DALLAS – You've probably heard the basics of the story by now, and if not they will surely be pounded into your consciousness numerous times over the next seven days: Aaron Rodgers(notes), the undersized, unknown quarterback at out-in-the-boonies Butte College, attracted the attention of Cal coach Jeff Tedford only because he happened to be throwing to teammate Garrett Cross, a tight end the Golden Bears were recruiting.
While watching Rodgers zing preternaturally accurate passes to Cross on an autumn day in 2002, Tedford had one of those revelatory, What the … moments that every college coach craves. During the three-hour drive back to Berkeley, Tedford – stunned that such a talented player was there for the taking – called and offered Rodgers a scholarship.
The rest of the plot played out rather conspicuously, and it will reach a new level of hype this week as Rodgers prepares to lead the Green Bay Packers against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday.
As you sift through the narrative, know that when Rodgers says his past experiences as an unrecruited high school beanpole from Chico, Calif., and an anonymous JC quarterback, helped instill the drive that brought him to the precipice of superstardom, he speaks from the heart. And if his story resonates with overlooked athletes in every nook and cranny of this football-obsessed nation, it's felt on an even more personal level in his Northern California hometown, where you can frolic in one of America's grandest and most gorgeous civic parks, catch a buzz at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, visit the state university that Playboy ranked as America's No. 1 Party School nearly a quarter century ago – and, if you're a kid who's very good at sports, have a very tough time getting noticed outside of Butte County.
"Chico is off the beaten path, and not a lot of big-time athletes come out of the area," says former Chico High standout Mike Sherrard, a talented wide receiver who played 11 NFL seasons for four teams. "For Aaron to reach such heights is awesome, because maybe it will help the people who come after him get noticed. Trust me – I know what it's like to be ignored."
And trust me – I know more about the unlikely journeys of world-class athletes from Chico than most humans, because by a quirk of fate I happen to know all of them. OK, just four of them, but arguably the four most important ones to come out of the town in the past three decades. (And if you disagree? Hey, it's my Mount Rushmore, and I'll chisel the likenesses as I see fit.) I also live close enough to the town of roughly 80,000 to pay the occasional visit to watch my kids compete in various sporting events, and let's just say that when I need to assess my Mexican food options, I have some very accomplished advisers.
Like Rodgers, whom I met as he was lifting my alma mater to heart-fluttering heights and have enjoyed covering ever since, Chico native Haley Clark (nee Cope) achieved athletic greatness at Cal. One of the unlikeliest success stories in the history of swimming, Cope's triumphs and travails were chronicled in my book "Golden Girl," which ended with her winning a silver medal in the 2004 Summer Olympics while her friend Natalie Coughlin dominated.
Another improbable Chico-raised Olympian, Emily Azevedo, finished fifth in the bobsled competition at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Before she pushed massive sleds down icy tracks, she helped mold my children into the little hypercompetitive angels they are, so I'm kind of biased when extolling her virtues.
Sherrard, a former Dallas Cowboys first-round draft pick, signed with the San Francisco 49ers before the 1989 season, when I was a rookie beat writer working for a now-defunct paper in Sacramento. After more than two decades of covering pro football, I regard him as one of the coolest, most intelligent and genuinely nice athletes I've encountered – and the dude was a pretty good player, too.
Yet Sherrard didn't get any attention from college coaches during his high school career, save one visit from an Idaho State assistant named Mike Sheppard, who is now the Cincinnati Bengals' receivers coach. "He was the only coach who came and talked to me – and I think the only reason he did was because our names are so similar," says Sherrard, now a Hollywood producer and assistant coach at Southern California football powerhouse Oaks Christian High School. "He won't admit it, but I really think that's what it was.
"In the '90s I was with the Giants and he was coaching with the Browns, and I saw him down on the sidelines before a game. He said, 'Do you remember me?' I said, 'Yeah! You came by Chico High when you were at Idaho State, and you didn't offer me a scholarship. And thank god you didn't – cause I would've taken it.'"
Instead, Sherrard used his academic credentials to get into UCLA and enrolled in summer school before his freshman year to satisfy English and math placement requirements. He happened to walk by an unofficial workout involving the Bruins' football team and was surprised by what he saw. "I was thinking these guys would be like Lynn Swann," Sherrard recalls, "but I realized that they weren't that much better than me."
Sherrard later approached offensive coordinator Homer Smith and asked if he could try out for the team. "He said, 'Sure, why not?' " Sherrard recalls. "He probably figured I'd be a tackling dummy."
