GREEN BAY, Wis. — The stories are legendary from old friends and coaches. The latest came at a friendly wiffle ball game in Jordy Nelson’s backyard.
At a recent joint birthday party for teammates Graham Harrell and Nelson, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was making up rules and changing the score.
Midway through the game — before Rodgers added a couple phantom runs, Harrell said — Rodgers belted a ball into the outfield that was caught.
“And he said it was a home run because he hit it deep enough,” Harrell said. “But there was no fence, no line out there. He went, ‘I said it before I batted that if I hit it out there, it’s a home run.’ When he gets into his little competitive, pouty mode, there’s really no arguing.”
Super Bowl in North Texas. Wiffle ball game with teammates. Or even a card game in the locker room, where he has torn up cards after losing.
It doesn’t matter. That’s how Rodgers is wired 24/7. In 2010, this ultra-competitive mind-set led to a Super Bowl. In 2011, it led to a league MVP. Everyone knows the fuel for such competitiveness — getting passed over by Division I schools out of high school, the four hours and 35 minutes of pain in the NFL draft green room and the turbulent summer of 2008.
But what is pushing Rodgers now? And why is this competitiveness important? In a sit-down with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel beat writer Tyler Dunne on Tuesday, Rodgers discussed his motivation for the future, being “obsessively competitive” and more:
QUESTION. You’ve always been motivated, but at this point in your career, what is it that drives you?
ANSWER. Winning more Super Bowls. That’s the No. 1 thing. Especially after you win one and you go 15-1 in the regular season and then you lose in the first round, you deal with that disappointment. I think you just appreciate that experience you went through in the 2010-’11 season. Just wanting to win more championships. That’s what you get remembered for as a team and individually.
Q. What replays in your head more — the good times or the failures?
A. I’d say the successes if I’m thinking about it. If I’m lying awake at night, it’s probably the frustrated moments from games past. You know, it’s tough to turn it off after you’ve played a game or even during that week after a loss. So that’s one thing you have to learn to deal with.
Q. How difficult is it for you to separate, to turn it off?
A. It’s tough. It’s really tough. This is what we do for so many hours in the day. Now, you know eight years professionally for me in my eighth season, plus three in college, plus high school, junior high. This is all we know how to do. Most of us. It’s tough to find that equilibrium off the field. You have to have hobbies and things to distract you — mindless activities to take your thoughts away from your job.
Q. Is this something you’ve always dealt with, struggled with?
A. I’m not saying it’s a struggle. I’ve learned how to. But I’m saying it’s still tough, especially when you’re a perfectionist and you care so much about your craft and you want to be perfect every time you take the field — whether that’s the practice field, the meeting room or the game — you have to find ways to get your mind thinking about other things because you can go crazy about the mistakes you made and the things you want to clean up.
Q. What are some mistakes that have made you go crazy — something that stuck to you?
A. Nothing sticks with me that long. You learn how to deal with that, compartmentalize those things and put them in a spot that you can block it out. But, you know, playoff losses are tough. Losses, where I’ve been a main contributor to the loss, i.e. the two Tampa Bay games I played, those games are difficult and frustrating for multiple weeks, although you move and prepare for other teams. At the end of the season, you still think about, “Well, maybe it would have been a better season if you would have played better in that game.”
Q. If you’re trying to find those “mindless activities,” what do you do in your free time?
A. I love to watch “Jeopardy,” although that’s not very mindless. TV is a good escape. I like to play the guitar and I like to play golf. Those are two things that I’m competitive about. I want to be a better guitar player. I want to be a better golfer. So I have to keep that competitive fire going and I can kind of direct it in a different spot. Those two things, I really want to be good at them. . . . I can play a number of songs (on the guitar). I like a lot of Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Ray LaMontagne. But I also play a lot of gospel songs and country songs.
Q. How long did it take you to get over the playoff loss to the Giants?
A. It took a few days. I left Green Bay that week, I think Thursday. So once I got back to San Diego and got a chance to relax, that’s when you start settling into the off-season. It’s frustrating still. It’s tough to watch the playoffs, but you learn to get over that pretty quickly.
Q. Do you still think about the green room and 2008?
A. Yeah, you have to. That stuff, I think it goes from a motivator to a great learning experience. At the time, immediately after, it’s a motivator. I got picked over, in my thoughts, I got picked over and I have a lot to prove. But then you look back on it a few years later and you realize it was a strong character builder and I learned a lot through that, and I’m glad I went through it.
Q. The greats, the legends, are known for being competitive. They’re obsessive about it. Do you put yourself in that category? Are you obsessed with the game?
A. I’m obsessively competitive. I’m not obsessed with the game. I think “obsessed” to me brings up ideas of difficulty finding new identity in anything other than your sport, and that’s not how I want to be characterized. I’m strong in my preparation and how important that is to success. I love the opportunity we have to play sports for a living, but you have to remember it is a sport still. It’s not life or death. But that being said, I’m obsessively competitive and I hate to lose.
Q. Is such an obsession necessary to maintain excellence?
A. I think you have to be very self-motivated. A prime example, I got drafted in 2005 and there are now zero players from that draft of 12 players that are still on our team. And some of them are like Nick (Collins), who got hurt and couldn’t play. And some guys got cut in Year 1 or Year 7, but it’s the guys that are the self-motivated ones that make the most of their opportunities when they present themselves that stick around the longest.
