Inside Packers training camp: How Aaron Rodgers learned to love himself

·10 min read

GREEN BAY—In 11 minutes at his locker inside Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers used the word “love” 20 times in a 1,597-word conversation. He relayed a recent exchange with veteran teammate Randall Cobb. “He was saying I was such a more gentle person,” Rodgers said with a slight grin that didn’t go away while we spoke. “I said yeah, I love myself a lot better so it’s easier to love other people and give them forgiveness and not jump on somebody’s ass if they make a mistake.”

Of all the things I never thought I’d be writing about covering the NFL, the reigning MVP having a three-day experience with the Quechuan natives in South America ingesting psychedelics would be high on the list. Now that I’ve got your attention, can I interrupt that for a second with a prediction about the 2022 Packers?

I think the addition of new special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia will be more significant to this Green Bay season than the subtraction of a great wide receiver, Davante Adams.

(Maybe it’s me on those psychedelics.)

I think that because history shows Rodgers figures out his targets every year, even when things look dire, and early camp star Romeo Doubs looks like a major early contributor at receiver. In the practice I saw, Doubs physically bested corner Eric Stokes on a long gain over the middle, made a diving catch in a two-minute period and made two other impressive contested catches. The 132nd pick in the draft from Nevada is long and appears unafraid, and the respect he’s getting from defenders was impressive to see. Twice after Doubs torched a DB, others DBs came and tapped him on the helmet, like, We see you, Rook.

Re Bisaccia: The Packers have had lethally bad special teams in recent years—they lost the divisional playoff game to San Francisco last year because of them—and now they have one of the best kicking-team coaches in the game with the addition of the interim Raiders coach last year. Bisaccia’s impact will be huge.

Now…let’s discuss ayahuasca. That was the talk of camp. First I had to learn what ayahuasca is. Per Wikipedia, it is consumed mostly as a tea to promote a placid state of being, and can be done over days: “People who have consumed ayahuasca report having mystical experiences and spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, and deep insight into how to be the best person they possibly can…Westerners typically describe experiences with psychological terms like ‘ego death.’”

I thought of different ways to present this, but then I re-read Rodgers’ words to me, and it’s such an unusual story that I decided to let him tell it. Slightly condensed, here it is, from Rodgers:

“I have a dear friend that I’ve known for 25 years that went on an ayahuasca journey in 2019. He came back, and we played golf one day and he told me all about it. I said, okay, I think it’s time that I do it. So we put together a trip to Peru [in 2020] and had a great experience. Then I went again this offseason and had another beautiful experience. Different, very different. Different size group, different amount of days.

“We sat three different nights with the medicine. I came in with an intention of doing a lot of healing of other relationships and bringing in certain people to have conversations with. Most of the work was around myself and figuring out what unconditional love of myself looks like of myself. In doing that, allowing me to understand how to unconditionally love other people but first realizing it’s gotta start with myself. I’ve got to be a little more gentle with myself and compassionate and forgiving because I’ve had some negative voices, negative self-talk, for a long time. A lot of healing went on. There’s things—images from the nights, the journeys—that will come up in dreams or during the day I’ll think about something that happened or something that I thought about. It’s constantly trying to integrate those lessons into everyday life.”

How’d it change your life?

“Man, it’s hard to answer that question with a short answer. But a lot of different ways. The most important way was really that self-love part. I think it’s unlocked a lot of my heart. Being able to fully give my heart to my teammates, my loved ones, relationships because I can fully embrace unconditionally myself. Just didn’t do that for a long time. I was very self-critical. When you have so much judgment on yourself it’s easy to transfer that judgment to other people. When you figure out a better way to love yourself, I think you can love people better because you’re not casting the same judgment you cast on yourself on other people. I’m really thankful for that.”

I asked about his fraught and estranged relationship with his family in California, and whether that might now get fixed.

“Honestly, that was a big intention I brought into the second journey this offseason,” he said. “I really felt like I wanted to surrender and open up to the medicine for some healing to come through and some direction on how to kind of go about that. And it didn’t. It didn’t necessarily. The big message was unconditionally loving myself is the key to being able to heal all relationships—with them, past relationships with lovers, whatever it might be…So that gives me a lot of hope in healing at some point. There was nothing specific that came through in my three nights of journey, per se, but it was everything to learn how to love myself better because every relationship is changed from that standpoint. Including the way I look at them [family members] and the hope I have for reconciliation at some point.”

