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THE QUARTERBACK CAN NEVER FORGET. IF A FRIEND OF HIS said something really funny one afternoon back in junior high, he remembers it. If his mom or dad offered a piece of sage advice, he remembers that, too. If some opponent ran a particularly effective blitz package against his junior college Butte Roadrunners back in the fall of 2002, that sticks right there as well. His memory is a remarkable gift, and a curse as well. It fills the young man's head with recollections that can enrich the moment, and it plucks at the strings of motivation like Clapton playing the blues. But it is always there.
Ten days before leading the Packers to a Super Bowl victory over the Steelers, Aaron Rodgers relaxed at his dressing cubicle in the belly of Lambeau Field. "God gave me a great memory," says Rodgers. "I mean, it's really good." A visiting writer wants to know how good. "Ask me about a game I played in 2008 or 2009," says Rodgers. "I can immediately tell you the worst decision I made in the game, and I can tell you the best play I made in the game. I can see them right away."
There is a temptation to turn this into a party game. That temptation is difficult to resist, so the writer asks Rodgers to recall Green Bay's 37--36 loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in December 2009. The best decision that day? Rodgers does not pause. "It was a play that didn't get a lot of pub," he says. "Fourth quarter, we're down six. [It was 27--21, Steelers.] I made a protection adjustment at the line of scrimmage to make sure we picked up somebody. It was a hand signal. Then I threw a slant-and-go to Jordy [Nelson] for a big gain." It was a 27-yard gain, to be exact. Ryan Grant ran 24 yards for a touchdown on the next play to give the Packers the lead.
"It was a small thing, something that you would never notice," says Rodgers, "but it really came from preparation and knowing where the pressure was coming from." And he could see it as if it had happened two minutes earlier.
The logical follow-up question comes hard on the heels of the anecdote. Your worst play in that game? And here Rodgers takes a long pause, smiles and cocks his head to the right. It was a game in which he completed 26 of 48 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. A terrific game. A game in which perfection was marred only by defeat (no small issue). "That game," says Rodgers. "I played pretty well." He laughs. Because of course, if there was a bad play, he would recall it.
On the first Sunday night in February, Rodgers joined one of the most exclusive fraternities in sports: Super Bowl--winning quarterbacks. It will change his life. Ask Tom Brady. Ask Drew Brees. Yet for each man who joins this club, the experience is different than for the rest. For each there is a journey and for each there is a personal sense of having defeated naysayers, both real and perceived. For Rodgers, turned away and challenged so often and so incapable of forgetting, that sense is more palpable than for most.
THE LIST GOES BACK: IN HIGH SCHOOL, TOO SMALL and unrecruited. In college, allowed to languish on NFL draft day and publicly embarrassed. In Green Bay, slotted in behind a legend. Here Rodgers picks up the checklist: "Injury-prone my first year as a starter," he says, nodding his chin up and down. "Can't win the big one my second year as a starter." A pause. "There's always been something. I'd like to say that my primary motivation in football has always been just to be the best player I can make myself. But sure, all of those other things can be used as motivation too. And they have been."
A player will tell you that he is never alone, even inside his helmet. He carries with him the words and deeds of a long career. He will remember being told yes, and he will remember being told no. Rodgers was frequently told no. He passed for more than 4,400 yards in two seasons as the quarterback at Pleasant Valley High in Chico, Calif., but he was just 6 feet, 175 pounds and far from the mainstream of college recruiting. He was bypassed or missed altogether.
But for a stubbornness that Rodgers cannot easily explain, he might never have gone further. He was a good student who says he scored 1,310 on the SAT. His parents believed in education. He might have been a good Ivy League quarterback, but even the Ivies did not call. "I probably couldn't have gotten into any of those schools anyway," says Rodgers. It seemed logical that he would trust the judgment of those who had ignored him and simply gone to college (and perhaps given up his football dream altogether), but instead he challenged it.