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By Michael Silver | Published Jan. 6, 2015

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The counterintuitive cheer rang out like a crescendo, just after Detroit Lions defensive lineman Jason Jones charged through the line and came crashing down upon quarterback Matt Flynn, and five confused Green Bay Packers offensive linemen weren't sure what had hit them.

"We were like, 'What the hell is going on?' " said Packers guard Josh Sitton, recalling the third play from scrimmage of the second half of Green Bay's NFC North-deciding regular-season finale. "We had just given up a sack, and we're going, 'Are they sarcastically cheering?' It was about to be a new low.

"Then we got to the sideline and our offensive line coach said, 'Hey, 12's back out here. We'll see what happens.' "

As the Packers, 78,408 fervent fans at Lambeau Field and millions of TV viewers would soon be reminded, magic happens quite frequently when Aaron Rodgers emerges from the tunnel and steps onto a football field. For the second consecutive year, Rodgers' timely return from an injury in Week 17 would deliver a dramatic division title for the Pack. In this case, Green Bay secured a first-round bye with its 30-20 triumph over the Lions, setting up Sunday's divisional-round clash at home against the Dallas Cowboys.

It also, in all likelihood, clinched a second regular-season Most Valuable Player trophy for a quarterback whose growing standard of greatness mesmerizes fans, coaches, opponents and teammates alike.

This has been quite a journey for the quarterback who couldn't land a Division I scholarship out of high school, spent an obscenely awkward four-and-a-half hours in the green room during his nationally televised draft-day free fall, sat for three equally uncomfortable years behind a beloved Green Bay icon and began his stint as a starter by enduring the slings and arrows of a skeptical fan base, at one point being told "You suck" by a 6-year-old child.

And now, remarkably, Rodgers is every bit the Titletown treasure that predecessor Brett Favre was -- and, true to his unrelenting nature, he's far from satisfied. Though many highly astute football figures, including future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, have said that Rodgers is playing quarterback at the highest level the sport has seen, the 31-year-old superstar dismisses such proclamations as "idle talk."

As Rodgers said in a recent interview at Lambeau, "I still know I can play better, and I'm always looking for ways to get better. Whether it's a six-touchdown game, and I'm pissed about a check I didn't make in the second half that would have given me a chance to get seven ... it's that desire to be perfect. It's the greatest asset sometimes, and it can be the greatest curse, because it's hard to turn off."

In the process, he's turning out to be one of those players his teammates will tell their grandkids about, and whose heroic feats may only be slightly exaggerated long after his bust has settled into its permanent resting spot in Canton.

Consider the scene at Lambeau two Sundays ago. Nursing a painful left calf injury as he took the field against the Lions, Rodgers was slipping away from the pass rush late in the first half when he suddenly felt a shooting pain in the afflicted leg. That Rodgers managed to thread a 4-yard touchdown pass to receiver Randall Cobb before hitting the ground, giving the Packers a 14-0 lead, was of small consolation to the stunned masses. Rodgers would later concede that he initially thought he had torn his Achilles tendon.

Aaron Rodgers

The calf injury that sent Aaron Rodgers to the ground in Week 17 set the stage for a heroic return in the second half.

"When he went down, it looked like he got shot," said Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, one of Rodgers' closest friends on the team. "I didn't think he was coming back. We figured, as a defense, 'Let's stand up -- we need to do this.' Then I heard the crowd."

Just after Flynn absorbed that drive-killing sack to start the second half, Rodgers emerged from the tunnel, blessedly still in uniform. Though the Lions would score a touchdown on the ensuing drive, tying the score at 14, the sight of Rodgers taking warmup tosses on the sideline infused the stadium with a surreal sense of serenity.

"It was like a cliché movie thing," Hawk said. "The crowd's cheering, but this isn't the right time. Then I saw that he had come back out -- and he wasn't in street clothes. I honestly wasn't sure if he would try to play ... or, if he did, if he was gonna last more than a few plays.

"And, of course, it was a magical second half. It was like Willis Reed, limping back out of the tunnel. Just one more story to add to his legend."

Certainly, Rodgers earned the comparison to Reed, who stunned a Madison Square Garden crowd by surfacing just before tipoff of Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals and, despite a torn thigh muscle, propelling the New York Knicks to a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

On a more contemporary -- and personal -- level, he channeled the unrivaled resilience of Favre, whose penchant for playing through pain was immortalized by his record streak of 297 regular-season starts.

