GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Aaron Rodgers needs to rekindle the feelings that drove his rise from a junior college quarterback to Super Bowl MVP, he doesn’t have to look too far.
Rodgers held on to the many rejection letters he received from marquee college programs as he was coming out of high school. Even today, he leaves a few of them sitting out at his house.
“I chose the couple that I thought were most demeaning to display in a space in my house that really nobody is able to see but myself,” Rodgers said. “It’s something that I think is important to keep fresh on your mind. Maybe not every day, but once a week your eyes might pan across it and you have a little laugh about the journey you’ve been on — at the same time, remembering that th ere still are people out there that you can prove something to.”
Good luck finding those doubters now.
Rodgers is the 2011 Male Athlete of the Year, chosen by members of The Associated Press, after he turned in an MVP performance in the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in February and then went on to lead his team on a long unbeaten run this season.
Rodgers received 112 votes out of the 212 ballots submitted from U.S. news organizations that make up the AP’s membership. Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander finished second with 50 votes, followed by tennis standout Novak Djokovic (21), Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton (6) and NASCAR champion Tony Stewart (5).
Rodgers is one of three quarterbacks to receive the honor in the past five years. The New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees won in 2010 and the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady won in 2007.
Rodgers says it still feels “surreal at times” to be considered among the biggest names in sports.
“Those guys are household names, the best of the best,” Rodgers said. “(It’s) special to win the award, and something I’ll remember.”
Through 14 games this season, Rodgers has completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 4,360 yards with 40 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Packers are 13-1, and Rodgers’ play is leaving people speechless — even his coach, Mike McCarthy.
“I’m running out of things to say about him,” McCarthy said earlier this month, after Rodgers drove the Packers into position for a last-second, game-winning field goal to beat the New York Giants.
Green Bay’s 19-game winning streak came to an end at Kansas City on Sunday, but the Packers remain a strong favorite to repeat as champions. That’s thanks in large part to Rodgers’ knack for making big plays without major mistakes.
It has been a long and challenging journey out of obscurity for Rodgers, who wasn’t offered a big-time scholarship out of high school and had to play a year in junior college. Then came his agonizing wait on draft day, three seasons on the bench behind Brett Favre and a tumultuous first year as a starter.
If Rodgers’ path to stardom had been smoother, he says he wouldn’t be the player — or person — he is today.
“It’s something that gives me perspective all the time, knowing that the road I took was difficult. But it did shape my character and it shaped my game as well,” Rodgers said. “I try and keep that on my mind as a good perspective, but also as a motivator, knowing that it took a lot to get to where I am now and it’s going to take a lot to stay where I’m at.”
Strangely, earning widespread respect throughout the sports world could become a challenge in and of itself for Rodgers, who draws motivation from proving himself to his doubters and critics.
Is that becoming more difficult?
“It would only be tougher if you stopped remembering or drawing or thinking about those things,” Rodgers said. “And I think a great competitor has to have at least some sort of chip on their shoulder, or at least the attitude that you have something to prove every time you take the (field).”
Unable to attract attention from a big-time college program, Rodgers played a year at Butte College in Oroville, Calif., near his hometown of Chico. His play there eventually got the attention of Cal coach Jeff Tedford, and Rodgers transferred.
Rodgers thrived at Cal and went into the 2005 NFL draft expecting to be taken early in the first round. But he didn’t hear his name called until the Packers chose him with the 24th overall pick.
Once in Green Bay, Rodgers found himself backing up Favre, a revered Packer who didn’t necessarily like the idea that the team had put his eventual successor in place. Favre kept fans and the franchise on their toes every offseason, flirting with the idea of retiring but always coming back.
Then came the summer of 2008, when tension between Favre and the Packers’ front office finally snapped after Favre retired, changed his mind and asked for his job back — or a chance to play elsewhere. Favre was traded to the New York Jets and Rodgers finally had his chance.
Rodgers wasn’t immediately embraced by a segment of fans who supported Favre. He even was booed at the team’s “Family Night” scrimmage. He stayed calm on the outside and played pretty well in his first year as a starter despite the team’s 6-10 record.
But he still had his doubts.
“I had a lot of confidence in my abilities,” Rodgers said. “But the doubts and worries are associated with, ‘How am I going to be perceived by my teammates? How’s my performance going to be scrutinized?’ And you go through a point where you’re reading your own clippings. You’re 6-10 your first season, and you’re reading some of these (Internet) comment boards, in the back of your mind , that negative voice is telling you, ‘You know, you’re not going to live up to any expectations you put on yourself, and you’re not as good as you think you are.’ Those can mess with you a little bit, but you can also draw some motivation from those negative thoughts. And I did.”
Rodgers led the Packers to the playoffs in 2009 season — then won it all last February.
“I think a weight comes off your shoulders after you win a Super Bowl, and you realize that all those doubts and worries and successes and failures you had before then, a lot of those get wiped away and the slate almost goes clean,” Rodgers said. “Because you won the ultimate prize, and you had the chance to silence some of your critics, the challenges change, the way you’re viewed ch anges. I think a lot of the things that you really worried about too much become very little in importance.”