Aaron Rodgers knows what it's like to be humbled, and he knows what it's like to be great. He didn't receive a single Division I scholarship offer out of high school and had to go to Butte College in his hometown of Chico, Calif., before Cal picked him up a year later. After an impressive college career, he then had to sit behind Brett Favre in Green Bay for three interesting years after dropping to 24th overall in the 2005 draft. He learned patiently behind Favre, and he watched as Utah's Alex Smith, taken first overall by the San Francisco 49ers (the team Rodgers loved as a kid), struggled mightily.
We know the story from there. After Favre's first of many retirements in 2008, the Green Bay Packers became Rodgers' team, and he's put up the kind of numbers you see from people who are messing with cheat codes on Madden. One season after leading the Packers to their fourth Lombardi Trophy, he had one of the best years any quarterback has ever enjoyed -- 343 completions in 520 attempts (68.3 completion percentage) for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He led the NFL in touchdown percentage (9.0) and yards per attempt (9.2).
Now, at age 28 (just a few weeks younger than Cleveland Browns first-round pick Brandon Weeden), the man who recently told the Green Bay Press-Gazette that he wants to be a "Packer for life" stands on the precipice of a host of similar seasons. There's no reason not to believe that he'll be one of the game's great players for years. Anyone who believes that Rodgers will slack off in the face of success doesn't understand the slights that drive him.
"I think it's a little bit less of that now and more of remembering where I came from and remembering the path I took to get here, which the doubters were a part of that," Rodgers told the Press-Gazette, when asked about the motivation given from those early struggles. "But just remembering the journey and where I came from as a high school player in Northern California going to junior college, being a backup at Cal, and remembering the hard work that it took to get to where I am now. That's kind of more of a motivator than the doubters because I realize as hard as it was to get to this point, it's going to be just as hard to stay and maintain at this point."
Like Tom Brady, another Northern California kid who came up the hard way, Rodgers now has it all at his disposal. A coach in Mike McCarthy who operates in lock-step with his own talents, the best receiver corps in the league, and a formerly befuddled defense strengthened in the 2012 draft by defensive linemen Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy. Green Bay's first-game elimination from the 2011 postseason at the hands of the New York Giants was disappointing after a regular season that saw just one loss, but Rodgers also knows that this team is primed to get back to the biggest game more than once.
"The healing process begins when you're able to leave, for me, when I'm able to leave Green Bay and get away from it, and kind of get settled into the offseason. It's still frustrating. It's not fun to watch the playoffs knowing you want to be in the game instead of at home watching. But that was a case of you're playing a really good team and you can't turn the ball over four times. That happens. Unfortunately it happened at the wrong time for us."
With three years left on his current contract, Rodgers is far away from the kind of stress currently going on between Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints -- not that he expects that to happen down the road.
"I think they're an organization who is going to do what's best for the organization. Obviously my representation, just like any representation, is trying to get the most money possible at times. I don't see it being an issue. I want to be a Packer for life and I don't see myself going anywhere else. I don't think they would even get close to that. When the negotiation time does come I have confidence in my representation and I know we're going to do a fair deal, it's fair for them and for me. And hopefully I'll feel good about it."
According to Football Outsiders' similarity scores, the most exacting career arc for Rodgers is that of Joe Montana, Rodgers' childhood idol. He's put up better numbers than even Montana did, but Rodgers also knows that until he's got more than one or two rings, that debate isn't even worth creating.
Firmly established in his own right and excited about the future, Aaron Rodgers knows just what he wants that future to look like. "I have accomplished a lot individually and now it's all about winning some more championships."
And there's no end in sight. "I think it's got to be a combination of how my body feels and I've said it a few times over the years, when I'm not committed to being a 100 percent offseason guy, then that's probably when I should step away from the game because these guys deserve 100 percent of my effort and time."