Azevedo, a track standout at Chico High, was a star hurdler at UC Davis who was finishing out her final semester of coursework when she started watching my kids. The following winter, around the time of the Torino Winter Olympics, we were standing in my kitchen when she blurted out, "So my coach was talking to the U.S. bobsled federation about me, and there's a chance I could fly my way out to Lake Placid and go through some tests to see if I'd be someone they might be interested in. Do you think I should do it?"
"HELL YES!" I answered in about 0.4 seconds – only I might not have said hell.
It wasn't a smooth process, but by that summer Azevedo had worked her way onto the U.S. World Cup team and headed off to exotic locales like St. Moritz, Switzerland, which is where she was when I checked in with her last week. It was a bummer to lose her – she was a great babysitter who is lovely in every way, and let's just say that if I neglected to walk her to her car late at night, I wasn't particularly worried, other than for the safety of any creep who might be foolish enough to hassle her.
Three-and-a-half years later she teamed with driver Bree Schaaf to finish two slots away from the medal stand at Whistler, and she spent the next several nights celebrating accordingly. Sleep-deprived and drained upon returning to the States, Azevedo was stunned to find nearly 100 people waiting for her as she disembarked at Chico's small municipal airport.
"It was pretty incredible," Azevedo recalls. "I had tried to keep it a secret knowing how hellish I'd look after not getting much sleep for four nights, and there were people waiting there with signs and stuff to congratulate me. At the time I didn't appreciate it. Now, looking back, I appreciate it a lot more.
"That's the thing about Chico. The entire town comes together to support one of their own."
Azevedo got to know Rodgers, who attended rival Pleasant Valley High, as the two recent high school grads trained together at a local fitness center – not the one, incidentally, owned by Chico native and former 49ers defensive lineman Jeff Stover. So she's happy for his success both on a personal level and a practical one.
"When I tell people I'm from Chico, it's mostly the party-school thing that comes up," Azevedo says, referring to Playboy's 1987 ranking of Chico State University atop its list. "I then ask them if they know of Sierra Nevada – it's fun being somewhere and pointing out the 'Chico, CA' on the bottle. Now when I tell people I'm from Chico, they're going to say, 'Oh, that's the place Aaron Rodgers is from.' "
Though Azevedo assumes her chances of repeating as "Chico Sportsperson of the Year" are roughly the same as those of Brett Favre(notes) winning "Green Bay Sportsperson of the Year" in 2011 – "I don't think I'll be beating out Aaron this year," she says, laughing – she's thrilled that the town "is probably out of control" with Packers fever this week.
"I am sure Chico is going crazy with him going to the Super Bowl!" she says. "I can't tell you how many random people from home emailed me or wanted to shake my hand when I got home from the Games. People would come up to me and tell me, 'Thank you.' I could never really understand it, but they told me I inspired them and showed them that anything is possible no matter where you are from. It still happens when I come home, and it surprises me every single time."
Clark, the only member of the quartet who still lives in Chico, says she receives little in the way of fanfare. "There were some nice things when I was at the Olympics," she says. "One of the swim-team parents went around and got billboards donated that said, 'Good Luck, Haley.' There were about five of them around town. But the only place anyone's ever stopped me on the street and recognized who I am was Australia."
Then again, there are times when a lower profile has its privileges. In college, Clark posed nude in a "Girls of the Pac-10" pictorial for Playboy, appearing under the nom de plume Natasha Paris. Nobody has told her they recognize her from that spread, either. "That would be even weirder," says Clark, who runs a Chico-based swim school with her husband, Brian, "In my current line of work, I occasionally tell parents, 'Don't Google me.' "
An afterthought in Cal's 1998 recruiting class, Cope blossomed in Berkeley, earning Pac-10 swimmer of the year honors in 2000, and kept improving after she graduated, a rarity in competitive swimming. She makes a point of mentioning other Chico-raised success stories, including ex-Golden Bears men's swimmer and 1992 Olympian Roque Santos; Stover, who won a Pac-10 shot put championship at Oregon and later started for the mid-'80s Niners; and former Chico High teacher Jack Yerman, who won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in the 4x400 relay. Other notables include former major league reliever Pat Clements and Sherrard's mother, the former Cherrie Parish, who competed in the 80-meter hurdles in the 1964 Olympics and later coached track at Chico State, where she and her late husband were both professors.
Rodgers, of course, is now experiencing a measure of fame that will dwarf that of all the others combined. In recent days, Clark says she has been amused while reading the Chico Enterprise-Record, noting, "It's amazing how many people are 'best friends' with Aaron Rodgers. Everybody knows him and has been hanging out with him since they were kids. At the pool, everyone's wearing Packers stuff, and he's all people are talking about."
