Of brains, Butte and baseball: How a tiny teenager became NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers
"So I go to every baseball game he's pitching," Rigsbee says. "Home and away, driving around, my wife asks, 'Where are you going?' I said I'm not going to let those other coaches talk to him."
By the fourth game, Rodgers came up to Rigsbee to reassure him he was committed to Butte, nowhere else, and to tell the coach he felt bad he was driving all over town. "I said, 'No, it's OK. I'll see you next week when you pitch. I'll be at every game. You're coming here.'"
With Rigsbee in the stands, along with some other JuCo baseball coaches, Rodgers was throwing 93 mph regularly and showing promise. Souza jokes that, even now, Rodgers could come out of the bullpen in the major leagues, even be the Brewers' closer. "Milwaukee is missing out," says Souza, who got along well with Rigsbee throughout the process. "Two hats, baseball and football. That would be awesome."
A Butte-iful year
With the baseball season ending and Rodgers graduating high school, though, the 18-year-old had to make a choice: continue to try and make it in baseball or go back to football. Or, perhaps, leave sports behind and become a financial advisor, like Jackson had predicted.
"He said, 'Football is my first love, I'm going to go back to football,'" Souza says. Rodgers' time spent playing baseball had made the picture so much clearer for him.
By the summer of 2002, before his first season at Butte, the late-blooming Rodgers had grown some more. He was now nearly 6-2 and almost 200 pounds. "He looks a lot better," Rigsbee says of the freshman. "Much more physical."
Rodgers had always been able to master the playbook and understand complicated concepts ("I started realizing how smart he was and how good he was at anticipating and reading the defense," Rigsbee says). But now the quarterback finally looked the part in pads, too. Engaged in a heated battle for the starting spot, Rodgers was playing like a guy with something to prove.
"It's about the fifth or sixth practice, and he's in shotgun," Rigsbee says. "He takes a snap, sprints right, plants his right foot – this is vintage now – runs back left and just throws a dime about 45 yards, hits the guy right in the hands, he catches it. And I looked at our coaches and I said, 'Did you guys see that? Where did that come from?'
"I hadn't seen him put him put that mustard on it before. Because he's got really loose shoulders and really good torque and he just spun the ball. I go, whoa. I've coached a lot of quarterbacks; I've never had anybody that could throw the ball that hard, that fast, running to their left.
Before the start of the regular season, Rigsbee sat down with his coaches to set the starting lineup. Many of the assistants preferred Brian Botts get the quarterback job, because he was a returning player who deserved the chance. Rigsbee, laughing, says he saw it differently and went with his gut.
"I said, 'Well, I'm gonna just tell you: Brian's been really good, but he's been with us for three years,'" Rigsbee says. "'Aaron has been with us for two weeks and he already knows the offense this much. In a month he's gonna know the offense this much better, so he's going to be the starter.'"
According to Rigsbee, Botts was "pissed," as was his mother. Two games into the season, despite Rodgers' spectacular play – he'd thrown for four touchdowns and caught a score in Week 1, and he'd gained about 600 all-purpose yards in Week 2 – Botts quit and his mom sent Rigsbee "the most scathing coaching letter I've ever received." In it, she blasted Rigsbee for not knowing talent and being a terrible quarterback evaluator and asking how he could let "that other kid" play over her son?
"I kept it," says Rigsbee, now Butte's athletic director. "And I gave it to my (current) head coach, who was our quarterback coach at the time, and I said keep that."
Interestingly, Rigsbee says he recently ran into Botts and, rather than a conciliatory laugh about losing his job to the eventual NFL MVP or admitting the coach really was right, the former player said, "I could've done that; it could've been me on the Packers. You ruined it."
Nonetheless, with the skinny freshman under center – wearing jersey No. 4, because a teammate had No. 12 and, incidentally, he admired Brett Favre – Butte's season and Rodgers' career took off. "He just started playing lights out, making play after play, running the ball and doing his thing," Rigsbee says.
Quarterbacking a team of older players – 24-year-olds who'd served in the military, guys who'd been in trouble with the law and were getting a second chance, all different types of people – gave Rodgers the confidence to become a real leader. "He was the man," Rigsbee says.
Ron Souza says the year at Butte was the turning point. He added "man muscles," grew as a person and was surrounded by superb athletes whose talent helped Rodgers' ability shine even more brightly.
When Rigsbee thinks back to that season, one of Rodgers' performances stands out above the rest.
It was a game in which Butte was trailing at halftime, 19-6, and nothing was going right. Rigsbee turned the play-calling over to Rodgers for the second half, saying, "It's on you."