Just as Packer backers once treated Favre with a reverence that bordered on the religious, Rodgers is now the man upon whom Green Bay fans want to lay their hands -- sometimes literally, as we shall soon document.

First, however, let's examine the source of this gridiron shaman's inner strength.

Rodgers and McCarthy

During Rodgers' sophomore year at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, California, he spent his spring break in Mexico building houses for the poor. He was on a trip organized by a pair of Christian organizations, Youth With A Mission and Amor Ministries, and while the experience was rewarding, one moment during the ride down stayed with him long after he returned to Northern California.

"It was 220 kids from the north part of the state, and you drive down in 15 passenger vans," Rodgers recalled. "And so you can imagine, to pass the time with 15 high school students, you have to try to find ways to keep them from complete boredom -- and at that time (in 2000) it wasn't like there was texting and iPads and stuff.

"So, it was a lot of talking, and we went around and talked about what we wanted to do when we grow up. When I got to my turn and said, 'I want to be a professional football player,' I just remember the blowback from that, as far as the laughter and the looks, like, Really? And the comments: 'I think you're too small. ... You're slow. ... You aren't very good. ... You didn't have a good year last year.'

"So it was moments like that which kind of stuck with me for a long time. And I don't have any ill will or malice towards those people. Actually, I have appreciation. Because those comments fueled me to get better, to prove that I could do the things I wanted to do. And that's what it's usually been about. As much as I still remember the (college) rejection letters and the people who said I couldn't do it, it's more about proving to myself than proving to them, because I don't feel like I have anything to prove to those people. It's more fun to prove it to yourself."

In the process of affirming his ability, Rodgers has proven to be a strong-willed, ultra-competitive and exacting leader, one who carries himself with almost a coach-like presence among his peers.

"He expects everyone to put the work in just like he does," Sitton said. "He brings a pad and a pen to every meeting and takes notes. It might be s--- that he's seen 100 times, but he prides himself on knowing every facet of this offense."

That, not surprisingly, provokes creative tension with the man in charge of the Packers' offense, and of the team as a whole: Mike McCarthy, who took over after Rodgers' rookie season and is now the league's fourth-longest-tenured head coach with his current team.

Upon hearing the suggestion that he and McCarthy are like Spinal Tap's "two visionaries," a reference to the infamous recording-session screaming match between guitarists David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel in the cult-classic rockumentary, Rodgers laughed and said, "That's a good analogy."

Said Seneca Wallace, the veteran who spent the 2013 season as a Rodgers backup: "It was interesting. You hear different stories about coaches and quarterbacks (clashing), and when the head coach also calls the plays, it's a whole other dynamic. They're both very opinionated. Aaron's a very intelligent quarterback, and Mike is a very intelligent and headstrong head coach who wants things done his way.

"When you've got two headstrong guys going at it, it's kind of like a chess match. Each one is trying to figure out what the next move is. They're going to war together, and if something goes on, they'll come back and hug it out. It's not like it gets out of hand. Whatever they've got going on with their chemistry, it works for them."

To McCarthy, the challenge is to balance "the responsibility of calling plays with Aaron, but also the responsibility of managing the game for the whole team. There've been times, especially as a young coach, where I was too emotionally aggressive on the sidelines."

Rodgers, suffice it to say, is not emotionally passive -- be it in practice, meetings or games.

"Coach McCarthy always talks about alpha dogs -- well, they're like two alphas going at it," Hawk said. "Man, it's intense. It's really fun to watch. They spend a lot of time together, one-on-one ... watching film, going over the game plan, talking over plays. There's so much respect back and forth, and they're both passionate."

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers

The two visionaries made beautiful music together this year, as Rodgers threw for 4,381 yards, completed 65.6 percent of his passes and tallied 38 scoring tosses while serving up just five interceptions. His 112.2 passer rating was second only to Tony Romo's 113.2, and the Packers' 12-4 record was their best since the then-defending champions went 15-1 in 2011, with Rodgers earning MVP honors.

"Mike and I have got a really good relationship," Rodgers said. "It's been tested over the years. There've been so many highs, and a couple of moments of friction. But the moments of friction just make things better between us. Because, at the end of the day, we both want the same thing: We desperately want to win, and we want to do it all the time. And we are passionate about doing things the right way, and winning.

