California dreaming

In just a year former P.V. and Butte standout Aaron Rodgers has gone from obscurity to the spotlight as starting quarterback for the nationally ranked Cal Bears. Where to now?

A-ROD’S HOUSE A sleepy-eyed Aaron Rodgers is sitting on the edge of something great at Cal. This weekend Memorial Stadium won’t be so empty, as 107-year-old rivals Stanford visit Berkeley for the annual Big Game.

A-ROD’S HOUSE A sleepy-eyed Aaron Rodgers is sitting on the edge of something great at Cal. This weekend Memorial Stadium won’t be so empty, as 107-year-old rivals Stanford visit Berkeley for the annual Big Game.

Photo By Tom Angel

In the 81-year history of UC Berkeley’s Memorial Coliseum, there has never been a single night game. Until this night.

It’s the last weekend of October, and from the rim of the Romanesque bowl at sunset, the panoramic view of the Bay Area is postcard perfect. The Berkeley rooftops are quickly fading into the cold shadows, and you can hear the hum of enormous generators below as four rent-a-cranes poke through the night, arching floodlights over the outer walls of the Coliseum to bathe the football stadium in light.

The warm glow has attracted some 60,000 Blue and Gold faithful for tonight’s battle between their beloved Golden Bears and the Arizona State Sun Devils. With the abnormally late start, the tightly packed student section has had more time than usual to prepare for the game, and its collective voice is restless as a chant rises up, entreating the gladiators to take the field.

“Air-run Raw-jers! Air-run Raw-jers!”

The call is for Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback from nowhere who is now leading Cal through a dream season.

With superstar coach and program savior Jeff Tedford guiding him, Rodgers has gone from an unrecruited small-town star in Chico, Calif., first at Pleasant Valley High School, then at Butte College, to the short list for this year’s Heisman Trophy award and, if he chooses to skip his senior year, to an early first-round pick in the 2005 NFL draft.

Cal is the seventh-ranked Division I team in the country heading into this night’s contest versus 20th-ranked Arizona State. With a record of 7-1 (the only loss a squeaker to No. 1-ranked USC), an invitation to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958 seems likely, and there’s even an outside chance Cal could be playing for the national title.

TBS is here tonight to televise the game—which is why the lights are on for the first time ever—and, 140 or so miles to the northeast, fans in Chico watch as one of their own takes full advantage of the spotlight that almost never was.

They don’t have long to wait. Arizona State fumbles the opening kickoff, Cal recovers, and Rodgers and his potent offense take the field.

Snap. Pass. Ka-boom! Within seconds the cannon on Tightwad Hill (where cheapskates sit in the dirt and watch for free) explodes, announcing Rodgers’ sweet pass to freshman Robert Jordan in the end zone on the very first play of the game. The celebration of the opening turnover hasn’t even subsided, and with just 20 seconds ticked off Cal is up 7-0. The crowd goes berserk.

Rodgers’ dagger hit its mark, as it nearly always does, and the game was over almost before it began. In the end, Cal hands the visitors a 27-0 shutout and climbs to No. 4 in the national rankings.

From here on out, whichever chapter in Aaron Rodgers’ football career is being written, the story will always begin the same way: It almost didn’t happen.

Since his arrival at Cal, every media outlet, from the Sacramento Bee to ESPN to the San Francisco Chronicle, has been telling the tale, adding the heroics of the last game or the NFL draft projections by the latest analyst to that same dramatic plot point that makes the Rodgers story such a great story.

Despite a stellar career at Pleasant Valley, Rodgers attracted no interest from Division I programs. He’d broken nearly every one of his high school’s passing records as a varsity quarterback, and his 4,419 career yards passing is not only the best in school history, but also the sixth best in Northern Section history. That’s after only two seasons—the top five had three years to set their marks.

Some Division III schools and junior colleges were taking looks at him, but short of walking on somewhere, playing football at a major school was quickly becoming a faded dream. Rodgers even toyed with the idea of going to school to become a lawyer.

“For whatever reason, he just slipped through the cracks,” his father, Ed Rodgers, says during a lunch break from the chiropractic office he runs out of In Motion Fitness in Chico. With the 6-foot-4-inch brick-house stature of a former player (he was a linebacker for Chico State University in the late-'70s), Rodgers knows football, and he was disappointed that his son wasn’t getting any looks.

“I had an interesting conversation with a Division I coach right before his senior year,” the elder Rodgers explains. “He told me that very rarely do Division I coaches look north of Sacramento.”

