super Bowl.”
22hEric D. Williams