"We love to win. And we hate to lose. We probably hate to lose more than we love to win. And that's why we want it so badly. Our relationship has grown so much over the years. It's just a trust that he allows me to do some things on the field, and I trust him to make the right calls. He gives me enough freedom. I try not to abuse that.

"For sure, there's some fiery moments. But I think we both know each other well enough that the last thing that either of us want to do is disrespect each other."

Sometimes, the friction occurs because Rodgers goes off script and doesn't include McCarthy in the improv sketch. Whereas Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees seem, in a football sense, to be completing one another's sentences, McCarthy and Rodgers can be more like screenplay collaborators who divvy up the scenes.

"Mike might call two plays, and then they'll go no-huddle," Wallace said. "So of the 70 plays in a game, Aaron might end up calling 40. But it really eats at Mike when he doesn't know what play Aaron is calling. He'll be like, 'What the f---? What is he calling?' "

In Rodgers' defense, he's pretty damned good at it. For starters, his football IQ is Mensa-esque. Hawk says that he occasionally picks the quarterback's brain about offenses the Packers are preparing to face, "and he'll start to go into a 30-minute dissertation about what defenses do, what works, what the upcoming opponent will do and why it won't work. He goes into such depth and detail. He's one of those dudes who thinks like 10 steps ahead. So if you ask him a question like that, you'd better not be in a hurry."

Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers' football acumen enables him to call a significant chunk of the Packers' plays.

Asked if he could emulate his old-school predecessors who routinely called their own plays, Rodgers said, "I think so." He's being modest -- he knows so.

"Remember that game at the end of the (2011) season, after they'd already clinched home-field (advantage throughout the playoffs), when (then and current backup) Matt Flynn went off against Detroit?" Wallace said, referring to the 45-41 Green Bay victory in which Flynn set franchise records for passing yards (480, since tied by Rodgers in 2013) and touchdown passes (six, also since tied, twice, by Rodgers -- before halftime of the Pack's blowout victory over the Bears last Nov. 9).

"I think Aaron called 100 percent of those plays, or darn near close, from what he told me. That just tells you the respect level Mike has for him, and the level that they're both on intellectually."

It was that respect level that led McCarthy to implement more no-huddle packages in 2012, thus increasing Rodgers' play-calling responsibilities. He reduced them in 2013, concluding that he was putting too much on his quarterback.

"It's not that he couldn't (call his own plays)," McCarthy said. "When you talk football with him, he's 'coach-smart' now -- he knows the line call, the blocking schemes and what every receiver is doing. Really, what we learned through our process is, it's not that he can't. It's how much responsibility can one man carry on a team?

"Nobody plays faster in the league than this guy -- the way he sees the game, the way he gets the ball out of his hands. I realized I was stressing out, and potentially slowing down, the best player on my team."

Rodgers learned to shoulder responsibility at an early stage of his football development. Lightly recruited out of high school -- OK, the then-six-footer was essentially unrecruited -- he ended up at Butte College, his local JC, where then-coach Craig Rigsbee grew used to his cocksure quarterback siphoning play-calling responsibilities when hand signals were slow coming from the sidelines.

While a Butte freshman, Rodgers was enlisted to throw passes to Roadrunners teammate Garrett Cross in a workout for Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who not only signed the tight end he'd driven 160 miles to watch, but also offered the anonymous passer a scholarship on the ride home. During his two seasons in Berkeley, as Rodgers helped vault the Bears into the national top five, the quarterback's already demanding sensibilities were fortified.

"That desire to be perfect -- it was kind of in me, but Coach Tedford really drew it out of me," said Rodgers, who calls Tedford a "dear friend." That Tedford's 2012 firing after 10 seasons at Cal coincided with Rodgers' decision to begin identifying his alma mater as Butte College on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" introductions does not seem to be coincidental.

JEFF TEDFORD AARON RODGERS

"No, that didn't thrill me," Rodgers said regarding the dismissal of Tedford, who was expected to be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator this season, but ended up being sidelined because of health issues. (Tedford has since been hired as the head coach of the Canadian Football League's BC Lions.) At the same time, Rodgers explained, "Cal was a really important time of my life and I loved my experience there, but I had some amazing times at Butte College, too.

