Sunday, January 5, 2014

Out of a Long Shadow and Into a Blinding Light

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Sept 2008

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The 2005 NFL Draft was bittersweet for Aaron Rodgers: sweet because his NFL dreams became a reality, bitter because his precipitous fall in the first round became the story of the day.  Rodgers, a highly touted quarterback out of the University of California, was supposed to be selected early, perhaps even 1st overall according to some pundits.  With this lofty draft status, he would have been showered with tens of millions of dollars and immediately would have become the face of a struggling franchise needing hope and a hero.  Big money and big expectations: such is life for elite NFL prospects.  Problem is, it didn’t work out that way.  The first few picks came and went…then the first ten…then the first twenty.  Rodgers remained on the board.  Poor guy started to look like the kid who no one wants to pick for the neighborhood football game or the young gent stuck without a prom date.  Finally, with the 24th overall pick, the Green Bay Packers ended his wait.  Not only did his slide down the draft board cost him untold millions, it completely changed the complexion of his career.  Green Bay seemed an odd fit for a slick, young quarterback prospect.  The Packers were not a team in rebuilding mode and arguably should have used its first round pick to bolster a position of immediate need.  Suffice to say, they didn’t need a quarterback.  They had an entrenched starter (understatement of the year).  You may have heard of him…some guy named Brett Favre.  

On the surface, going to Green Bay appeared to offer Rodgers a soft landing on an otherwise turbulent draft day.  Instead of being thrust into the spotlight as a raw, na├»ve rookie on a bad team, he would get an opportunity to learn under the tutelage of one of the NFL’s all-time best quarterbacks and with a stable, successful franchise.  At least that’s how many NFL experts spun it.  I thought going to Green Bay was nothing short of a complete disaster for Aaron Rodgers.  You know the old saying, “you don’t want to be the guy that followed ‘the man’…you want to be the guy that followed the guy who followed ‘the man’”.  Make no mistake about it, in Green Bay, Brett Favre was and is ‘the man’.  Favre is an immortal in Packer lure, his legend likely to grow over time.  Today he’s 6’2”, 220lbs with a strong arm.  In ten years, he’ll be 7 feet tall and at one time capable of throwing a football 100 yards in the air.  Who the heck wants to follow that?  All kidding aside, Favre is one of the best of the best and may be the most popular player in NFL history.  He’s thrown more touchdowns than anyone, won a Superbowl, hasn’t missed a start in ages and plays with a boyish enthusiasm and reckless flare that endears him to backyard quarterbacks everywhere.  Would you want the task of following that act?  From the day he was drafted, that’s exactly what awaited Aaron Rodgers.  He was to be the successor, at some point, to Favre.

Favre was 35 years old when Green Bay selected Rodgers.  I’m sure the organization thought Favre would play a couple more years and casually ride off into the sunset.  We all know it didn’t work out that.  In fact, it ended up being an incredibly awkward transition; one with all the makings of a classic soap opera divorce.  Favre didn’t go quietly.  In fact, he didn’t go at all.  After flirting with retirement for several years, Favre actually did retire this past March.  Who can forget that dramatic tearjerker?  Then in July, after the rocking chair and the front porch proved a poor substitute for throwing touchdowns, he decided to come back.  Only problem was the Packers had changed the locks on the door.  They had found another: they chose to move on with Rodgers and Favre was traded to the New York Jets.  After three years of being nothing short of a consummate professional and dutiful backup, the Packers decided Rodgers’ time had come.  Favre did him no favors with his indecision.  In fact, it would be completely fair to call Favre a self-serving ego-manic.  There, I said it.  Favre forced the Packers’ hand; they chose Rodgers and by doing so, increased the pressure on their young quarterback exponentially.  So with the franchise saddled to his horse, Rodgers made his debut this season in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football.  To his credit, he starred directly into this blinding spotlight, performed well and led the Packers to victory.  He followed up that performance by throwing for three touchdowns in another Green Bay win this past Sunday. 

Aaron Rodgers almost certainly isn’t the next Brett Favre.  But he seems to have managed the initial transition better than anyone, external to the organization, could have imagined.  Succeeding someone who is incredibly accomplished and popular happens all the time and is likely a challenge many of us will face at some point in our lives.  What can we take from Rodgers and apply to our unique situations?  Well, here are a few things from my “view”.  Rodgers didn’t replace Favre last week.  He didn’t just show up one day, get the call, slap on a thick pair of sunglasses and cavalierly stare into the spotlight.  The process was gradual and started with coaches and teammates years ago.  Rodgers clearly earned the respect and trust of those within the Packers organization over time.  He demonstrated his competence through hard work and dedication.  He was patient and showed his predecessor unending respect and unwavering support.  Perhaps most importantly, he never tried to be Brett Favre.  He stayed focused on developing Aaron Rodgers into the best quarterback he could be.  And right now he looks pretty darn good. 

Extra Innings:  A part of living life is dealing with its inevitable end.  While it is difficult to face the loss of a loved one, or to ponder losing our own lives, at some level our minds accept the reality of death.  Yet we are often guilty of naively assuming a natural order to death.  It often goes unspoken, but deep down we expect to lose our elders and some of our peers.  Grandchildren lose grandparents.  Children lose parents.  Siblings lose their brothers and sisters.  But death, as unwelcome as it is, doesn’t even show us the courtesy of being predictable.  For parents, it is nearly unimaginable to lose a child.  On August 21st, Joe Bugel, the long-time offensive line coach of the Washington Redskins, lost his 36-yr-old daughter, Holly, to bone cancer.  Coach Bugel is dealing with his loss privately while continuing with his coaching duties.  Sport is great entertainment for the participants, fans and coaches.  It can also offer a welcomed distraction from the serious tones of daily life.  Come what may of the Redskins season, I hope it provides Coach Bugel a diversion and few moments of peace during a very difficult time.       

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