America at Large: Aaron Rodgers in a world of his own
Green Bay Packers quarterback has family issues but has brought the game to another level
With 12 seconds remaining, the scores level, and the game apparently heading for overtime, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers decided to eschew the hundreds of pre-rehearsed plays available to him. Instead, as he put it himself, he went “playground” in the huddle, simply telling his receivers “just get open” to give him the best chance of finding them. When the Dallas Cowboys flushed him out of the pocket, Rodgers darted to his left to avoid the oncoming linebackers bent on his destruction, then unfurled a right-hander 36 yards down the sideline.
Jared Cook did magnificently to haul the ball in for a first down while crucially keeping his feet in bounds, and Mason Crosby’s subsequent game-winning 51-yard field goal was mighty impressive too. But Rodgers’ moment of improvisation in the NFC play-off last Sunday was remarkable. In a sport where control freak coaches like to diagram, choreograph and call every single throw and catch from behind their trusty clipboards, here was a cameo of invention, a great athlete relying on instinct, ability and sheer moxie to find a way to ensure his team moved on.
In November, the Packers had four wins and six losses and looked to be going nowhere. They will enter Sunday’s NFC title game against the Atlanta Falcons seeking a ninth consecutive victory and a ticket to next month’s Super Bowl. Rodgers is the reason why. At 33, in his ninth season in Wisconsin, he’s already in the conversation for best of all-time, is in the middle of a five-year $110m contract and is dating a Hollywood actress, Olivia Munn. The portrait is of an athlete with the perfect life. Except.
Last Sunday’s New York Times delved into the only cloud in Rodgers’ sky, the fact he hasn’t talked to his family since 2014, shortly, ominously enough, after he began seeing Munn. The estrangement has been rich fodder for gossip columnists since his brother Jordan revealed it when starring in ABC’s dating reality schlock The Bachelorette last year.
“Airing public laundry is not what I would have chosen,” Ed Rodgers, a chiropractor, told the Times of the excessively prurient interest in the feud between his son and the family. An accompanying photograph of the ecstatic quarterback flanked by parents and siblings moments after winning the 2011 Super Bowl added a layer of pathos to the story.
On the field, Rodgers appears wholly unaffected by the dysfunction in his personal life. Then again, he has peculiar experience of coping with adversity. When the Packers drafted him as a potential replacement for the iconic Brett Favre 12 years ago, he was subjected to horrendous hazing by the ageing quarterback and his loyal cohorts. Even if Rodgers got off on the wrong foot, addressing the greying Favre with a cheeky “Hello Grandpa” the first time they met in training camp, he endured juvenile pranking and ritualistic tormenting that might have broken a lesser man.
“Rodgers was the butt of jokes – some that he heard, many that he did not,” wrote Jeff Pearlman in Gunslinger, his excellent recent biography of Favre. “A rumour circulated around the locker room that he was gay, based upon the fact that – unlike many of his team-mates – he wasn’t one to brag about his penis size or his endless string of sexual conquests. Favre sought out Rodgers’ weaknesses and took a selfish pleasure in noting them.”
Eventually, Rodgers’ talent won him the starting job although the whole sorry business also culminated in him giving a rather gauche radio interview protesting his heterosexuality. “I really, really like women,” he said. “That’s all I can really say about that.”
Soap operatic narratives aside, his career is a classic tale of somebody having to convince people of his merits at nearly every turn. He wasn’t recruited by universities out of high school because he lacked physical stature. During a holding pattern year at a community college, team-mates wondered why somebody with his incredible arm wasn’t playing on a bigger stage. After eventually being spotted by the coach of the University of California, Berkeley, he lit the place up for two seasons and was expected to go high in the 2005 NFL Draft.
But, he slipped to 24th in the first round. Some scouts reckoned he might not possess the creativity to pick apart the more sophisticated professional defences. Laughable now. Others worried he had maybe maxed out his talent in a college system designed to make the quarterback shine. More risible still. Even after the Packers took a chance, he had to deal with understudying the legend actively seeking to hinder rather than help his putative successor.
That he made the more rabid Green Bay fans, those who once lustily booed him for replacing Favre, eventually realise he was an upgrade rather than a usurper is, at least in part, down to a relentless desire to hone his skill-set. Whether attaching a net to a moving motorcycle or learning to throw footballs while running on a treadmill, his approach is often unorthodox but always with an obvious purpose. To best prepare him to be able to do whatever it takes with ball in hand and the game on the line. Like last Sunday. Like every Sunday.