And while Clark, who has three young children, says she plans to pay only casual attention to the pride of Chico's performance on Super Sunday – "If I'm home and cleaning the house, that might be on television instead of 'Pandora,' for once," she says – count her among the legions of residents eager to pay a visit to Rodgers' father, Ed, a local chiropractor.
"I hear his father is a fabulous chiropractor," Clark says. "And I may be visiting soon, after having an 11-pound, 2-ounce baby [six months ago]."
And when not-so-little Ansel Clark grows up, goes off to college and tells people he's from Chico? Well, he should probably get used to hearing all about a certain quarterback who, a little more than eight years ago, would have killed for a tiny bit of name recognition. THE HIGH FIVE …
• I know Falcons coach Mike Smith was happy he coached the NFC to a 55-41 Pro Bowl victory, and there's no doubt he liked watching Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) add to his Pro Bowl record for career receptions (42) and set the receiving-TD mark (six). But if Smith could have chosen any player in the league not to be Pro Bowl MVP, I'm pretty sure the guy who won it, former Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes), would have been first on the list. Oh well. Smith, who has one year left on his deal, will have a lucrative contract extension announced sometime this week, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. So he'll live.
• The guy who's shelling out the cash to keep Smith, team owner Arthur Blank, hasn't gotten over the top-seeded Falcons' 48-21 divisional-round defeat to the Packers, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he's "still pissed about our game." I've always appreciated Blank's passion, and I'm impressed by the way he has grown as an owner. He shouldn't worry: With a first-rate coach in Smith, a terrific young quarterback in Matt Ryan(notes) and a shrewd general manager, Thomas Dimitroff (also in line for an extension), who'll surround him with talent for years to come, the Falcons are in position to enhance Blank's mood for the foreseeable future.
• When I wrote about injured Packers middle linebacker Nick Barnett's(notes) desire to be part of the team photo at the Super Bowl last Wednesday, I figured it was a small triumph – milking a second day out of a minor controversy that caught the wave of Super Bowl proliferation. (I'd actually scheduled the interview with Barnett before the photo drama surfaced, but let's not let that get in the way of a good storyline.) Anyway, the Packers solved the problem by moving the photo shoot to Friday, allowing the IR guys to be included, and the whole thing was dead – until Rodgers made some comments Saturday noting that some of the injured Green Bay players (including Barnett) "didn't choose to stick around" during the regular season, instead rehabbing elsewhere. Ah, the gift that keeps on giving. Barnett got upset, but apparently he got a call from Rodgers later that night, which patched things up. I'm glad, because I love both guys, and I also love the fact that we're still talking about this nearly a week after Barnett began venting about the subject. Now if only Joey Porter(notes) would rejoin the Steelers, we could get a real pre-Super Bowl hissy fit going.
• Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) believes the Pro Bowl, after last year's detour in Miami, should remain in Hawaii as a "reward" to those who qualify – and most of his peers agree. So do I: Their desire to cap an all-star season in a rigorous sport by taking their families to a lovely Oahu resort should be at least a part of the equation when assessing what to do with the exhibition game, and I believe the island locale is the best match for a low-effort spectacle in which a guy like Browns center Alex Mack(notes) can invoke the spirit of his alma mater by scoring off a multiple-lateral play.
• When I was a newly hired writer at Sports Illustrated, Michael Jordan's decision to come out of retirement caused some juggling of assignments, and I was suddenly re-routed to Atlanta to cover the 1995 SEC basketball tournament. Fortunately, a young reporter, Ashley McGeachy, was sent to help me out – and the daughter of a former Duke hoops coach basically carried me, getting great quotes from then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and everyone else she interviewed. Her name has changed (via marriage), and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Ashley Fox's game has gotten even stronger over the years, the latest example being Sunday's impressive and sensitive story about Eagles kicker David Akers'(notes) family medical scare that coincided with the team's playoff defeat to the Packers. The normally reliable Akers missed two kicks in the game while privately dealing with the terrifying prospect that his 6-year-old daughter, Halley, had a cancerous tumor in her ovary. Though the tumor was malignant, the prognosis seems reasonably positive, which is far more important than what happens to Akers' football career (the 36-year-old Pro Bowler may have played his last game for Philly). I look forward to reading Fox's heartwarming story about Halley's healthy, happy adulthood in a couple of decades or so.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That the Peet's in the media hotel in downtown Dallas closes at 3 p.m. Three p.m., like a bagel place or a breakfast joint? Don't they realize that those of us who write deep into the night – and who like to do a whole lot of socializing on this particular week – need a little boost of America's most blessedly caffeinated coffees and teas to get by? Wait a minute – what am I complaining about? There's a Peet's in the media hotel! In Dallas! Thank you, caffeine gods. I don't care if it's open for just 10 minutes a day; I'll be there for 10 minutes stockpiling iced teas and iced soy lattes and storing them in the mini fridge I just had delivered to my room. And I'll be a whole lot more alert than I otherwise would have been, and you can look forward to long sentences and emphatic opinions for the next eight days.