"Coach Rigsbee gave me an opportunity to advance my career, when no one else wanted me. And it's a tribute to him and Coach Jeff Jordan -- who was my quarterback coach, and is now the head coach -- for what they helped me to achieve. That year was such a powerful year in my life as far as gaining confidence in who I was as a person, and who I was as a leader, and who I was as a football player. So that's my tribute to them, being able to say, 'Yes, I went to Butte Community College, and I'm very proud of it.' "

It's not as if Rodgers is averse to making a statement when he feels strongly about a subject. Last month, he stuck up for Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, saying he was "baffled" by the actions of the team's since-dismissed offensive coordinator, Aaron Kromer, who had admitted having been the source of anonymous comments disparaging the struggling passer.

"He's not scared to speak his mind when he thinks something's wrong," Hawk said. "He's the best player on the planet right now, and he's comfortable enough to do that. That's pretty cool."

Rodgers has been doing that for a decade: When the 2004 Cal team was denied a Rose Bowl berth by a set of circumstances that included then-Texas coach Mack Brown's public lobbying of pollsters, Rodgers told reporters, "I thought it was a little classless how Coach Brown was begging for votes."

That disappointment was followed by a draft-day doozy in which Rodgers, who'd previously been projected as a likely No. 1 overall pick, slipped all the way to 24th before the Packers took him off the board. He then spent three years sitting behind a legend, and while he and Favre had their warm moments, it wasn't as if the incumbent went out of his way to facilitate the inevitable transition.

He brings a pad and a pen to every meeting and takes notes. It might be s--- that he's seen 100 times, but he prides himself on knowing every facet of this offense. Josh Sitton

Late in his third season, Rodgers relieved Favre in the second quarter of a "Thursday Night Football" game against the Dallas Cowboys after the veteran went out with a separated left shoulder. Rodgers didn't rally the Packers to victory, but his 18-of-26, 201-yard, one-touchdown, no-interception performance convinced McCarthy that the heir apparent was something special.

"You always wonder if a young quarterback is ready," McCarthy said. "When he jumped into that game and did what he did, I think we all felt like, 'We have something here.' "

In 2008, after Favre ended a brief retirement and showed up for training camp, Rodgers -- who'd already been installed as the starter by McCarthy -- faced a circus of epic proportions. Eventually, Favre was traded to the Jets. Rodgers, despite decent numbers, went 6-10 in his first season as a starter, struggling particularly in games decided by a touchdown or less (1-7).

The next year, with Favre starring for the rival Vikings, Rodgers was twice defeated by the man he'd replaced. It wasn't until his epic effort in that season's 51-45 playoff defeat to Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals that the majority of the football world became clued in to Rodgers' greatness.

A year later, Rodgers led the Pack on a memorable playoff run that ended with green-and-gold confetti falling, as the quarterback earned Super Bowl XLV MVP honors following a 31-25 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He followed that up with one of the greatest statistical years in history, but the 15-1 Packers were stunned by the New York Giants in a 2011 divisional-round playoff game at Lambeau -- and his personal quest for perfection continued.

Since that time, Rodgers has helped keep Green Bay among the league's elite while feeling the collective embrace of a fan base that has warmed to him in a way that once seemed unfathomable. He has touched so many Packer backers -- and a year ago, at least one of them wanted to return the favor.

Midway through last season, a groan reverberated throughout Lambeau after Rodgers went down with a broken left clavicle during a Monday night defeat to the Bears. As the Packers struggled to stay afloat during his eight-week absence, Rodgers spent much of his time in the training room, where he and the people treating him amused themselves by sifting through letters, voicemails and emails from fans offering unconventional remedies.

"Our training staff started collecting this stuff, and we'd read them, just as a way to deal with the frustration of not being out there, to provide some comic relief at times," Rodgers recalled. "The root of it was that people wanted to help. Some of them were interesting ideas that made you go, 'Hmmm.' Some of them were just pure comedy -- different things they could put on (the clavicle), whether it was some sort of cream or rub, or animal extract, or some sort of light therapy that would be the cure-all."

And what was Rodgers' favorite suggestion? "Energy therapy," he said, laughing. "It was a letter (in which) somebody wrote, 'If I can just touch him ... just touch his affected area, he'll be back on the field next week.' "

Eight weeks later, Rodgers returned for the team's final regular-season game, a division-title showdown with the Bears in Chicago, and delivered a miracle of his own.

It's that desire to be perfect. It's the greatest asset sometimes, and it can be the greatest curse, because it's hard to turn off. Aaron Rodgers

Down 28-27 and facing a fourth-and-8 with 46 seconds remaining, Rodgers took a shotgun snap and faced immediate pressure from Bears pass rusher Julius Peppers (now a Packers teammate). After sliding to his left to evade the sack, Rodgers launched a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb that ranked as one of the most stirring plays in franchise history.

