Taking yet another phone call from NFL scouts who can never know too much, Ron Souza patiently answered questions from someone representing the Atlanta Falcons last spring.
As offensive coordinator for Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, Calif., Souza had worked closely with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, projected by many to be the first overall selection in last April's NFL draft.
What perplexed this personnel man was how the potential first pick in the draft just seemed to emerge out of nowhere. How could he have not been recruited out of high school? What was a bright kid like this doing at a junior college his first year out of Pleasant Valley.
It must have been drugs, right? And or alcohol? "I told the guy, `No, he doesn't drink. He's very religious. He might have one beer, but he's a very, very religious kid,' " Souza said. "He said, `We do research and most kids with the ability Aaron Rodgers has are identified by the time they're 16 or 17. And for this guy to pop out of nowhere, there's got to be some baggage. What is it?' "I talked to him until I was blue in the face. I said, `No, we're not hiding anything. He is what he is.' " And Aaron Rodgers is shaping up to be someone extraordinary.
An impending transition We're seeing it happening right before our very eyes this fall, another once-in-a-lifetime talent losing out to the undefeated reality known as time.
When did the enthusiastic kid who came out of nowhere to heave that clutch touchdown pass to Kittrick Taylor seemingly yesterday take on that grayish tint in his hair? When did he become that lumbering old man, physically reduced by both so many thousands of vicious hits and the silent ravages of age? Is that really the same the same Brett Favre back there, heaving desperation passes for an 0-4 team behind a substandard offensive line? Oh, he can still break receivers' fingers with that bazooka arm of his, but the all-too-brief intersection of peak mental and physical prowess for any elite athlete is slipping away for him.
The Favre of 2005 is the Mickey Mantle of 1967, the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of 1986 and the Michael Jordan of 2002. There's obviously still something there, but we're seeing it more in sporadic spurts rather than reliable gushes these days.
More and more, his aging body is not able to cash the checks that his mind writes.
Time is running short for the last man who will ever wear No. 4 for the Green Bay Packers.
Dressing inconspicuously 10 or so feet to the left of Favre's empty locker - the main entrance into the Packers' dressing room separates their two lockers - is Aaron Rodgers. Projecting an aura of studious, businessness-like efficiency, a kid who was 8 years old when Favre took his first snap for the Packers, realizes the awesome weight that has been placed on his shoulders.
He is the chosen one.
For better or worse, he gets to be what Jay Leno was to Johnny Carson. What Don Horn was to Bart Starr. What Dan Rather was to Walter Cronkite.
It's a unique opportunity that only a select few can handle. Some take the ball and run with it. Others stumble and skin their knees, the weight of the legend they're trying to replace keeping them on the ground.
So just what is it like to be all of 21 years old and be burdened - there's no other word for it than that - with the responsibility of replacing one of the most popular athletes ever to play professional sports? Just how much pressure do you feel, Aaron Charles Rodgers, better known to friends as "A-Rod?" "No much right now,” said Rodgers, his eyes aimed mostly away from his interviewer as he speaks. "I know my role on this team and it's to be the backup and study and learn from Brett and try to get better each day in practice. Obviously, when my time does come, be it next year or two or three years down the road, I'm going to be expected to play well.
"But the expectations people put on me are not going to be able to exceed the ones I put on myself. I'm a perfectionist and I expect to play well.” It sounds good, to be sure. Still, talk is cheap. When the time comes when Favre finally doesn't get back on his feet after another hit or when his internal clock strikes midnight, just who will be that kid snapping on his chin strap as he trots onto the field? Let's face it. During the last half century, the Packers have rolled snake eyes with a franchise quarterback exactly twice and both Starr and Favre could be regarded as fluky strokes of luck.
The other men who dared to try to become franchise quarterbacks for this team didn't for any number of reasons.
Don Horn, personally chosen as Starr's successor by Vince Lombardi, was betrayed early by creaky knees, followed by a clash with the Packers' hierarchy.
Lynn Dickey, personally chosen by Starr to lead the Packers back to prominence under his watch, saw a few years of excellence, but was constantly victimized by lead feet and a propensity for interceptions.
And Rich Campbell, Starr's second attempt to find the right man, was a disaster from the onset. A story still circulates that the first time Packers coaches saw him throw wobbly passes at a mini camp after he was made the sixth overall pick in the 1981 draft, they looked at each other with shock and distress.
And now comes Rodgers, ironically from the same University of California-Berkley program where Campbell played.
Will he develop into a reasonable facsimile of Starr or Favre? Or will he get the people who drafted him fired? An impending moment Let's guess that Favre, shell-shocked from something like a 5-11 record and a few too many hard hits, decides to call it quits after this season. And let's guess that Rodgers is anointed his replacement for the 2006 season and spends the entire offseason cramming for the biggest test of his life.
Exactly who will be wearing the No. 12 jersey that Dickey once wore? What will his thought processes be? With how much passion will his heart beat? Exactly what will he be able to make happen during the precious few seconds every quarterback has before 300-pound linemen are bearing down on him? Ask those who have known Rodgers and it's almost impossible to believe that the Packers' future won't be in such able hands.
No, he almost certainly won't be another Favre, understand. But as far as replacements go, what's wrong with being what Carl Yastrzemski was to Ted Williams? "He just has the intangibles, which you really can't describe,” Souza said. "He has a feel for the game, but he has a burning desire to be successful and a complete knowledge and understanding of why something athletically works and doesn't work.
"At the same time, he can motivate people around him. He has that aura and when he steps into a huddle, he just has the command and the respect and he just makes everyone better around him.
