Of brains, Butte and baseball: How a tiny teenager became NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers
This article was originally published on April 28, 2016.
Before he was a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player and a five-time Pro Bowler. Before he had a championship ring and an MVP trophy from winning Super Bowl XLV. Before he was Brett Favre's quiet backup, before he was a spurned first-round draft pick. Before starring at Cal and before spending the most important year of his life at Butte. Before the growth spurt and the rejection letters and the earliest swelling of that notorious chip on his now-famous shoulder. Before he was considered one of the best quarterbacks in the world, a self-assured and mega-talented superstar with a $110 million contract, Aaron Rodgers was a skinny 18-year-old tossing a baseball on a blacktop through Northern California's thick tule fog, wondering if he should hang up his football pads and abandon his dream.
You've heard some of this story already, no doubt, about the undersized kid who got zero scholarship offers in high school, went to community college to prove he could play and, eventually, threw himself into the uppermost stratosphere of professional sports.
But his high school and community college coaches, those men that knew Aaron Rodgers before he was Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, would tell you there's much more to the story. They'd sit around and talk with you for hours, offering precious anecdotes of Rodgers' exceptional intelligence and underestimated athleticism, his maturity, leadership, competitiveness and confidence, even when no one else had any in him – detailed, nuanced anecdotes that paint in the early parts of the picture most people don't know, about the person and the journey.
One of the most critical junctures of that journey was on the freezing-cold blacktop in Chico, Calif., in January 2002 when, after a dejecting senior football season, he decided to join the Pleasant Valley High School baseball team. It would prove to be a life-changing decision that set in motion the ensuing major events – going to Butte, signing with Cal, being drafted by the Packers – that now define Rodgers.
But more than three years prior to that, he was already showing glimpses of his unique gifts, albeit in a bookworm's body.
Small but smart
Former Pleasant Valley football head coach Sterling Jackson remembers a scrawny incoming freshman, not quite 5-foot-6 and maybe 125 pounds, attending the Vikings' football camp in 1998 and competing with a much bigger kid named Mark, who went about 6-foot, 150, to be the junior varsity quarterback.
Jackson remembers Rodgers being "very calculating," very smart on and off the field, a student of the game who asked a lot of questions and really seemed to want to be there.
But he says Ron Souza, then the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, saw something ineffably special right away in Rodgers.
"You've got a kid that looks the part and you've got a kid that just looks young," Jackson recalls. "But Ron is going, 'This guy right here (Rodgers), he's the guy. He's going to be the guy that leads this program.'"
Both Jackson and Souza were junior college football players – the former at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif., the latter at Chico State University – and both have been around future elite athletes. Jackson went to high school with former North Carolina basketball star and Milwaukee Bucks power forward Scott Williams and says he was "the real deal" from the beginning, always dominant and destined for the NBA.
Souza, who's coached for 30 years, has been around several high schoolers that eventually played in Division I, so he knows what a good young player looks like.
"Did I know Aaron was going to be a professional, a two-time MVP, a Super Bowl MVP?" he says, laughing. "Absolutely not."
So what made him think, so early on, that a diminutive Rodgers would even be "the guy" to lead Pleasant Valley?
"Excellent mechanics," Souza says instantly when asked what he saw. "Great, great feet. Very quick release, on top of the ball. His mechanics were flawless, very easy to work with … It wasn't a short-arm action, either. He's always had his feet under him and he always had great balance and tremendous, tremendous vision."
Souza says that sound throwing motion wasn't so much inherently instilled in Rodgers, but rather a product of his mind and ability to learn. "He has a photographic memory," Souza says. "It really is incredible. I think he saw it, pictured it, was able to visualize it and then could mimic it."
Rodgers was always athletic and very talented, his coaches insist; he was just a late-bloomer. But since his fundamentals were so good, "when the man-knuckles come," as Souza says, a player like Rodgers can make major strides because the physical capability finally catches up with the mental acuity ("this was a classic case with Aaron," he says).
Plus, he comprehended the game better than any high school kid Souza's ever coached.
"You hear people talking now about how sharp he is and his memory. It's amazing, it really is, what he sees and how quickly he sees it and how he retains it. That's what really sets him apart as a quarterback.
"I'm probably biased but I think he plays at a different level; he's helped change the game."
By his sophomore year, Rodgers had grown a little, to about 5-7, and learned a lot. Due to his small stature and some incumbent upperclassmen, he was still on the J.V. team – Pleasant Valley was not a powerhouse program, but "we won more than we lost," Jackson says. Rodgers was working closely with Souza, getting lots of reps and, conceptually, picking up on just about everything.
