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Undersized, from a football backwater and perceived to lack athleticism and football smarts, Rodgers was passed over by Division I recruiters. At Butte he learned how to lead a locker room, despite being nearly a decade younger than many players. In Rodgers's only season there he led the school to a 10--1 record and a No. 2 junior college national ranking. "That's where I got my confidence," Rodgers says, "and I've never lost it."
Still, he struggled to gain attention. Rodgers landed at Cal only after Bears coach Jeff Tedford had come to Butte to recruit a tight end. "Everyone has always underestimated his intelligence," says Craig Rigsbee, who coached Rodgers at Butte and is now the school's director of athletics. "I'd be screaming, 'I got the wrong play,' and he'd say, 'Don't worry, I know what you meant.' Then he goes right from our place to Cal, and I knew the kid was going to go far."
After two years during which Rodgers set the Cal mark for career passer rating, more complications came during the first round of the 2005 draft, when he and Utah's Alex Smith were viewed as the top two quarterback prospects. Smith went No. 1 to the 49ers, the preferred pick of then offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy. Rodgers slipped to No. 24 and Green Bay—where McCarthy would be hired as head coach the following year.
"The first day he got here, he wanted to table it right away and I wanted to talk about it," Rodgers says of McCarthy. "He said, 'We didn't pick you. Now I'm here—let's move on.' I was like, 'Hey, let's rewind this a year. What did you guys not see?' I got after him a little bit because he's made some comments in the years since, like 'We didn't know he was that athletic in college.'"
Both laugh about it now, but the coach also knows the perception has motivated Rodgers, who has proved to be an adept scrambler and routinely makes plays with his feet. McCarthy says, "He moves better than I graded him coming out of college. I've admitted to that. I took some body shots on that."
As with Steve Young and Joe Montana, it's unfair but unavoidable to look at Rodgers through the lens of Favre. While Favre's faux retirements and his signing with rival Minnesota make him an easy target for scorn (someone has stickered over the P on the BRETT FAVRE PASS street signs near Lambeau Field), Rodgers has emerged in Green Bay as his own man. He is the first player in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in each of his first two years as a starter. His 4,434 yards and 103.2 passer rating in 2009 were both better than Favre had in any of his 16 seasons in Green Bay. Rodgers has been active in the Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer Fund, which supports pediatric cancer and blood-disorder research in Wisconsin. And he has been on the other end of telephone calls from Green Bay's mayor, Jim Schmitt, who last season renamed Minnesota Avenue "Aaron Rodgers Drive" for the week before Favre and the Vikings came to Lambeau Field. What about this season's visit, on Oct. 24? "The only plan this year," Schmitt says, "is to beat them."
The town's expectations are no greater than Rodgers's own, forged in the face of what his backup Matt Flynn calls character builders. "I don't think he has a chip on his shoulder, but it gave him fuel to work a little bit harder," Flynn says. "Everything he went through has helped him become the man he is now."
It may be why Rodgers looks so comfortable, whether he's in the Packers' two-minute offense or lounging in the team's practice facility telling stories. One of his favorites involves the training camp dormitories at St. Norbert College, which many of the players believe are haunted. Two summers ago Rodgers borrowed a Scream movie mask from a neighbor's kid, somehow secured the dorms' master key and spent a good part of the night popping in and out of his teammates' rooms, a 6'2", 220-pound apparition trying to stifle a laugh. "There's our starting quarterback, in a Scream outfit, running around St. Norbert," Flynn says.
Yes, Green Bay is head over heels for a strong-armed quarterback, an unflappable leader who's not above pulling a prank or two on his teammates. These days his name is Aaron Rodgers.