Of brains, Butte and baseball: How a tiny teenager became NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers
"I think he started that trait and learned very early and that's when he gained a lot of compassion," says Souza, who still enjoys reading Rodgers' facial expressions as he watches games on TV. "Just like he is right now, how you hear players comment about how hard he works and how he works with the players and they're always on the same page. He was very fortunate that at a very early age he was able to do that with some people a little bit."
While Rodgers has always been celebrated for his IQ, his EQ – emotional quotient – is equally high. "And not even just as a football player, but as a person," Souza says. "Such a humble, humble guy."
'Everything you want'
As a student, Rodgers was "very conscientious," Souza says, a guy that did all the right things. He got very good grades – above a 3.8 – didn't party and acted like an eminently ordinary kid around campus. In stature and nature, he was not the BMOC.
"He was a guy that had faith in his life – family, religion came first. Everything you want," Souza says. "There's not many people like that anymore. That's who he was and he knew who he was. He was happy with that, he was confident in who he was. He wasn't arrogant at all; there was nothing arrogant about him."
Tell that last part to former San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan, who's explained his reasoning for – and admitted he was wrong about – choosing Alex Smith over Rodgers with the first pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by saying Rodgers seemed "very cocky, very confident, arrogant."
Sterling Jackson, the Pleasant Valley head coach, echoes Souza's sentiment. He describes the precociously mature Rodgers as "very grounded" and "always surveying things," more concerned with grades than being an outgoing prom king.
"He was into school, faith, family, football, sports," Jackson says. "Which made it great for us. We never, ever had to worry about what Aaron was doing."
In fact, given his his small size and big brain, Jackson says he and some of the coaches had Rodgers pegged for a shirt-and-tie job in the future.
"We thought that he was going to be our financial advisor. He talked about wanting to go into finance; he wanted to do all these things," Jackson says. "We thought this kid is going to be our financial advisor one day."
He had a tight-knit group of friends, most being fellow athletes, with whom he'd joke around and go see movies. He was very close with his family – parents Darla and Edward and brothers Luke and Jordan –and, though he had a nice upbringing and a good home situation, was outwardly respected by and could connect with everyone, regardless of background.
"If you could go back in a time machine, you wouldn't think that was Aaron," Souza says. "You'd think that was just a normal guy. That's who he was; that's who he is still. He's much more guarded now, of course, but that's still who he is."
"Very competitive, also," Jackson adds. "Don't ever tell him he can't do something."
By Rodgers' third season of high school, no one was telling him he couldn't be Pleasant Valley's starting varsity quarterback. "The main progression was arm strength," Jackson says of his development from age 15 to 17. He'd always thrown "a very nice ball, but it wasn't necessarily a cannon," the former head coach says. As he grew to about 5-10 his junior year and 6-foot by his senior year, his arm strength increased, too.
In his two years as the Vikings' starting quarterback, Rodgers passed for an impressive 4,421 yards. He set single-game records for touchdowns (6) and all-purpose yards (440). In 2001, he established a single-season school mark with 2,466 total yards. He was named All-Section and played in a local All-Star game.
Still, he was undersized and hadn't really stood out in a conservative offense on a .500 Pleasant Valley team.
Dismissed by some recruiters as too small and ignored by many who didn't travel north of Sacramento to scout in California ("it's changed now," Souza says, "Aaron's helped that a lot"), Rodgers was even told outright by then coach Ron Turner at an Illinois football camp that he simply wasn't good enough. After a disappointing senior season in which he'd played his heart out, Rodgers began 2002 angry, depressed and unsure about whether to give up on his dream of playing football at the University of California.
"He's a talented guy, but there's not exactly a calling for 6-foot, 180-pound quarterbacks out of high school," Souza says. "He worked very hard and not an offer, not a phone call, nothing. No responses. Poor kid was crushed. He was about ready to hang it up, take a year off from football, reevaluate what he wants to do."
