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Opinion: Aaron Rodgers fooled a lot of people ... including me

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One of the first times I met Aaron Rodgers was sometime in 2013. It was a few years after winning his first MVP, and a short time before he'd win his second. He was, it seemed to me, one of the most intelligent and introspective athletes I'd ever met.

That thought was, obviously, extremely wrong.

During my years of touring NFL training camps, the one almost mandatory stop was Green Bay. It's the football equivalent of Camelot, and Rodgers was King Arthur. Everyone wanted an audience with him (Rodgers, not King Arthur), and I was always granted one.

I'd sit at the locker next to his, and we'd chat for at least 30 minutes and sometimes more. Half the conversation was about football, but the remainder was about everything else, from race to politics to the media. Or just what was happening in his life.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to play Sunday against Seattle.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to play Sunday against Seattle.

"I always feel like you have to have good balance in your life," Rodgers said to me in 2018. "It's something I'm really beginning to embrace. The vacations I went on this offseason, the time with close friends and family, all make me a better person.

"This offseason was big in terms of that. Seeing the Dalai Lama. I took a trip to Africa (to Lusaka, Zambia, to help fit children and adults with hearing aids). Spending time with some teammates outside of football. All of those things help me grow as a person and make me a better football player."

Swaths of our conversations were off-the-record and will remain so. There were also other conversations over phone and text.

None of this is to say that I knew Rodgers well. This isn't my point. It's that I felt I knew him well enough. Obviously, that wasn't the case.

Yet talking to him was always the highlight of my camp tours because he always seemed so honest. So empathetic. So incredibly smart.

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Two particular conversations stick out. One of the things I really liked about Rodgers was how easily he talked about race. In fact, he remains the only white NFL player I've ever known who wanted to have those discussions and was comfortable doing so.

I don't think he'd mind me sharing something he once said that I'll never forget, because it was prophetic. His quote went something like this: I think race relations are getting worse, and I worry a guy will come along and play off those divisions, and use them to become president. Then we'll really be in deep trouble.

There would eventually be mainstream conversations about how the election of President Barack Obama would lead to white backlash; however, when Rodgers and I spoke, few people were discussing this outside of some Black academics and, well, me and my Black friends.

This conversation with Rodgers was several years before Donald Trump and was a perfect illustration of how Rodgers watched the world closely and understood it well.

The second notable conversation included his visible anger when reacting to a misogynistic story claiming that his then-girlfriend, actor Olivia Munn, was the reason he was struggling on the field.

"It was a ridiculous insinuation. A ridiculous article. And unfair," Rodgers told me in 2015. "Just because I'm dating someone famous does not mean she should be a target or I should be a target. All players have relationships. We all balance a lot, and we still come to practice and meetings and the games with clear heads.

"You want to speculate about me being injured? Go ahead. That's fine. But I'm not going to let someone say something ridiculous about me without me fighting back. I have a voice, and I'm going to set the record straight."

It was a remarkably human moment for a guy who often didn't let people get close.

So, too, was this:

"I like to think that I'm the same guy every day," he said. "I'm a fiery competitor, and I bring it in practice and I bring it on the field. But off the field, especially when times are good, you have to be very even-keeled. Because through adversity, as I've learned over years, learned through watching Brett (Favre), and learned through being the guy here eight years now, when adversity strikes, the players, especially the young players, look to the quarterback and the head coach for how they handle things.

"So you need to show them that you're always under control. You're always confident that things are going to work out in your favor.

"A lot about the locker room and an NFL team is about relationships. As you get older in the league, you realize how important those are. I remember when I was a younger player and an older player told me how he didn't get close to players in training camp, because he didn't know if they were going to get cut.

"He said he liked to stick to himself. I remember that and I remember thinking, 'I want to do the opposite.' I always want to get to know guys, get to know what makes them tick. Because I think as a leader, you have to understand how to inspire guys."

It's clear that with Rodgers, one of three things occurred:

1. He was completely fooling me.

2. Something drastically changed inside of him the past few years.

3. Some combination of the two.

Again, and this is important, I'm not saying I knew Rodgers well. You don't truly get to know someone by sitting at their locker a half-dozen times.

But the Rodgers I'm seeing now is so dramatically different from the one who spoke so eloquently and intelligently about, well, everything, it's almost shocking. It's difficult to stress how different he seems. He seems like a totally different human being.

There are a few journalists, maybe one or two, who believe Rodgers has always been a phony. One is a former Bleacher Report colleague and one of the smartest people I've worked with. He's said for years that Rodgers isn't who he appears to be.

Also, journalist Michael Smith picked up when Rodgers said he was "immunized" that he wasn't vaccinated. Smith was the only journalist out of many who was publicly suspicious right from the beginning. Which isn't a shock, since Smith is exceptionally bright.

Some friends have asked whether I was truly fooled by Rodgers, or did my access to him blind me? Was I happy to sit down with one of the biggest stars in sports and that, in turn, caused me to overlook who he really was?

I don't think so. Star Trek actors are the only stars who cause me to act like a nutty fan.

There's just one thing I do know. I don't recognize this Aaron Rodgers.

At all.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aaron Rodgers fooled a lot of people ... including me