So many things are different for him in Green Bay. Walk away and leave some stuff outside your locker room cubicle—shoes, a binder, an iPad—even for a few minutes, and a staffer swoops in and puts it all neatly away. Back in Indianapolis, where Jeff Saturday worked for 13 years, where he snapped more footballs to the same quarterback than any other center in NFL history, where he won a Super Bowl ring, where he lived for most of his adult life and where his three children were born—back there he could set up a little home away from home right outside his dressing area and nobody would disturb it all day. In Indy he practiced at a gated facility out on the edge of town; he saw fans only on Sunday. Here in Titletown practice is at Lambeau Field, and fans crowd the parking-area fence line every day, beseeching players for autographs and pictures.
The Packers have a celebrity quarterback, just as the Colts did. But in 13 years together, Saturday and Peyton Manning forged a relationship that more than one teammate compared to a marriage. The two debated strategy, play calls and blocking assignments in the meeting room, on the practice field and in games, right up until the moment Saturday launched the football between his legs. "Jeff had equal say with number 18," says former Colts guard Ryan Lilja, who played with Manning and Saturday in Indianapolis from 2004 through '09. "And Jeff won his share of those battles." Saturday's input is vital in Green Bay, as well, but there have been adjustments: different languages for identifying defenses, for audibles and for snap counts, and different techniques in pass protection and run blocking. And quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a veto power that Saturday isn't accustomed to. "I handle all the adjustments," Rodgers says.
"More difficult than I expected," says Saturday, 37, of the transition. "Thirteen years. It's hard to break old habits."
Last March, Saturday, an unrestricted free agent, signed a two-year, $7.8 million contract with the Packers. They were compensating for the loss of seven-year starting center Scott Wells, a younger player who had joined the Rams for $13 million guaranteed. Saturday was the obvious choice. "We run a lot of no-huddle, he had played in a no-huddle or muddle-huddle offense," says Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson. "We thought he would be a good fit."
There's more to it than that. The center has always been an integral part of offensive strategy; blocking schemes and pass-protection changes have long been called from the inside out. But in the modern era of high-tempo passing games and no-huddle offenses, a quick-thinking and clearheaded center—who can also block a 350-pound nosetackle—is essential. Saturday was among the first, and is arguably the best, of the check-with-me generation of quarterbacking centers, a bridge from Jim Otto and Mike Webster to football's future.
Yet beneath the chaos of change, there is just enough solid ground to keep Saturday within his comfort zone. He has been the old man in the room for longer than most NFL players' entire careers. He has played 199 career games, first among starting centers and 12th among active players who don't kick a ball. "I got to Indianapolis in 2004, and Jeff was the grizzled veteran back then," says Lilja. Now Saturday plays between veteran guards T.J. Lang, who was 11 when Saturday broke into the NFL in 1999, and Josh Sitton, who was 12. "We ask him what pro football was like when they ran the ball, back in the 1990s," says Sitton. Lang repeatedly wonders how Saturday made the transition from leather helmets.
There is still a ball on the ground, the epicenter of every play from scrimmage. There is a defense to scan, calls to make (albeit in that new language) and bodies to block. There is a good team trying to win a second Super Bowl. There is that moment when Saturday squats and puts his hand on that ball and the game waits until he moves it. And with every snap, with every protection call, with every pancake (or missed) block, Saturday extends an unlikely career that began with multiple pronouncements from NFL scouts that he would never play a professional down, and which will probably be celebrated on some future summer weekend with a bust in Canton.
His football beginnings were promising yet nearly stymied, a recurring theme. Jeff was born on June 18, 1975—a Wednesday, alas—to Jimmy and Leslie Saturday in the Atlanta suburb of Tucker. His father was a funeral director and his mother a secretary, and they divorced when Jeff was still very young. His mother married Doug Grantham when Jeff was 10, went back to school and was a teacher for three decades. Saturday reveals these basic details only grudgingly. (And he claims no knowledge of the etymology of his unusual last name, except to say that at least one of his grandfathers was adopted and that most of his blood flows from somewhere in Western Europe.)
Saturday played guard and defensive tackle for coach Ron Gartrell at Shamrock High in Decatur, where he also lettered four times as a wrestler. "Eighty percent of our offense was behind Jeff," says Gartrell, now the coach at Stephenson High in Stone Mountain, Ga. "On defense we put Jeff on one side and all our other good players on the other side, because teams ran away from Jeff."
Gartrell has sent 26 players to the mighty SEC in his 25 years as a head coach, yet he couldn't sell Georgia or Tennessee on Saturday, who was 6'1" and 250 pounds. "They said he was too short and his arms were too short to play in that league," says Gartrell. Georgia Tech wasn't interested either. Gartrell called in a favor from an old friend, North Carolina defensive coordinator Carl Torbush, and the Tar Heels offered Saturday a scholarship.