Own it

No one carries a franchise like Aaron Rodgers

Originally Published: September 4, 2012
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 17 Franchise Issue. Subscribe today!

IT'S JUST A few feet of brick-and-mortar walkway, but it might be the toughest obstacle any franchise quarterback has ever faced. As part of a 2003 renovation of Lambeau Field, three slabs of concrete from the old players' entrance were relocated to a new tunnel on the south side of the stadium. Framed by antique bricks and marked by a shiny black marble plaque on the wall, they are the last steps the Packers take before entering the field. The engraving reads: Proud generations of Green Bay Packers Players, World Champions a record 13 times, have run over this very concrete to Greatness.

Back in 2008, the first time Aaron Rodgers crossed this threshold as Green Bay's starting quarterback, he was met on the other side with a loud, resounding chorus of boos. The rude reception came on Packers Family Night, of all things. Hours earlier, during one of the most chaotic weeks in Green Bay's 92-year history, hundreds of fans had lined a chain-link fence in a lightning storm to greet Brett Favre at the airport after the Packers' franchise quarterback decided to unretire at the eleventh hour. Looking back now, Favre's legacy has been muddled by a three-year circus of sexting scandals, inconsistent play and retirement flip-flopping. But at the time, he was still very much an institution in Green Bay, a three-time league MVP and the only franchise quarterback most fans in Wisconsin had ever seen. The Packers' decision to move ahead with Rodgers had become nonstop national news. That night, rain-soaked fans demonstrated their choice with chants of "We want Brett!" while Favre, in a luxury suite high above Lambeau Field, watched the Packers stumble through their annual team scrimmage without him.

In his first chance to take his place in a line of greats that began with Curly Lambeau and Bart Starr -- and with Favre looking down from above -- Rodgers struggled mightily. He missed nine straight passes at one point, finishing 7-of-20 for 84 yards with two interceptions and inciting downpours of boos and catcalls. "It was an emotional time for everyone that really drove a wedge between Packers fans," says team president Mark Murphy. "Looking back over the history of the league, I can't think of a single player who has stepped into a more difficult situation. But we found out quickly what we had in Aaron: a great leader, a great player and a great person who understood that in Green Bay, we're all stewards of something bigger than ourselves."

That's as good a definition as any of a franchise quarterback, the most elite, elusive position in sports. Just three years after first crossing that sacred threshold under Lambeau as a starter, Rodgers brought Green Bay another title with an MVP performance in Super Bowl XLV. He followed that with the 2011 NFL MVP, setting the single-season record for passer rating (122.5) with a 15-week virtuoso performance that elevated quarterback play to an entirely new plateau. Yet Rodgers' most remarkable achievement just might be how quickly he has put the Favre saga behind him to join Tom Brady, Drew Brees and the Mannings in sports' most exclusive club.

Franchise quarterback is the closest thing to NFL royalty. It's a rare status in a team-first sport, a result of the game's grandest parameterschampionships, MVPs, stats, longevity, bank account and Q Score -- mysteriously combining to morph a single player's persona into the identity of an entire organization. Think Joe Namath, John Elway or Troy Aikman.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Kevin Terrell/AP ImagesBack in 2008, the first time Rodgers crossed the threshold as the Packers' starting QB, he was met with a chorus of boos.

Now multiply that by 10 and you'll understand just how treasured franchise quarterbacks are in the pass-heavy modern era of the NFL. This offseason alone, the Saints shelled out $100 million to keep Brees around for five more years, and the Redskins -- having gone 26 years without a signature star under center -- were more than happy to give up three first-round picks and a second-rounder just for the chance to try out Robert Griffin III in the role.

That's a lot of pressure, for sure. But if RG3 thinks he has a difficult task ahead, he should spend a week in Green Bay, or even just a day. Starting with his falling to the 24th pick in the 2005 draft and continuing through his tumultuous ascension in 2008, Rodgers has followed a unique path to become the face of the Packers. Namely, the path down a street called Brett Favre Pass, to a massive bronze statue of Lambeau (one of the innovators of the forward pass) and under a huge banner of Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr, a five-time NFL champ. "The greats are revered here," says Rodgers. "But as much as you remember the Vince Lombardi quotes about how 'winning isn't everything,' it's the character of those greats that sticks with fans just as much as the championships they won."

