Rodgers endured plenty to earn Super Bowl opportunity

DALLAS -- Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has had a long, arduous journey to Super Bowl XLV.

Put aside the lengthy time sitting in the green room at the 2005 NFL Draft waiting for his name to be called, and then the three seasons as a backup to a living legend.

We might not have ever heard of Rodgers if not for an off-chance stroke of luck when he was at Butte Community College in Oroville, Calif.

"We kind of stumbled into Aaron," University of California coach Jeff Tedford said. "I was looking into a tape of a tight end and noticed his quarterback doing a lot of nice things. We did a background check to find out if he was available. We had a bye, and I went and watched him practice, and it was evident watching him practice that not only did he have the physical tools but the way his teammates responded to him and the leadership he had and the command that he had was evident."

Rodgers parlayed that opportunity into a career maker -- and a defining thread of his character. From how Tedford speaks about Rodgers to the way his current teammates describe him, the story doesn't change. He prepares better than anybody. He's more motivated than anybody. He's not an overachiever, but he's a patient opportunist who won't let circumstance stand in his way.

From not being heavily recruited out of high school to not letting a concussion late this season derail his quest for validation, Rodgers will not allow a trapdoor to form under him. He's thrived off of making the best of every situation that's availed itself and playing in the Super Bowl should be no exception. Rodgers pointed out this week that he's well aware that he might not get this chance again, so getting the yips now really isn't part of the equation.

Especially since his history has shown that all he needs is a chance.

"I just think that's been a part of my story, waiting for my opportunity and then trying to make the most of it," Rodgers said. "I've been blessed to work with amazing people and learn a lot. I just always trusted God that my time was coming, and when my time did come, that I'd make the most of it."

After Tedford gave Rodgers a scholarship to Cal, Rodgers emerged as the starter in the fifth game of his sophomore season. Knee surgery in the spring forced him to work to retain his starting job in the fall, but he refused to let anyone take his spot. He lit it up his junior season, with his only non-bowl loss coming at Southern California, when he completed 23 consecutive passes to tie an NCAA mark.

"That was by far the biggest stage Aaron's ever played on," Tedford said. "In the locker room before the game I was watching him, the way he walked around to all his teammates with a smile on his face. It was a clear and concise confidence about (how he carried) himself. That rubbed off on everybody. He went out and completed 23 straight passes. It's hard to complete 23 straight passes on air. He did it on a great USC defense on the biggest stage of his life and handled it like it was an ordinary day.

"Obviously, he's going to be on the biggest stage of his life at the Super Bowl, but I have a lot of confidence that he's going to conduct himself in the very same way. It's not just him, but what he brings to his teammates."

Tedford nailed that assessment.

Packers players and coaches are firmly behind Rodgers, even though a handful of them might not have appreciated him pointing out their decision not to remain with the team when they were placed on injured reserve after they complained about not being in the Super Bowl team picture. Those who might not have appreciated that are in the minority, though. His teammates respect him to the highest degree.

Part of Rodgers' appeal to teammates is his unwillingness to let others feel sorry for themselves and struggle as a result. He was hurt and angered when San Francisco drafted Utah quarterback Alex Smith No. 1 overall in 2005 and then fell to No. 24. However, he used that as motivation. Several general managers interviewed at Senior Bowl practices last week said that Rodgers happened to be the odd man out in the one draft where every team except one in the top 23 felt they had a quarterback.

His slide wasn't because Rodgers had red flags. It was because everyone thought they had their guy, several GMs said. It so happened that the team that drafted him, Green Bay, did too: Brett Favre.

There was some concern over Rodgers possibly being a bust; just another quarterback who thrived in Tedford's collegiate system only to disappoint in the NFL (Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller to name a few), but teams felt they had more pressing needs. One general manager, who declined to be named, said he wishes he had a do-over when it came to Rodgers. He's probably not the only one.

Rodgers is not trying to hear why he wasn't the guy. He's just out to prove why he is "The Guy." All he needed was the chance.

"He's always been a very poised quarterback, a very comfortable guy under center," wide receiver Greg Jennings said. "The biggest jump we saw came from Year 1 to Year 2. What he did off the field, bringing guys over, trying to establish leadership skills that a great leader possesses. He's propelled his game to a higher level. Guys have bought into him being the quarterback even though we already knew that he could get the job done. Guys understand that this guy is special."

The Packers knew that one day Rodgers would get his chance. This is a regime that grooms players to play for them, not groom them to trade or release them for another team to reap the rewards. The "when" was the hard part. Favre was still the man -- an icon in Green Bay -- and Rodgers knew his place.

Teammates say he hated having to wait his turn, even though Rodgers, coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson admit that sitting and developing are the main reasons Rodgers played lights out from the time he got the starting job in 2008. Rodgers altered his mechanics some, but little else changed -- especially his motivation. He didn't force the issue or disrespect the order of things, even when the I'm retiring-no-I'm-not Favre didn't mind toying with not only his, but, inadvertently, Rodgers' career.

When the Packers traded Favre to the Jets in 2008, Rodgers dealt with the harsh public relations fallout and performed, throwing for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. But Green Bay finished 6-10. Respect wasn't gained until 2009, when Rodgers threw for 4,434 yards, 30 touchdowns and took the Packers to the playoffs against Arizona. Still, they lost and non-believers remained -- pretty much until this postseason.

"He's everything we thought he would be," McCarthy said. "How he handled the transition speaks volumes of him as a player, speaks volumes about him as a person and how he was raised. He rode the high road throughout that whole transition. More importantly, he's such a competitor, he's a winner. This is his next step to being a championship quarterback. I can't say enough positive things about Aaron."

Veteran receiver Donald Driver spent the bulk of his 12 NFL seasons with Favre throwing him passes, but had this to say about the move to Rodgers.

"They made the right decision," Driver said. "I played with two great quarterbacks, and one got me to the Super Bowl."

This season, Rodgers' numbers were slightly down from his previous two, but not by much (3,922 yards, 28 touchdowns). His consistency can't be questioned. It was a concussion suffered early in a defeat at Detroit that kept him out of most of that game and the following week's loss at New England that forced him to take it up a notch. Though he wasn't threatened by backup Matt Flynn, having to watch someone else do what he waited so long to do wasn't easy.

He came back on the field a week later against the Giants and Green Bay hasn't lost in the five games since. In that span, Rodgers threw for 1,423 yards, 11 touchdowns and ran for two scores.

Rodgers admitted that when he had to sit out with the concussion, the thought of opportunity potentially taken away again hit home. It's never been lost on him that he is where he is because of a lot of hard work and patience, but also because a college looking for a tight end gave a kid it previously knew nothing about a chance.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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