I told him what I’d observed in my one-practice snapshot and here in the locker room. (Which I admit is a shallow way to draw any conclusion about a person. I don’t really know Rodgers. This is my Polaroid view of the ’20 and ’21 MVP—that’s it.) He looked happy on the field, thrilled to see practice visitor Jordy Nelson, hugging Nelson’s wife, laughing with Cobb, talking and smiling in an interaction with Doubs. Placid man.

He brought up all the coaches and players who he says make the game fun for him when I asked if there was a time when he was been down on football and now he loved it more.

“I don’t think it’s that,” he said. “I think [love of the game] has just deepened. My love for football has been there since I was 5 or 6 years old. But there’s a difference between loving something and being in love with something. Right? I think we can all relate to that. Loving people or being in love with people, loving things or being in love with things. I think I just fell back in love with football the last few years. It’s due to a mindset but also the people. I really do. I give credit to the Nathaniel Hacketts of the world and Luke Getsy, Justin Outten, Matt LaFleur—and Tom Clements coming back. Randall Cobb coming back and Marcedes Lewis. Robert Tonyan and Allen Lazard and Mason Crosby, and of course David Bakhtiari. All the people who make this thing so fun. I love people. I love my teammates so much. I love the opportunity to do this.

“But I think I just fell in love with it a little bit deeper. Again, I think a lot of that is due to the work that I’ve done on myself. It hasn’t all been just the ayahuasca journey. It’s been therapy. It’s been meditation. It’s been changing habits that weren’t giving me any type of joy. Eating better. Taking care of myself a little bit better. Being more gentle with myself. All those things have allowed me to look at each day with a little more joy.”

So, the obvious question is: does this violate the NFL’s substance-abuse policy? I don’t know. Checked with the league late Friday, and got a no-comment. But it’s likely the league never thought of South American psychedelics when creating the substance abuse policy. I was told over the weekend that the league will very likely not do anything to Rodgers retroactively because he’s not tested positive for a banned substance, and as for the future, who knows?

More in Ten Things below about Rodgers’ football regrets, but I wanted to get to the big thing around the Packers this summer: Wefense.

That’s what Bisaccia calls his special teams. Not offense, not defense, but a patchwork of the entire team in the kicking game. Last year, it was more like awfulfense. Flashback to the divisional game in frigid Lambeau in January. Pack up 10-3. Six minutes left. Niners ball at the Green Bay 19, fourth and one. The defense stones a Niner rush, loss of two, and now the Packers have to run out the clock on a zero-degree wind-chill night. But they do nothing on the fortuitous possession, and they have to punt, and punt front breaks down, and the Corey Bojorquez punt is blocked and recovered for a touchdown. Niners won on a field goal at :00.

Lots of things went wrong, but special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton got fired after a year on the job, a year continuing the tradition of disastrous play on kicking teams. After some aggressive recruiting by coach LaFleur, and a reported $2-million-a-year contract, Bisaccia was a Packer.

Bisaccia’s “wefense” ethos, as he explained Sunday, is that a special teams unit takes players from everywhere on the roster, and all must play unselfishly.

“On a punt team,” he said, “your wing might be a safety, one flyer might be a wide receiver, one might be a cornerback, the personal protector might be a fullback. It takes the whole team. I tell the players, ‘The only ‘I’ I want to hear is what can I do to help us win.’”

Bisaccia has brought a sense of vigor and importance to early practices. When he thought the 11 punt-team players were lethargic coming out of the huddle on one play, he ran 60 yards to get to them and yell: “Get back in the huddle! Come outta the huddle like you mean it!”

LaFleur said Bisaccia “can love players tough better than any coach I’ve ever met. He’s ultra-demanding but earns their respect by really caring about them. It’s an art, what he’s able to do.”

Bisaccia told me this job reminds him of the first NFL job he took—in Tampa Bay in 2002 on Jon Gruden’s staff.

“That was a team, with Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber and John Lynch and Simeon Rice, that was built to win now,” he said. “I feel like I’m in the same position here with Aaron Rodgers and this team. I feel that same sense of urgency. It fuels me.”

The special teams need a jolt. I say Rodgers solves the receiver jigsaw the way he always does. He might struggle a bit replacing the best third- down and red-zone receiver in football, Adams, but give him time. If Green Bay can finally overcome its recent history of blown January chances, Rodgers will be the most vital element. But Bisaccia’s impact must be felt too.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Inside Packers training camp: How Aaron Rodgers learned to love himself originally appeared on NBCSports.com