2. That there is something called National Porn Sunday; that it is actually an anti-pornography event taking place near Dallas the day of the Super Bowl, rather than a series of more private gatherings created in honor of one of my Morning Rush writing breaks; and that athletes such as Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck(notes), Cowboys quarterback Jon Kitna(notes), Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett(notes) and ex-NFL quarterback Josh McCown(notes) have lent their support to xxxchurch.com, the Las Vegas website behind the movement. Really, guys? That's your crusade – trying to ensure that those of us who might look for a little diversionary arousal on our laptops or TV sets, in the privacy of our homes or hotel rooms, cleanse our sinful souls by keeping it PG-13? Look, I know there are major problems with the porn industry, and I understand that it's largely degrading to women and has the potential to inhibit legitimate intimacy in some individuals. But this is America, and if some of us have our days enhanced by watching, say, two lovely women making out on camera, is it really anyone's place to get involved? Some might speculate that this is a matter that's between me and my wife and the 46-inch LCD screen in our bedroom. I'm not going to say one way or the other, but unless Hasselbeck, Kitna, Pickett, McCown and company want to come party at our place, their input is immaterial. In fact, I'd tell those guys to butt out, but they might blow a gasket over the terminology.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I've written a little bit about the Tennessee Titans' decision to part ways with longtime coach Jeff Fisher, and I'm sure I'll be providing further details about the breakup in the future. For now, I'll just offer a few, basic thoughts: 1. Bud Adams, Tennessee's 88-year-old owner, has become a major liability to the franchise. If you think of the Titans as a car, it's time to take away Adams' keys – except there's little chance of that happening. Outgoing senior executive vice president Steve Underwood and general manager Mike Reinfeldt are either too intimidated to stand up to their semi-nonsensical boss or don't feel it's worth the trouble. 2. If Adams, Underwood and/or Reinfeldt wanted to make a coaching change after Tennessee suffered six-game losing streaks in consecutive seasons, it would have been understandable. But the way things played out after the season, with Adams first concluding he'd get rid of quarterback Vince Young(notes) (who had been openly insubordinate to Fisher) and then waiting another week to announce that Fisher would return – only to have things degenerate – does not cast the organization's leaders in a favorable light. 3. Fisher is a very loyal and principled individual, and if he came to feel that promises were made to him and then disingenuously broken, I'm not surprised he stood up for what he felt was right. He'd have done this for any of his prospective assistants – not just one (his oldest son, Brandon, who he'd hoped to add to his staff) to whom he is related. 4. I think this worked out well for Fisher, who I believe is genuinely exhausted and will benefit from a year away from coaching. He'll come back as a lean, mean, fighting machine – and yes, he will have options.
I know some of you look at his career record and failure to have won a Super Bowl ring as evidence of his coaching shortcomings, and I'm not going to waste any energy trying to convince you otherwise, because what I think isn't the pertinent issue. Rather, it's what many of the NFL's owners and front-office executives feel about Fisher that's important. And you'll have to take it from me that a high percentage of them feel he's a very, very good coach, and I'm certain some will want to hire him now that he's free to explore options. In the meantime, I hope he watches lots of Auburn football (his son Trent was a redshirt freshman defensive back on this year's national title team) and hunts and fishes and gets a lot of sleep. I'll leave you with a quote from a guy who often drove Fisher crazy, former Tennessee cornerback Pacman Jones, who said of the Titans' decision, "It's gotta be the dumbest move ever. But that's how they do things in Tennessee." And when Pacman Jones calls you dumb – well, it's another sign that someone should probably take away your keys.
TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"My career is all downhill from here, buddy. It's all yours now, for the next 10 years …"
Email Sunday morning from my old SI colleague Peter King, referring to the recent segment which featured him on HBO's "Real Sports" (and sarcastic on both counts).
- Mike Sherrard
- Emily Azevedo