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"One game, I ran this out-and-up from the slot," says Bernal-Wood, who is now an assistant at Butte. "Play was called 86 Y Shake, and Aaron just lasers the ball into my chest about 40 yards down the field. I didn't know what that meant. But I'm older now, and I'm coaching. When I look back at plays like that, I can see what all the excitement was about."
Before he landed at Butte, Rodgers was one of the smallest kids on the freshman team at Pleasant Valley High in the fall of 1998 and one of the smallest kids on the junior varsity a year later. "A little dude with big feet," says classmate David Jackson, who was the running back on Rodgers's freshman team and later a wide receiver on the varsity.
Rodgers was uncommonly committed to becoming a good player, to the exclusion of a more ordinary teenage life. The summer after his freshman year he and his closest friend, Ryan Gulbrandsen, began training and studying football film together. "We both just decided that we wouldn't be the kids who would party in high school," says Gulbrandsen, 28, who is a behavioral health education specialist in Chico. "On weekends we just hung out and played Ping-Pong or a friendly game of poker or went to the movies. The majority of people were going out and having a good time. We chose a different lifestyle."
With Rodgers at quarterback and Gulbrandsen at wide receiver, the Pleasant Valley jayvees went 10--0 in the fall of '99. The varsity went 1--10. Baxter, who played receiver and was a year ahead of Rodgers, says, "We had no option at quarterback other than Aaron. We needed him to be as good as he was on the jayvee. And he was. He threw the s--- out of the ball, and he was just so smart. He had it all between the ears. The last game I played, he threw me a touchdown pass, and it was the only touchdown I scored. He was happy for me. That's the thing: He was happy for me."
Pleasant Valley went 9--3 that year and reached the sectional semifinals. "He threw me two touchdowns in the Almond Bowl against Chico High," says Tim Haley, who still lives in Chico, where he is a partner in a seal-coating company. "They were straight go patterns, and the defender was really close to me, so the ball had to be thrown perfectly."
In Rodgers's senior season his wideouts were Jackson and Thomas Wilson, a soccer player who took up football for the first time as a senior. "Aaron basically taught me how to play," says Wilson, who went on to play at Butte and New Mexico and is an assistant coach at Butte. "How to hold my hands, how to stick the last step before I cut, so he could read me. I was totally naive." They hooked up on a slant for a long touchdown in the Almond Bowl. "Eighty-five yards," says Wilson.
"Maybe 70," says Rodgers. It will keep getting longer; that's what high school touchdowns do.
Jackson was fast and talented, but loath to learn the Pleasant Valley offense. "I didn't study the playbook, so Aaron didn't throw me the ball too often," says Jackson, who is now the co-owner of a supermarket chain. "That's not Aaron's fault. If I had learned the playbook, I would have gotten more passes." The team went 8--4 and again lost in the section semifinals.
Now Rodgers keeps the distance small between his ordinary past and his outsized present. Baxter asked him for tickets to a Packers game two years ago, and Rodgers not only provided the seats but also invited Baxter and a friend to stay at his Green Bay home. Rodgers and Gulbrandsen remain close, battling frequently on the golf course during off-seasons. They all watch him play on Sundays, silently connecting the dots from back then to right now.