Q. What is the root of your competitiveness?
A. I had two brothers growing up and one of them was close in age to me. He was 19 months older, anyway. And we competed every day. I’m not that old but in my day, in my generation, with no cell phones and no Internet but with AOL dial-up at 13, 14 years old. Every day we came home from school and played basketball until it was dark after homework. We played catch in the street. We played basketball. We played roller hockey. We played wiffle ball. I always wanted to beat him at everything. It took a long time to actually beat him at something. But that’s where the competitiveness started.
Q. So it took a while to beat him?
A. Well, he was 19 months older and always bigger than me so it took until I was in fourth or fifth grade to start to be able to compete with him pretty good in basketball. . . . I blocked his shot when I was in sixth grade. He called a foul. And from then on, it was war. But we played on the same basketball team when I was third grade and he was in fifth grade. We played on the same baseball team in Little League, so we were on the same team but still competitive against each other and that really helped.
Q. You’ve mentioned how you look up to Steve Young and Joe Montana. What stood out with them?
A. Consistency with those guys. Playing their best in big games. Joe went through the ‘89 postseason with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Steve threw six touchdowns in a Super Bowl against the Chargers. The year Joe left, Steve wins MVP. Both had extremely high quarterback ratings for their careers.
Q. Is that where you’re consistency comes from — seeing them?
A. I think so. And I was a big fan of the best players in every sport. I was a Michael Jordan fan and obviously loved the 49ers. Different players in baseball. I liked the Braves for a while when they had (Tom) Glavine, (John) Smoltz and (Greg) Maddux. If you look at those great players, they were consistent year in and year out. A bad year for them was a good year for just about any play in their respective league.
Q. You had 45 touchdowns and six interceptions, but do the mistakes stay with you? Being “obsessively competitive,” do you remember those?
A. Oh, yeah. I’m still mad about them. I don’t think it’s realistic to go through a season without throwing a pick, but I think it is realistic to go through each individual game and take care of the football. That’s how you string together multiple games playing well. If you look at the NBA playoffs, Boston was down 2-0 and to win the series you have to win four out of five. If you look at it like that, it’s never going to happen. But if you look at each individual game, it’s possible. It’s the same way with our schedule. I don’t think it’s possible to go through a season without an interception or making a bad decision. However, I approach every game as if I’m going to go into that game, take care of the football, not turn it over and not make a bad decision.
Q. What can you do better in 2012?
A. Just eliminate the mistakes. I think you have to account for the human error in the game. I’m going to make some mistakes. But like (offensive coordinator and former quarterbacks coach) Tom Clements used to tell us, he gave us four points — “do what you’re supposed to do, when you’re supposed to do it, as well as you can do it, and all the freaking time.” So if I can do those four things, do what I’m supposed to do all the time, when I’m supposed to do it, as good as I can do it, all the time, I think it’s going to be the type of season I can look back and be proud about.
Q. Has Clements been a big factor in your consistency, too?
A. The biggest.
Q. How so?
A. Very consistent personality. Incredible teacher of the game. And the perfect dynamic in our relationship where there’s a tight friendship and I really look up to him as a person and consider him a dear friend. However, there’s a line between player and coach that exists on the field where I look at him as a father figure and, to me, I never want to disappoint my father. So when I take the field, I want to make him proud with the way he has prepared me. The last thing I want to do is let him down.
Q. Can stardom, fame and all the attention you’ve gotten change a person?
A. Yeah, I think so. But there are different ways it can change. It has to change you because your life becomes more of an open book and it’s more difficult to do the things you want to do in public. I think you have a responsibility even greater to your team, to the city you play in and the organization you play for obviously and all that entails. Your family. Your loved ones. Your friends. The things you do reflect on them.
Q. In 2007, there were barely any reporters at this locker. You were a hungry backup. How do you keep that hunger when you’re a star?
A. You have to remember where you came from. I was a skinny, poor athlete coming out of high school according to the scouts — with a lot of confidence. I went the junior college route and wouldn’t change a minute that I spent there. That was the best experience for me. You have to remember where you came from — the hard work it took to get to junior college and start, to get to Cal and start after being a backup, to get to the NFL, be a backup, start and have success. With the hard work it took to get here, it’s going to be even harder to maintain because once you get near the top everybody’s taking shots at you.
Q. Do you still jog those memories?
A. You’ve got to. You have to have reminders, whether it’s a picture on the wall or a video that you might watch occasionally, you have to have those thoughts on your mind.
Q. So you pop in a video here and there?
A. Every now and then, yeah. I’ll look at how bad I was at Cal.
Q. What do you guys have to do to get back to the Super Bowl?
A. You have to play the right way at the end of the season. We did in 2011 in January. We were playing the right way coming into the (playoffs) with two big wins. We were healthy at the right time. The Giants did that last year. They squeaked into the playoffs and had a lot of confidence. They knew once they got there that the playing field was even. Anybody could take it. Then they played close to flawless football. We turned the ball over four times, gave up a Hail Mary and didn’t play the way we wanted to. We have to play the right way, get a little bit of fortune with injuries and make the most of those opportunities.
Q. The players that win multiple Super Bowls are the greats, the ones that go down in history. The Joe Montanas. Is that important to you?
A. As far as being mentioned with those guys, that’s a great honor. But that’s stuff for the media people and the fans to talk about. That’s not something I worry a whole lot about. I do have a strong desire to be great, and winning Super Bowls for this franchise and this fan base is very important to me. Those are the memories you’re going to take with you. We’ve got one. It was a special feeling. It’s time to get another one.