What tells you everything you need to know about Rodgers, and how perfectly he fits in Green Bay, is that when asked about his own journey to join that pantheon of Packers greats, he never mentions the Super Bowl triumph or the MVP award. Instead, during a lengthy conversation inside the team's practice facility, Rodgers nestles in a deep, square dark-leather chair in an alcove around the corner from the Packers locker room and talks about his disastrous beginning in Green Bay. "That was an important year for me," he says. "A healing process was completed by the end of 2008. And there needed to be one."

Despite Rodgers' performance on Packers Family Night, Favre was traded to the Jets three days later. The Packers began the 2008 season 2-1, with the town still grumbling that Favre was gone. "Some fans were just either inappropriate, disrespectful, mean or insensitive," says Rodgers.

Then, during the third quarter of the Packers' Week 4 game in Tampa Bay, Rodgers sprained his throwing shoulder on a scramble. In 2006, he had broken his left foot during a brief appearance against the Patriots. With each injury, Rodgers stayed in the game to send a larger message that he was willing to put his body on the line for the team. And he's convinced that even in a place called Titletown USA, it was those two losses that solidified him as the next franchise quarterback in Green Bay. "These were decisions I made based on the type of person, teammate and player I wanted to be thought of," says Rodgers. "My biggest fear against the Patriots was taking myself out of the game and finding out I had a sprained foot. Think about a ripple in still water that continues on and doesn't really ever have an end. That's the metaphor here: Something like that would have had a long-lasting ripple effect on how I was viewed in the locker room."

Outside that locker room, Rodgers' grip on the team was still in question for most of 2008. With the Packers at .500 and falling, the whispers began that Rodgers was injury-prone. It didn't help that the guy he replaced still holds the NFL ironman record, starting 297 consecutive games over 19 seasons. "I don't think Aaron will ever escape the Favre thingthey will always be a part of each other's stories," says Packers wideout Jordy Nelson. "When you talk about Favre and how it ended, it will always be Aaron who took his spot. The controversy part of it is over. And with the way Aaron has played, the comparisons are over too. But they will always be connected."

Yet the comparisons to Favre are not over, and that's a mistake people continue to make. Rodgers simply never had much in common with Favre, the countrified gunslinger extraordinaire. And you can hardly blame Favre for not following the odd QB code that says you're required to groom and mentor your eventual replacement. Truth is, Rodgers is much more closely linked to Starr and has been far more influenced by him.

Rodgers is something of a football history buff, and shortly after being drafted out of Cal, he met and immediately connected with Starr, the first quarterback ever to win back-to-back Super Bowls. Rodgers knew that Starr played at Alabama, but he learned that Starr was a backup for much of his final two seasons after a coaching change and a back injury. In 1956, the Packers took a flier on him in the 17th round. Eventually, after also sitting for a good part of his first five seasons in Green Bay, Starr became a key -- but largely unheralded -- piece of the Lombardi dynasty that won five NFL titles from 1961 to 1967, including Super Bowls I and II.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
David Stluka/AP ImagesPackers QB Aaron Rodgers said he worked on becoming more flexible during the offseason to help improve his mobility.

Rodgers closely identified with the underdog beginnings of Starr's career. Rodgers had been an unrecruited 165-pound high school quarterback from Chico, Calif., who once received a letter from the Purdue coaching staff that read, "Good luck with your attempt at a college football career." Undeterred, he spent a year at tiny Butte College near his hometown, with a ragtag roster that included a former bouncer from Canada at center and a safety who had just been released from prison. Rodgers led the team to a 10-1 record but was discovered only by accident when Cal coach Jeff Tedford came to campus looking for a tight end. "Most important year of my career," says Rodgers. "Got my confidence back. Bumped up all my goals. I learned that being yourself, being comfortable in your own skin, is the best option, the best way to lead. And I had a ton of fun."