With Rodgers making all the decisions based on what he saw, the Roadrunners scored 38 straight points. "We scored every drive in the second half," says Rigsbee, adding that it was "Bart Starr-like, (Rodgers) was calling everything."
The last play of that game, the one that sealed it, remains crystal clear in Rigsbee's mind. It was a play-action-fake zone pass, with one receiver running a post and another running a dig. Rodgers stood back and waited, waited, waited, before suddenly delivering the ball downfield.
"Aaron threw that sucker on a line, 50 yards through the air, and the receiver caught it going into the end zone." As players and coaches celebrated, Rodgers ran over to the sideline, pumping his fist, Rigsbee looking at him incredulously.
"'So are you going to give me tickets or what?'" Rigsbee remembers asking Rodgers. "And he looked at me and said, 'Ticket for what?' I said, 'When you're playing in the NFL, am I going to get some tickets? Guys can't throw like that.' And he pushed me back and was like, 'Oh coach, we'll see, I gotta play here first.'"
Rodgers played that season at Butte, throwing 26 touchdown passes and leading the Roadrunners to an 11-1 record and the No. 2 ranking in the country among junior colleges. And, on what Rigsbee remembers as a beautiful Monday in October, California head coach Jeff Tedford – who was actually coming to see tight end Garrett Cross – visited Butte and became smitten with Rodgers.
"Afterward, (Tedford) said, 'That's the best JC quarterback I've seen; he's going to be an NFL quarterback,'" Rigsbee remembers. "'I'm going to offer him tonight on the way home. Will you let him go?' I said, 'Hell yeah, I'll let him go.'"
That night, Rodgers excitedly called Rigsbee with the news that he'd received an offer from Cal. He expressed brief hesitance about leaving, saying Butte had the chance to be even better next season, but Rigsbee would hear none of it.
"I said, 'No. If you want to go to Cal, you need to go,'" Rigsbee says. "'What are you going to do, come back here and throw 50 touchdowns? And then what? You're going.'"
Dream come true
At Cal, Rodgers' story and success became more widely known. Despite not being able to join the Golden Bears until August in 2003 because of JuCo transfer rules and starting way behind the other quarterbacks, it took him only five games to win the job.
In the Insight Bowl, he passed for 394 yards and was named the game's MVP. Afterward, while his teammates partied, he went out to dinner with his parents and Rigsbee, joking that his Butte College MVP trophy was better than the bowl game hardware.
During his junior season, Rodgers, by now 6-foot-2, and 220 pounds, led Cal to a 10-1 record and set several school passing records. After once again powwowing with Rigsbee about his football future, he decided to declare for the NFL draft.
Despite Rodgers' standup past and seemingly strong character, Souza says he had professional scouts calling to ask him what the catch was.
"They said, 'Guys like this don't just fall out of sky; tell me about it. How come nobody in high school thought about him? Was there drugs or alcohol or trouble with the law?' And I tried to tell them, 'No, no, no, that's far from who he is. He's just a late developing kid.'"
Despite the angst and the embarrassment of sitting in the green room on draft night and waiting, interminably, to be selected, Rigsbee says he told Rodgers immediately that going to the Packers was "the best thing that could've happened." The experience has fueled Rodgers, added motivation and put more chip on the shoulder. After the franchise finally moved on from Favre, Rodgers – who wore No. 4 at Butte because of Favre – was well-prepared to make No. 12 the starting quarterback jersey in Green Bay.
There have been challenges along the way, adversity overcome, plenty of deserved good fortune and a bit of strange irony. Rodgers, a Northern California native, had the chance to be drafted first overall by his beloved 49ers, who instead took Alex Smith. Those decision-makers afterward regretted their choice, and when Rodgers returned to San Francisco a couple years later, he was cheered by the hometown fans. Now, a decade later, the 49ers are again looking for a quarterback, while the Packers have one of the best.
On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Rams are expected to take Jared Goff with the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Goff would be the first University of California quarterback selected since Rodgers, and he will have his own Alex Smith-like comparison in Carson Wentz, the North Dakota State quarterback expected to be taken second by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rigsbee says he sometimes thinks about all the "what ifs" of Rodgers' journey. What if he hadn't been so small in high school? What if he had gotten a Division 1 scholarship offer somewhere? What if he hadn't gone to Butte for that vital year? What if he never fulfilled his dream of playing for Cal? What if he had been drafted by the 49ers instead of the Packers?
"The whole mystic thing – to have him do so well, and it seems to wind back through all these hardships, and now it seems like it all just worked out perfect," Rigsbee says. "If you look back it seems like it all just fits together. But all those things put him in a spot to do the things he could do and be one of the best guys there is."
<< BackPage 3 of 3 (view all on one page)
Post a comment / write a review.
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.