"He's not a rah-rah, loud type of guy. He's kind of a quiet leader. He can be. Don't get me wrong. He can wear many hats - whatever it takes to motivate people around him.” Work your way behind Rodgers' natural defenses - a 21-year-old kid in the position he's in certainly is going to watch what he says when so many reporters are sticking microphones in his face - and you'll find such an enticing blend of motivations.
It starts with his father, Dr. Edward Rodgers, a chiropractor in Chico, Calif., who learned so much wisdom at an early age and passed it on to Aaron, the middle of his three sons.
From 1973-76, Edward Rodgers was a gifted, yet less-than-passionate offensive lineman for Chico State. Always vulnerable to the party life that is so available to kids in his position, Edwards Rodgers never passed up a night of drinking. Marijuana used to be appealing to him on occasion in those days, as well.
One day, at the end of his career, Chico State assistant coach Pete Reihlman pulled Rodgers aside and told him something he remembers to this day. Something that haunts him.
"He told me I could have been the best offensive lineman in Chico history if I would have worked at it and I just didn't work at it in the offseason,” Rodgers said.
As time passed, Edward Rodgers married Darla, and became the father of sons Luke, Aaron and Jordan. Stung by the realization that he had wasted so much at an earlier age, Edward Rodgers regularly made time for his sons, counseling them to make the most out of what they had.
He threw footballs to them in the backyard as the Rodgers family relocated from Chico to Ukiah, Calif., to Beaverton, Ore., and then back to Chico. He talked to them. He warned them.
And as he spoke, Aaron Rodgers listened.
"I had a great upbringing with two awesome parents,” Aaron Rodgers said. "I was raised in the church and understood right from wrong right away. I think just watching my friends and seeing the stuff they were dealing with and the problems they got into made me not want to do it.
"Growing up, my dad told us that drinking in college kind of prevented him from becoming the player he wanted to be. That kind of scared me into not doing any of that stuff.” And then there was the environment in which Aaron and his two brothers were raised. The house was clean. Food was always on the table. And there was always love. But as Edward Rodgers struggled to make ends meet before finally becoming a chiropractor, there was never anything much.
From that environment, Aaron Rodgers developed a strong work ethic.
"I think my greatest motivation is making my parents proud and seeing the sacrifices they made,” Aaron Rodgers said. "We grew up without a lot of money and dad moving from job to job and doing different things and going shopping maybe once a year for clothes and wearing the same pair of shoes for basketball that I wore for school.
"Growing up and not having a lot I think taught me a lot about life. And I saw how hard my dad worked. Now he's doing real well and that just showed me that hard work pays off.” The whole package So far, this Rodgers' kid is shaping up pretty well, wouldn't you say? Still, there's so much more.
So bright is Rodgers that he had a 4.0 grade-point average at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, Calif., scored a 1400 on his SAT and academically advanced out of Butte Junior College in California after just one year.
"He knew the offense probably better than I did and I was the one calling the plays,” Butte coach Craig Rigsbee said. "I guarantee you he knows that Packers' offense inside and out and this is his first year there. And he's not getting any reps because the first guy takes them all and he understands that.
"But he knows that offense pretty good and if he got into a regular-season game, I think he would be well-prepared.” Just as Rodgers was as Pleasant Valley's quarterback as a junior and senior in 2000 and '01.
"We have an offense that's pretty complicated,” Souza said. "It's a college offense with the ability to audible. He could check at the line of scrimmage and call a play audible. A lot of times he would just put a hand up to me, like, `I got it.' "He'd literally run a series of plays down the field. When he was a JV player, we were playing Grant High School. Now Grant is where Onterrio Smith and Dante Stallworth played. Year in and year out, it's the top school athletically in Sacramento.
Facing an undefeated team as a JV, he single-handedly beat Grant just by audibiling down the field. That's the first thing that jumps out at you about him - his very analytical mind. He could see what people could and couldn't do and create his own match.
Arm strength? Surely he isn't on a Favre level here, but who is? At the same time, there is a more than adequate arm with which to follow through on what Rodgers sees on the field.
"He's got a great release and a great arm,” Rigsbee said. "He gets rid of the ball fast. I laughed at some of the reports I read, that his arm was only average. His arm is not average. He's got a great arm.” More than anything, Rodgers has an attitude. An angry attitude that nevertheless shapes up as a positive attitude. After slipping all the way from the first pick in the draft to the Packers' 24th selection, Rodgers has plenty to prove.
Through in that attitude with everything else and there doesn't seem to be anyway he won't be a worthy successor to Favre.
"I've kind of been the underdog story my entire career, passed over out of high school, passed over at junior college, didn't start my first four games at Cal and that stuff just makes me work that much harder,” he said.
"And then going No. 24 in the draft when I think I'm a top-five value pick just makes me have that much bigger of a chip on my shoulder and that much more to prove.” The time is rapidly approaching when Rodgers will have so much to prove.
The Aaron Rodgers file NAME: Aaron Charles Rodgers.
BORN: Dec. 2, 1983 in Chico, Calif.
HEIGHT, WEIGHT: 6-foot-2, 223 pounds.
HIGH SCHOOL: Pleasant Valley in Chico, Calif.
COLLEGE: After playing for Butte Junior College near Chico, Calif., in 2002, Rodgers signed with the University of California-Berkley. During the 2003 and '04 seasons, he completed 424 of 665 passes (63.8 percent) for 5,469 yards with 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. At Butte, he passed for 2,408 yards, with 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
DRAFTED: Rodgers was drafted as the 24th overall selection in the NFL draft last April. He was largely expected to be the first player taken in the draft, but the San Francisco 49ers passed on him in favor of Utah quarterback Alex Smith.