While geography appeared to be working against his success, Rodgers still felt passionate about playing football, so he turned to a local institution, Butte College. Though he had no way of knowing it at the time, that would turn out to be the best decision he could have made.

As luck would have it, our own little community college, hidden away in the foothills between Chico and Oroville, is actually a national junior-college football powerhouse. Coach Craig Rigsbee hasn’t had one losing season in his 15 years at the helm, has won more than 80 percent of his 160 games, and has guided Butte to the conference championship a remarkable nine times.

NOWHERE BUT UP Pleasant Valley High grad Aaron Rodgers points the way, as he and the Cal Bears step into the national spotlight.

Photo By Tom Haukt

More important, though, his program is a veritable blue-chip factory, and dozens of former Butte players are now playing for Division I schools, and a handful (such as Dallas Cowboy All-Pro lineman Larry Allen) have made it onto NFL rosters.

With some coaxing from his father, Rigsbee and Greg Barton, a former quarterback for the Detroit Lions who mentored Rodgers at quarterback camps, the 18-year-old decided to give Butte a try.

Rodgers immediately got his confidence back. In a system that was designed around his ability to throw the ball, Rodgers completed 62 percent of his passes and averaged over 16 yard per completion, picking up conference and regional MVP awards along the way.

One of Rodgers’ favorite targets at Butte was a 6-foot, 5-inch monster tight end named Garrett Cross. Two years earlier, when Rodgers was a junior at P.V., Cross was a man among boys as a senior at cross-town rival Chico High School. Also spurned by major recruiters, Cross was at Butte to bulk up and hopefully show up on Division I radar screens.

Putting past allegiances behind them, the duo tore up the competition at Butte. Cross was a recipient of 39 of Rodgers’ passes, 10 of them for touchdowns. By the end of the season, Butte had won its conference and was the No. 2-ranked junior college team in the nation, finishing the season with a 10-1 record and a 37-20 victory over San Joaquin Delta in the Holiday Bowl.

While Rodgers and Cross were in Butte County devouring the NorCal conference, a new coach was in the process of taking a Cal Berkeley team that had finished 1-10 the year before and guiding it to a 7-5 record, giving the program its first winning season in nine years and earning Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors.

Coaching at Fresno State University and, most recently, the University of Oregon (as offensive coordinator under Mike Bellotti, former head coach of Chico State University’s football program), Jeff Tedford had gained a reputation for developing great quarterbacks, with Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington and Cal’s Kyle Boller all blossoming into NFL quarterbacks thanks in large part to his grooming.

With the majority of his starters set to leave after that 2002 season, Tedford was on a scouting tear, and one player on his radar was Butte’s Cross. Tedford hadn’t even heard of the freshman Rodgers.

This changed when Tedford began scrutinizing tapes of Cross. He couldn’t get over the impeccable mechanics of the young quarterback throwing him all those passes. Already satisfied that this new prospect had the necessary physical attributes to make a good quarterback, he made a trip to Butte to check out both players.

After talking with Rodgers and after seeing his poise and leadership on the field, Tedford knew he’d struck gold. He returned to Berkeley with a new tight end and a new quarterback on his roster.

It’s unusual for a Division I team to take a juco player after one season, so Ed Rodgers gives Rigsbee a lot of credit for giving his son the green light to move on.

“Rigsbee held his hands open with Aaron and said, ‘You were meant to do this.’ He could’ve been selfish—I think it shows what kind of character the guy has.”

It’s Wednesday, the day when one hour is set aside before the Cal football team’s afternoon meeting for Rodgers to talk with the media.

As he walks into Cal’s Hall of Fame room, which is buried within the enormous concrete of Memorial Coliseum, Rodgers is happy to hear that it’s a hometown paper waiting for an interview.

“Sweet. I love Chico.”

The dusty room, lined with glass cases of photos and trophies and plaques documenting Cal’s numerous sports accomplishments, seems an especially appropriate setting to talk with the current big man on campus.

At first glance, the 6-foot-2-inch Rodgers is unassuming. At second glance the chiseled biceps of a dedicated athlete pop out of his T-shirt. And at third glance the serious gaze of a focused quarterback is a bit unnerving, even as the friendly young 20-year-old treats a visiting reporter and photographer as guests in his home.

