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And they were all hard. "He never turns it off," says Martin. "He just smokes it. If you just stand across from him and let him laser balls at you, it is not fun, O.K.? You've got to create some motion, moving side to side, anything to take your mind off the sting that's coming at you."
Before he waited in Green Bay, Rodgers grew up in Berkeley, Calif. After one year at Butte College, a two-year school near Chico, he was recruited by passing-game guru Jeff Tedford to play at Cal in the fall of 2002. He joined a team that was stocked with veteran wide receivers who had played with Kyle Boller—a very good college quarterback, his future NFL struggles notwithstanding. "I remember meeting Aaron," says Chase Lyman, a fourth-year junior wideout when Rodgers arrived. "He had a few whiskers on his face, kind of skinny. He looked like a nerdy kid from Chico. I'm thinking, This is the J.C. guy I've been hearing about? Then he starts throwing the ball and he's got zip on it, and he was able to pick up Coach Tedford's playbook faster than just about anybody."
Rodgers began his sophomore season backing up popular senior Reggie Robertson, but by game five he was starting. Three weeks later the Bears sat on UCLA's 35-yard line, trailing by eight points with 11 seconds to play. "We huddle on the sideline, and Coach Tedford calls the play," says Burl Toler, then a third-year wideout in the midst of a 48-catch season. "But then we get out on the field and Aaron says, 'Hey, check it out, guys. Burl and [fellow wideout] Geoff [McArthur], you guys switch places.' So we kept the play the same, but Aaron just moved us around on the fly to mess up the defense." Rodgers hit Toler for the touchdown and then threw for the tying two-point conversion, although Cal lost in overtime.
Lyman remembers crowding into a huddle during a tense 2004 loss to No. 1 USC at the L.A. Coliseum. There were 90,008 fans in full throat, and Rodgers was smiling as he called plays. "Whatever that it factor is for a great quarterback," says Lyman, "Aaron had it."
The Bears went 10--1 that season—and their top three receivers were walking wounded. McArthur had a badly damaged left knee. He took a series of six joint-lubricating injections during the spring and summer and then six more during the season. He had 57 receptions on one leg. "With Aaron Rodgers throwing against zone coverage," says McArthur, "my mom could catch balls." Lyman and Toler each played in just four games in '04. McArthur, once considered a possible first-round choice, never got an NFL paycheck. Lyman, taken in the fourth round of the 2005 draft by the Saints, reinjured his knee in rookie camp and never made an active roster. Their time with Rodgers was the apex of their careers.
"It makes us all feel good to see what he's done," says Toler. "He's the same as he's always been. Except with a better beard."
Before he grew up in Berkeley, Rodgers was desperate. Unrecruited by major colleges as a 5'10", 165-pound senior at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, he turned down Ivy League options and took his 1310 SAT to Butte. In the summer of 2002, before his only season at Butte, Rodgers worked with personal trainer Steve Henderson. "He had natural quarterbacking skills, but he was small," says Garrett Cross, a tight end with Rodgers at Butte and Cal. "So in those workouts he was constantly trying to get better physically. He was never satisfied."
Early in summer practices, Rodgers was playing catch with fellow freshman Shaun Bodiford, who had been recruited to play at Portland State but failed to qualify academically. "I tell Aaron, 'Hey, you've got a pretty good arm,' " says Bodiford. "Then he says, 'Watch this.' And he starts throwing these 15-yard passes, with a tight spiral, underhanded. Then he does the same thing behind his back. Next time I saw the coach I said, 'Hey, I think this guy should be starting.'"
In one game Bodiford, who would later play parts of two seasons with five NFL teams, was supposed to run a shallow dig route. Instead he ran a deeper post, stole a pass intended for another receiver and ran in for a touchdown. He remembers Rodgers finding him on the sideline and saying, "Hey, Shaun, awesome catch. Next time run the right route."
Bobby Bernal-Wood was a year ahead of Rodgers at Butte. He had been discarded by major colleges because, in his words, "I was such a bad student." In Rodgers's only year at Butte, the Roadrunners went 10--1 and Rodgers threw 26 touchdown passes in a run-first offense. Bernal-Wood led the team with 35 receptions, four for touchdowns.