Life-changing sport switch
Seeing his pupil adrift, Souza, who was also Pleasant Valley's baseball coach, made a crucial suggestion that would end up being an auspicious one. Come out for the baseball team, he told Rodgers, get your mind off football for a little while and just compete. It'll be great for you.
Rodgers hadn't played baseball in three years – "he was off the radar as far as that goes" – but Souza wanted to develop him as a pitcher, or at least "get him doing something else."
Vikings pitchers and catchers start throwing in January, a very early spring training. That year, for a month straight, Chico experienced tule fog, a heavy, soupy ground fog, not unusual in Northern California, with temperatures below 30 degrees.
"A damn bone-chilling cold," Souza says. "And he showed up every day for a month. Loved to compete, had success with baseball and you could just see he got his mind off of football. Got away from it, forgot about it. It was probably the best thing that happened to him."
Jackson saw the positive effect of baseball, too.
"Ron Souza's really good at movement, mechanics of different things, body movement," Jackson says. "He saw arm action. He saw grit. He saw someone that was going to work on getting better, someone that is not afraid of being great."
Jackson, who was also the school's P.E. teacher, saw Rodgers exert the same effort in gym class that he did in competition and says he was always striving to get better on his own.
"Ron knew that whatever Aaron was doing, Aaron was going to work on it," Jackson says.
That's where Craig Rigsbee comes in.
Rigsbee, the former Butte Community College football head coach, had known a little bit about Rodgers. He'd seen him throw at a Butte summer passing camp before his junior year, remembering that he wore a knee brace because of partially torn ligaments he hadn't gotten fixed after a basketball injury in eighth grade. Rigsbee also heard from Pleasant Valley's coaches that Rodgers wasn't very big but he was really good, and he thought he'd keep an eye on the unheralded prospect.
When Rigsbee, who says he strives to recruit every talented local kid in Butte's radius, learned Rodgers hadn't gotten any offers, he called Ed Rodgers and said, "I'm really interested in your son."
The elder Rodgers said OK and gave Rigsbee the family's address. At the time, Rigsbee lived in a not-yet-developed neighborhood and the Rodgerses house was close by, so he walked across 10 acres of empty lots and knocked on the door – to try and recruit Aaron Rodgers to Butte.
"And I'll never forget, his mom Darla answers the door," Rigsbee says. "And she's the nicest person and she says, 'Coach, I'm going to be honest with you, my son's worked too hard to go to a junior college.'"
Nevertheless, Rigsbee earned a meeting with the family in the living room, where he began to sell Butte's academics. "I said, 'You know, if you take history, the War of 1812 is still going to happen in 1812; it's not going to change because you go to Stanford or Cal,' and they laughed. We were talking and getting along really well."
Rigsbee explained that many other junior-college players he'd coached had made it to Division 1, some even to the NFL, like former Cowboys lineman Larry Allen. He talked about Butte's winning program. And he started telling the family about the positional situation and returning players at quarterback.
"Aaron says, 'Coach, let me stop you there. I really don't care who you have coming back. I just need to ask you two questions."
First, would he get a legitimate shot to win the starting job and play as a freshman? Rigsbee said of course. And second, Rodgers asked, if he had a great season could he leave after one year?
"And I'm thinking to myself, slow down a little bit, you're not even recruited by anybody and you're talking about leaving after one year? But I said absolutely. 'If I can get you out after one year, you're that good, we'll place you somewhere.'"
They talked a while longer, little brother Jordan running around as Darla brought out some cookies. And then Rodgers, who, academically, could have gone anywhere but still aspired to play football, said, "OK. Count me in. You have my word. I'm coming to Butte, that's what I'm doing."
Rigsbee liked Rodgers a lot and the two had a great rapport. But even though the coach had been given the quarterback's word and trusted him, he couldn't be too careful, especially not with Rodgers "bringing it" on the mound the way he was.
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