Carrying on the Packers' storied legacy is important to Rodgers. While things were understandably chilly with Favre during that surreal summer of 2008, Rodgers has made a point of helping to repair relations, ultimately facilitating plans for Favre's jersey to be retired at Lambeau next season.

"I think Brett deserves his due for what he did for this organization, this city and this franchise," Rodgers said. "So, it's time to bring him back. I think that in some people's eyes, they were worried about how I would react to that. And so it was just important for me to show those people that, you know what, I'm 100 percent on-board with this. Because it has nothing to do with me -- Brett should be back in the fold, and should be honored the way he deserves to be honored."

Rodgers, understandably, has never felt so secure in his position, even as he pushes himself and his teammates toward that elusive standard of perfection. He's still adjusting to life as a celebrity -- and now has a famous girlfriend in actress Olivia Munn, further intensifying a "life (that is) not really normal anymore."

With the fractious end of Brett Favre's Packers tenure fading into memory, Rodgers has attempted to help burnish the quarterback's legacy in Green Bay.

That said, Rodgers is determined not to stay ensconced in a football-centric bubble.

"I think he takes pride in being intellectual and in touch with what's going on around the world," Hawk said. "He's obviously all about football, but it's not just football. He's so curious. If I mention a book that he hasn't read yet, or hasn't heard of, he'll take out his phone, make a note, and actually buy it and read it.

"He's curious, always asking questions, always learning. There are a million things he's interested in ... politics, entertainment, current events. If he walks by your lunch table and hears you talking about something, he'll sit down and give you his opinion -- and he's not shy about debating you."

And when Rodgers debates, as with everything he does, he's in it to win it.

"You wanna know how competitive he is?" Sitton asked. "One day early this season, we have this play (in practice) where he basically has to launch the ball as far as he can out of bounds ... running time off the clock when there are six or seven seconds left and it's fourth down so there's no time left for another play. I told him, 'You don't have the arm for that anymore. You're too old.' He looked at me like, 'FU,' and launched that ball so f----- far, it was ridiculous. That's how he is."

Said Hawk: "We hang out with him, and we're big into board games and different types of charades-type games. If your team is trying to come up with topics, he'll sit in the corner by himself coming up with terms he's so proud of. He wants to come up with some stuff you've never heard of. If one of his references comes up, and the other team gets it, he'll get so mad. He wants to dominate."

Sometimes, Rodgers' dominance on the football field seems almost effortless. That, said Wallace, is a byproduct of the quarterback's eerily calm demeanor.

"He's just smooth," Wallace said. "Aaron's just always in control. It's almost like a chess player, or a really good poker player. He's always one step ahead, and he always knows what the next move is and he's gonna outsmart you.

"His demeanor is unique. It's a very Northern-Cali-ish-type swag. He doesn't get rattled. When he gets happy, it's very calm. Even if he throws a pick, he's so even-keeled. You can tell that by looking at his facial expression when he's throwing the ball. Everything looks so easy."

Rodgers overcame a 1-2 start to lift the Packers to their sixth straight playoff appearance -- and bring a second MVP award within reach.

After emerging from the tunnel to finish off the regular-season finale against the Lions, Rodgers was clearly uncomfortable, yet he refrained from playing up the drama to his teammates. Even when he scored on an improbable sneak to put the Pack up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, a decision that apparently was his brainchild -- "I didn't think it was the brightest call by Aaron," Sitton said -- Rodgers was all business.

"It wasn't really a big production," Sitton said. "At one point, he said, 'I'm gonna need some time, guys.' But it was definitely that feeling that the competition, that going to battle with us, was more important than his injury. It was definitely a big moment."

Perhaps, for a man whose path to football stardom has seldom been paved with gold, Rodgers' muted reaction to such challenging circumstances isn't surprising. Adversity, be it Ndamukong Suh's foot bearing down on his tender left leg late in that Lions game or a van full of sneeringly skeptical high schoolers, has been a constant part of the journey -- but, in Rodgers' eyes, his has been the road best traveled.

"It's a lot better," he said. "As tough as it's been, at times, that road is a satisfying one. And as you move forward, you take the high road and try and do things the right way -- you try to make it about the team, and you try to stay humble when you're having great success. That's the satisfying road."

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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