"He wasn't a flyer and he's still not a flyer, speed-wise, but he moves faster than he looks," Souza says, perhaps inadvertently perking up the ears of the ever-perceptive-to-slights Rodgers. "He has tremendous instincts, great feel in the pocket, great timing, of course. We used him on the run a lot."
Rodgers had the basics down pat. Three-step drop, five-step drop, sprint-out bootleg passes – a staple of the Pleasant Valley offense, and a trademark of Rodgers' quarterbacking style still – he could do all of that. It didn't take long for Souza to realize he could "take this kid to the level 5, as far as pre-snap reads."
On a pass play, a quarterback often goes through a triangle progression, looking at and evaluating the positioning of the safety, the cornerback and the outside linebacker. It's called a triangle read and it provides more throwing options on either side of the field. Most of the game's relatively new passing concepts are based on it. The triangle read is predicated on the quarterback remaining patient and being able to accurately diagnose the defensive play.
"He was making triangle reads by the time he was a sophomore," Souza says. "And he was audibling. He was checking out. He's calling choice routes with an inside receiver. He could check his blocking – solid call and keep a tight end in or max protect.
"The knowledge at 15, to pick up on stuff that quick. He was very sharp."
These days, whether standing and waiting for a receiver to get open, telling overanxious fans to "R-E-L-A-X" or improvising behind the line of scrimmage before uncorking a game-winning Hail Mary, Rodgers always seems to display a preternatural calm. Souza says that was a characteristic of his quarterbacking even 17 years ago.
The former offensive coordinator vividly remembers a game in 1999, when Pleasant Valley was playing its crosstown rival in front of thousands of people, and Rodgers' J.V. team had the ball down by three points with less than two minutes to play. With no timeouts remaining, the sophomore methodically marched the Vikings down the field, driving them 60 yards in a no-huddle offense and running various formations.
But on one play, a set with two tight ends and two wide receivers that was supposed to feature just a single back, there was confusion among the players and the second running back stayed in the game. It was very late, the final seconds were ticking off the clock and Pleasant Valley was surely about to be penalized.
"There were 12 guys on the field," Souza says. "But before I can even say a word, (Rodgers) puts his hand up, like, 'Relax … I got it.'"
Rodgers kept his hand up, called out the cadence completely under control, snapped the ball and fired a 20-yard strike for the game-winning touchdown. It all looked so normal, Souza says, the officials never noticed a thing. Ironically, Rodgers is now known for his propensity to draw penalties on his opponent, including for offsides and too many men on the field.
"To me that was just... you don't get that," Souza says. "I've had some great drives by high-school kids, don't get me wrong. But to know the situation, know we're out of timeouts, just be very calm – 'we are going to do this with 12 people, and nobody is going to know' – was just incredible to me.
"When you watch (games), that's what really separates him from everybody else, how he has the ability to be so natural, almost in slow motion the way he sees it."
It's well-documented by now, of course, that Rodgers has a keen mind. Current and former teammates, coaches and scouts – even Rodgers, himself, in making sly allusions to his high SAT and Wonderlic test scores – they all say the quarterback is cerebral to the Nth degree. And those are NFL people that are outwitted.
So how did an intellectually advanced teenager, especially in his football sense, deal with other high school kids who just didn't understand what the future NFL MVP understood?
"Getting other players to be on the same page, yeah, that was tough for him," Souza says. "That was frustrating for Aaron."
Back then, Souza says – and to an extent still, if last season's gesticulations were any indication – Rodgers would "wear his feelings on his sleeve," slumping his shoulders, throwing up his arms, yelling at teammates or just brooding.
Throughout high school, Souza was a mentor to and close confidant of Rodgers', the man to whom the boy would go to talk about his frustrations on the field, particularly with teammates who just didn't understand, or care, as much as he did.
"He would talk often; I would just let him talk," says Souza, who'd listen and ask questions and try to help Rodgers through his vexations. "'What do you think? What you have to do to make these guys better?' I didn't tell him anything, just sort of guided him toward it. He knows what to do with it, he'll figure it out."
What Rodgers figured out was that he had to elevate the group, bring everyone else up to where he was, to go anywhere. He had to reach people at their levels, on their terms, to succeed. It brings to mind former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley, a brash player with talents more physical than mental, who said Rodgers would sit down with him the night before games in 2012 to talk and work on their oft-questioned chemistry.
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