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‘They might kill you, but they won’t eat you’: Brian Gutekunst could use Ted Thompson’s advice amid Aaron Rodgers saga

‘They might kill you, but they won’t eat you’: Brian Gutekunst could use Ted Thompson’s advice amid Aaron Rodgers saga

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Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, right, talks with former GM Ted Thompson during training camp in 2018.

GREEN BAY — As the Green Bay Packers’ 2008 summer of discontent with Brett Favre dragged on, with the organization and its future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback hurtling toward one of the ugliest divorces in the history of professional sports, more than a few of the folks working inside 1265 Lombardi Avenue were getting fed up with the three-time NFL MVP.

They took umbrage with him disparaging general manager Ted Thompson during a much-hyped multi-part interview with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren.

They chafed at the way the iconic quarterback seemed to revel in the vocal support a large portion of the fan base was giving him — from the “We Want Brett!” chants at training camp practices to the lusty booing of his successor, Aaron Rodgers, during the annual Family Night scrimmage/pep rally inside Lambeau Field.

And they seethed at the way Favre claimed he just wanted his old job back while many inside the building knew he was merely angling to join their hated rival, the Minnesota Vikings.

Through it all, only one man kept imploring the rest of the staff to consider — as difficult as it might be — how Favre was feeling. As others flew off the handle, he was the calming voice pointing out Favre’s many accomplishments and reminding everyone of how much Favre had meant to the franchise.

That man, of course, was Thompson, who absorbed the brunt of fans’ anger but never had a single cross word for Favre publicly.

Privately, Thompson would even send Favre congratulatory text messages after good games he had for the New York Jets (following the Packers trading him there on Aug. 6, 2008) or the Minnesota Vikings (including after he beat his old team twice in 2009).

“After numerous games, Ted was like one of the first people to text me. And you can imagine the endless texts I got from people,” Favre recalled in an ESPN Wisconsin interview several years ago, after he’d reconciled with the franchise and with Thompson. “But right there, at the top of the list, there was Ted. ‘Wonderful job.’ ‘Outstanding.’ ‘I’m proud of you.’

“Ted (was) a man of few words. But what he said meant a lot. It really meant a lot. Especially considering the situation. I really have a tremendous amount of respect for him, not only just for that, but after that. I know it’s hard to do. But you know what? He handled himself with a lot of class. And I really appreciated that.”

Now, 13 years later, the GM who succeeded Thompson — Brian Gutekunst — finds himself embroiled in a similarly nasty public feud with the quarterback who succeeded Favre — Rodgers, now a three-time NFL MVP and future Hall of Famer himself.

And it was difficult not to wonder during this past weekend’s NFL draft how Thompson, who died in January at age 68, might be handling this. Even Gutekunst himself has probably asked himself that.

“First of all, it would be nice to pick up and talk on the phone to him for a lot of reasons,” Gutekunst said on Saturday evening, after putting the finishing touches on the Packers’ nine-player draft class. “Quite frankly, with our staff and what we’re doing process-wise in the draft room, I think he would enjoy that immensely. And obviously we could only be better by having him around.

“He used to have this saying that he’d say once in a while when things got tough. He would say, ‘Well, they might kill you, but they won’t eat you.’ I had no idea for about five years what that meant, but what it meant was you were just too damn tough. He had a lot of those sayings, as you guys know.

“When I watched him go through what was significant hard times or just normal times, the thing that Ted always tried to do, specifically with our players, was what’s best for the Green Bay Packers (but also) what’s best for the player. Sometimes those are hard things to figure out, but he was kind of committed to that. We’ve kind of carried that mantra since he’s been gone.”

While no one on the outside knows how Gutekunst has handled things privately with Rodgers and his agent, David Dunn, Gutekunst certainly took a calm, optimistic approach in his comments during the draft after news of Rodgers’ unhappiness came to light Thursday afternoon. And at least once, he has said that he believes returning to the Packers — despite Rodgers’ reportedly vowing not to do so if Gutekunst remains as GM — would be best for the star quarterback.

“I just think we obviously have a very good football team here, we have a great organization, we’re very committed to him and I think as the lines of communication have been open,” Gutekunst replied when asked why he was optimistic about Rodgers playing for the team again. “I’m just optimistic that that’s what’s best for the Green Bay Packers and I truly believe that’s what’s best for Aaron Rodgers, as well.”

While the headstrong Rodgers might not be interested in Gutekunst’s opinion on what’s best for him, if the Packers maintain a hardline stance and won’t trade him — something Gutekunst said explicitly that he will not do, for what it’s worth — then Rodgers could find a way to walk all of this back and move past this, at least publicly.

Having grown up a Michael Jordan fan, Rodgers was captivated by ESPN’s docuseries “The Last Dance,” which aired last April as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S.

Even if Gutekunst has created a Green Bay version of “The Last Dance” by drafting Rodgers’ potential successor, Jordan Love, last year — and by his poor communication with Rodgers, something Gutekunst admitted was an issue — Rodgers could alter his course and return with the goal of winning a Super Bowl title in spite of Gutekunst, just as Jordan won his sixth NBA title in 1998 in spite of his hatred for Bulls GM Jerry Krause.

Rodgers also has spoken often about how much his legacy means to him, and it’s reasonable to wonder what such an acrimonious parting with the team he’s embodied for more than a decade would do to that legacy.

Head coach Matt LaFleur, who presumably recognizes that Love — even if he improves over last summer — won’t be ready to lead the team in 2021, sounded committed Saturday night to doing everything in his power to convince Rodgers to reconsider his position and at least be open to a reconciliation.

“We’re all in this together. We all want him back as our quarterback. There’s no doubt about it,” LaFleur said. “I believe he’s the greatest of all time. Anytime you have a guy of that caliber, not only as the player but as the person as the leader in that locker room, of course you want him leading your team.

“I’ll always remain hopeful and optimistic and certainly we’ll always welcome him back with open arms. He knows exactly how, not only myself, but our staff and our players feel about him. I just can’t imagine him not being in a Green Bay Packer uniform.”

That still could happen, though, and how Gutekunst proceeds will surely factor into what lies ahead.

Unlike 2008, when the Packers’ desire was to move on from Favre and ahead with Rodgers as their starter — to the point of awkwardly offering Favre a personal services contract to stay retired — the entire organization from team president/CEO Mark Murphy on down have said in no uncertain terms that they want the reigning NFL MVP to return. Murphy went so far as to write in his monthly Packers.com column that he wants the team’s commitment to Rodgers to be “in 2021 and beyond.”

After the draft, Gutekunst spoke of the example Thompson set. Now, he’ll be challenged to follow it.

“I draw on my experiences with Ted Thompson all the time — not only in this profession but just life in general,” Gutekunst said. “He was such a good friend, such a unique human being and was such a good leader here. He went through some tough times, as you guys know. And just seeing how he walked with integrity and grace and humility and honesty, I’ll always take those things with me.”

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