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Diane Modrow was voted Miss Wisconsin in 1973, a decade before Aaron Rodgers was born and 35 years before he became her favorite team's starting quarterback. Modrow has been a member of Green Bay's Golden Girls cheerleaders. She has met Packers fans from as far off as China. She has spent her life watching football in a town she feels is nothing less than blessed. ("When they print your birth certificate," Modrow says jokingly, "they put PACKER FAN right next to your name.") On Sundays when the Packers are home, Modrow runs a merchandise tent across the street from Lambeau Field, selling green and gold beads for one dollar and Brett Favre DRAMA QUEEN T-shirts for $15. Packers history lessons are free.
"Aaron stepped into some big shoes, but his character throughout the whole process is what has been so stellar," Modrow says of Rodgers's winding road from California outsider to Green Bay's favorite son. "Everything he did revolved around the positive. He came here to do a job, and that's what he has done."
Modrow is wearing a black jacket over a green Packers shirt. It is sunny and cool, just the kind of autumn football day she knows like an old friend. She's asked whose jersey she's wearing—in this 2010 season it could be any of several. Linebacker Clay Matthews (number 52) has seven sacks. Receivers Donald Driver (number 80) and Greg Jennings (number 85) have three touchdown catches each. Cornerback Charles Woodson (number 21) has two forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown. Modrow unzips the coat and reveals the jersey: It's the number 12.
I can probably say this now," Rodgers begins. He is sitting in a lounge at the Packers facility, days away from the start of a season in which Green Bay will win three of its first four games, including last Sunday's 28--26 victory over Detroit during which Rodgers threw three touchdowns. He is the face of the franchise, one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks and a player most observers feel has yet to reach his peak. But the 26-year-old Rodgers is also shaped by the circumstances of his career, obstacles that have blocked his path since he was a high school quarterback seeking a Division I scholarship, a college QB sitting agonizingly in the greenroom on draft day as team after team passed him over and a pro looking for a graceful entrance amid the final chaotic days of a legend.
So, yes, he can probably say this now about the 2008 season in which he replaced Favre, got booed during the Packers' Family Night scrimmage and grew a Tom Selleck mustache to give the media something to talk about besides his predecessor. "The questions got old," says Rodgers, "and I realized that if I could cut my facial hair into something crazy, maybe they'd ask me about that and every question wouldn't be about the guy who played before me."
All he has done in his 36 starts as a Packer is make a once skeptical town fall hard for him. The Packers were just 6--10 in 2008, but Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. Last year he led the Pack to an 11--5 record and into the playoffs. This season the expectations in Green Bay are much loftier. Largely on the strength of Rodgers's right arm—Jennings says he throws "the prettiest deep ball you'll ever see"—the Packers are a bona fide threat to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Against the Lions last week Rodgers finished the first half with a perfect quarterback rating (158.3). He moved nimbly around the pocket, tossed perfectly lofted touchdown passes to Jennings and Driver, and zipped a fastball in the end zone to tight end Jermichael Finley for his other TD.
"In his first year starting he'd throw a pick and go in the tank a little bit because everyone was holding him to such a high standard, with Brett leaving and him taking over," Jennings says. "Now he's at the point where he trusts himself and the guys around him. He plays with a certain confidence and a certain swagger, which he should. You can't play timid, especially at that position."
Says linebacker A.J. Hawk, "We've seen him go through a pretty unique situation. We saw how well he handled it, how he never lashed out. I invited him to my wedding in Ohio, and my family members still ask me about him. I think he's the poster child on how to handle a tough situation."
The NFL may be a molder of men, but Rodgers points to an earlier time for his defining quarterback moment, a time when his center was a bouncer from Canada, his left tackle had come from the U.S. Army and his free safety had served time in prison. Rodgers was an 18-year-old freshman quarterback at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., a junior college not far from his home in Chico, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
"You had guys that had been in construction jobs and grocery store jobs and club jobs," says Rodgers. "Some were bounce-back guys or, like me, guys who'd been overlooked. Everybody was hungry. Guys were playing for the love of the game because they didn't want to start in the workplace."