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By Jim McGrath Wednesday, June 29, 2011The first things you notice are the hands.
Even from far away, it is apparent that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has good-sized hands. As one observer on the sideline at Zable Stadium called them yesterday, “catcher’s mitts.” Certainly large enough to wrap around a football like most of us wrap ours around a double-decker sandwich.
However, these hands have worked wonders. Five months ago, they were the key to precision passes to Packer teammates Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson en route to a rousing post-season performance of almost 1,100 yards and nine touchdown passes in four playoff games, the last a 31-25 Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The hands that held not only the Vince Lombardi trophy, but also that of the game’s Most Valuable Player. The hands that might be holding an ESPY award in two weeks as either the Best Male Athlete or Best NFL Player, or both.
Not bad for a guy who was only 5’10” and 160 pounds, with no scholarship offers, out of high school.
What? Not true?
Rodgers bluntly interrupted the first reporter’s (fortunately from another outlet) question at yesterday’s press session, held inside the Laycock Football Complex, adjacent to the Stadium. “That’s incorrect. I was 6’2”, 195.”
But the part about no scholarships may have been true.
“I didn’t have any expectations coming out of high school,” noted Rodgers, the star guest of William and Mary head football coach Jimmye Laycock's Colonial All-Pro Camp, which ended yesterday. “I was a realist. I wasn’t a great player yet. I knew that I had a lot of hard work between where I was at and where I wanted to be, at a big-time Division I program.”
Only one, Illinois, made an offer, as a walk-on. In a surprising move, Rodgers turned down the offer and decided to play at tiny Butte Community College, near his hometown of Chico, California. In 2002, after leading his team to a 10-1 record while throwing 28 touchdowns, other schools took notice. California, led by Coach Jeff Tedford, was one of them.
Immediately, Rodgers took charge of the Bears offense, throwing for almost 5,500 yards and 43 TD’s in his first two years at Cal. In spite of having one year of eligibility remaining, the junior made himself available for the 2005 draft and fell all the way to the 24th pick before being scooped up by the Packers.
Rodgers was groomed to be the heir apparent to future Hall-of-Famer Brett Favre. However, Favre began his on-again, off-again relationship with the topic of retirement early in Rodgers’ career, not leaving until finally being traded to the New York Jets in 2008, soon after talking himself out of retirement for a third time.
While many players may have faltered from the unwillingness of the mentor to leave, Rodgers only grew stronger.
“It (the experience) forced me to improve as a football player, but also as a person. I knew that the opportunity was going to come and I was going to have to make the most of it. People were going to be watching, and I knew that the way I prepared for that situation would go a long way in the locker room with those guys (teammates).”
It may have also taught the quarterback something about humility. Yesterday, the large hands of the quarterback who has thrown for over 12,000 yards over the past three years while posting the highest passer rating in regular and post-season history, was lobbing soft passes for hundreds of young campers, waiting patiently for their opportunity to catch a ball from perhaps the hottest hand in the NFL.
For the record, neither hand was sporting the Super Bowl ring that Rodgers and his teammates collected earlier this month.
Back to the camp subject, it would seem that Rodgers was simply emulating his own camp experience as a youth. Again, no?
“I remember being a kid in California and not having this opportunity. To be able to spend time at a camp setting, with college players and Clay (Matthews), Ndamukong (Suh) and myself (Matthews and Suh appeared on Sunday and Monday, respectively), it’s just exciting to be here. Hopefully, we’ll inspire the kids in some way because I remember being that little kid with a dream.”
One parent, Hoss ("Everyone calls me Hoss," he said), brought his wife and children for the festivities. Although living on the Peninsula, both parents are from the Green Bay area, and were happy as Packers fans to be able to see Rodgers and Matthews. “We try to make it here whenever a pro player visits,” he said. The children appeared to be in possession of a Packers helmet which may or may not have been signed over the course of the morning.
Looking at next season, Rodgers is hopeful that in spite of the lost time, his teammates and he will be ready when and if the strike ends.
“I miss the guys. I’m probably in the best shape of my life, but getting ready to play, whenever that happens.” On the team front, he added, “I’m getting ready to begin my seventh year. Capers (Dom, the defensive coordinator) is in the third year with his system. (Head coach) Mike McCarthy is starting his sixth year. We’re not going to lose a lot of players. We don’t have to make a lot of adjustments as a team.”