As he matured, Rodgers began to approach the position much the way Starr had in his heyday, as a mild-mannered scientist, calibrating and recalibrating his eyes, feet, elbow and release on every throw until the complicated mechanics became effortless. Talent and ego inversely related. Rodgers followed Starr's lead, subscribing to a philosophy that springs directly from Lombardi himself. "Leadership is in sacrifice, in self-denial, in humility and in the perfectly disciplined will," the legendary coach is quoted as saying on a plaque inside Lambeau Field. "This is the distinction between great and little men."

Says Rodgers: "Bart achieved the ultimate victory in this sport, and it's something I strive for as well. He's the most decorated QB in the history of this league, and yet people think of him as a man of high character first and a football player second."

But Packers fans ultimately booed Starr just the same. In 1975, Starr returned to the team as coach, suffering through 76 regular-season losses over eight seasons before being fired. All those struggles and indignities came rushing back to Starr in 2008 as he watched Rodgers during his first season as a starter.

From his home in Alabama, Starr began sending regular emails of encouragement to Rodgers, a letter chain that continues to this day. "Aaron's one of those rare, genuine, quality, friendly people you immediately like and are impressed by and want to do anything you can to help," says Starr, 78. "I could appreciate what he was going through and felt compelled to reach out and offer my support."

Rodgers keeps the emails and counts them among his most cherished and important mementos. What struck him both then and now is that Starr rarely ever mentions football in his correspondence. Starr concentrates more on perspective, legacy and especially attitude, a word he says "is second in importance only to God."

It was through Starr's words and friendship that Rodgers finally began to grasp the history, scope and special responsibility of being the franchise quarterback in Green Bay. "He never said it, but the message in Bart's words was clear," says Rodgers. "There's an expectation that as the leader of the team, you will leave the franchise better than you found it."

Rodgers actually took his first step toward that goal in 2008, when he threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-21 season-ending victory at home against the Lions. That afternoon, almost four months to the day since the Family Night fiasco with Favre, Rodgers left Lambeau Field to a very different sound. Just as they had when Starr took over in 1961, the fans began to recognize the rare gem they had in Rodgers, who has become not only the face of their franchise but of the entire NFL.

"We were a 6-10 team that got a standing ovation," says Rodgers. "That healed everything. That was the end of that chapter and probably that whole book. Closing it like that is what allowed us to start writing a new one."

Now as he enters his eighth season, Rodgers finds himself at an enviable apex, even for a franchise quarterback. He's still young enough to get away with photobombing team captains (if you're scratching your head, go to RodgersPhotobomb.com), scolding rookies when they address him as "sir" and giggling about how his offensive line's chronic flatulence nearly shut down a recent magazine photo shoot. But with Lombardi and MVP trophies already under his belt, Starr's strong endorsement and talk of a long-term deal that would make him a Packer for life, Rodgers is also far enough along to think in terms of legacy. At the start of the 2012 season, he remains in line behind his two franchise forefathers: closing in on Favre and still well behind Starr.

That will all change, of course, if he is able to sustain his level of play from the first 15 weeks of last season. After last year's remarkable run, Rodgers has emerged as the most efficient passer in league history. He holds the NFL single-season, career regular-season and career postseason records for passer rating. Entering his fifth season as a starter, Rodgers also holds the NFL career record by throwing interceptions on only 1.8 percent of his attempts.

"He's unreal; I wish I had a tenth of his talent," says Starr. "When you are defining what a leader is, I don't think you could find a better or higher example in the game than Aaron Rodgers. By the time he's done, he will be right at the top."

If this year's Family Night is any indication, Packers fans now understand what they have in Rodgers. Below a massive addition of an upper deck on the south side of the stadium that will bring Lambeau fully into the 21st century with a 108-foot-wide HD TV screen, Rodgers delighted fans with an effortless passing performance of seven completions in nine throws for 150 yards and a touchdown.

And, with the scrimmage complete, Rodgers jogged off the field, his path crossing over the sacred slabs inside the players tunnel.

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