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IT'S A Thursday night in Green Bay in June, the dry season for football. Of course, that's a relative term this far north in Wisconsin. At the Titletown Brewing Company downtown—identifiable by the enormous statue of a Packers receiver in mid-snare out front—it is, as always, the perfect time to talk about Aaron Rodgers. ¶ "He's the topic these days," says bartender Jeremy (Double J) Jasicki. Scruffy and laid-back, Double J grew up in Green Bay. He was here during the glory days of the '90s and was at Lambeau Field last January for that fateful NFC Championship Game, when the Pack lost to the New York Giants in OT and just missed a trip to the Super Bowl. And, like most in this neck of the woods, he is a Brett Favre man through and through. "My entire adult life, he's been the quarterback," says Jasicki, 34. "Around here he's the higher power."
Double J pauses to serve two shots of SoCo to a brunette in a push-up bra. "Well, I'd say half the people are nervous and half are cautiously optimistic," he says. "At this point, though, I don't think even Brett Favre could escape Brett Favre's shadow. I don't envy Rodgers one bit."
Who would? This fall, Rodgers, a thoughtful, self-aware 24-year-old from Chico, Calif., who's never started an NFL game, will take over the Packers from Favre, the NFL's alltime leader in pretty much everything. The local papers have dubbed it the A.F. Era, and if that religious symbolism seems absurd, then you haven't been to Wisconsin lately. This is a state, after all, in which it's not uncommon to have a Favre shrine in your basement or, as La Crosse middle school secretary Linda Kouba does, a life-sized cardboard cutout of number 4 greeting visitors to the school office. He is deity and hall monitor, everything to everyone.
Aaron Rodgers's task—be yourself; forget Favre—seems nearly impossible. All he has to do is avoid the Brett Favre Steakhouse (20,000 square feet of memorabilia and pricey sirloin), refrain from playing video games (Favre is on the cover of Madden NFL 09, the first retired player to be so honored) and stop reading magazines like, say, this one (three Favre covers and counting in the last nine months). Best not to follow online Packers coverage either, lest he notice, for example, the item on packersnews.com during June minicamp reporting that Rodgers had "his worst practice of the off-season." During minicamp.
Then there are the other headlines, the hopeful ones, like the recent Green Bay Press-Gazette blog entry titled FAVRE THROWS PASSES ... TO MIDDLE-SCHOOLERS. (It is not mentioned what routes the youngsters were running, but no doubt Favre hit them perfectly in stride.) But, really, who can blame Wisconsinites for entertaining the notion of Favre's return when he seems to be? In April, when asked about a comeback were Rodgers to get injured, Favre said, "It would be tempting, and I very well could be enticed to do it."
See? Real easy to forget the guy.
For his part, Rodgers focuses on the positives. He's played in just seven NFL games, most notably coming in for an injured Favre in the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys last season, and completing 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards. But he says he's been preparing for this opportunity ever since he was drafted out of Cal with the 24th pick in 2005 and pegged as the Packers' quarterback of the future. He says he embraces the opportunity, that there are "zero negatives." He keeps a diary, because as an "internal processor" (his words) he finds it a good release. "I'm someone who likes to churn on things and analyze," he said last Friday, "and I find if you don't get stuff out, it will tear you up." He claims to be his own "media adviser," and says the key is to "get your message out" and not dwell on critiques: "You can either get better or get bitter."
Talking to Rodgers, who is earnest and optimistic, is a bit like talking to a Dust Bowl farmer who's sure that, come sunup, the rains will arrive. You hope he's right, even if you know the odds are against him.