Relaxed and looking a little tired, he sits down across the conference table and politely ignores his sack lunch while speaking openly about growing up in Chico, idolizing Joe Montana (he still wears Montana’s jersey under his uniform) and his steep and improbable rise to the top of the college football world.

“It’s kind of crazy,” Rodgers says by way of introduction to most of his comments about the last year of his life. He chuckles at the absurdity of his sudden high-profile celebrity and at the mention of his name in the same sentence as “Heisman” and mostly at the luck of crossing paths with three men, first Rigsbee, then Cross (who, after suffering a leg fracture in 2003, has returned to Cal’s multi-option receiving corps) and subsequently Tedford.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” he says, adding, “Coach Rigsbee is like a brother to me. My Butte experience was so crucial. … I was able to be around good people and a good program.”

THE OTHER BIG GAME Aaron Rodgers lines up with his P.V. Vikings opposite cross-town rivals Chico High during2001’s Almond Bowl.

Photo By Rodgers family

Coming into Cal, Rodgers was a backup for the first time in his life, waiting in the wings for the first five games of the 2003 season. After impressing off the bench with a 15-for-25, 224-yard performance against Utah, Rodgers got his first start against Illinois, a Division I program where Rodgers had a friend on the coaching staff and where he had hoped to play coming out of high school. Illinois’ coach never called, and Rodgers returned the favor by leading Cal to a 31-24 win, going 20 for 37, throwing one touchdown and running for another.

After starting 1-4, Cal went 7-3 the rest of the way with the new starting quarterback. And the wins weren’t mere creampuff-stomping. In his second start, against conference rivals and West Coast powerhouse USC, Rodgers went 18 for 25, threw two touchdown passes and ran for a touchdown as Cal upset the eventual co-national champs 34-31 in triple overtime.

There was also the Big Game, the 107-year old rivalry game with Stanford, in which he broke Jim Plunkett’s total-yardage record for the game with 414 all-purpose yards in the 28-16 season-finale victory.

The crowning achievement of that first season, the one that sealed an honorable mention for the All-Pac-10 team for 2003 and pre-season MVP selection for 2004, was the 52-49 upset of national powerhouse Virginia Tech at the Insight Bowl in Cal’s first bowl appearance in nine years.

In that game Rodgers completed an insane 77 percent of his passes with zero interceptions, passed for two touchdowns and ran in two more.

“Christmastime at my house—holiday times—you watched bowl games. I watched every bowl game when I was growing up,” Rogers remembers, adding, “It was amazing that I was playing in a bowl game—something I’d always dreamed about doing.”

It’s likely he’ll be playing in another bowl game soon. Now sitting pretty at No. 4 in the national rankings, Cal needs to win its final two games, the Big Game versus Stanford (4-6) on Saturday and a makeup game (postponed due to hurricanes) at Southern Miss (5-3) on Dec. 4, to insure that it will be playing in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

“We feel really blessed,” says Ed Rodgers, echoing a sentiment he and his son repeat throughout their interviews. “I can’t talk about his road without really talking about our faith as a family. … That’s an important part. I try not to leave it out.”

“We’re a very strong Christian family,” Aaron Rodgers says. “I know they’re always praying for me, so it’s encouraging.”

The Rodgers’ home is at the end of a dead-end street, and you pass a line of portable basketball hoops parked along the sidewalk as you near their big, blue house. The scene is nice. Comforting. It doesn’t take a sociologist to see that this is kind of place you want to come home to.

“If something goes wrong with football, I have a great family to fall back on,” Aaron Rodgers says, displaying an ability to see the big picture despite the frenzied atmosphere that often distorts the young minds of athletes in his position. “I have a great city that’s supported me, which has been unbelievable. I have great friends who care about me regardless if we win or lose or how good I play.”

They do love to watch him play, though. Both parents have made it to all the Cal home games. Rodgers’ mother Darla sends notes of encouragement and prayers to his fellow players, while his father has even given adjustments to some of the guys.

It’s not all about Aaron, though. Older brother Luke, who’s now a pre-med student at Chico State, used to play football, and younger brother Jordan is the quarterback for the junior-varsity squad at P.V.

“We watch [Jordan] on Friday and Aaron Saturday,” says proud papa Ed, flashing a slightly weary smile.

While he acknowledges that Aaron’s current success feels “kind of unreal,” Ed understands how his son got from there to here.

“At 3 and 4 years he’d sit and watch the whole [football] game on TV; as a 5- and 6-year-old he’d know all the players; and, as a 7- and 8-year-old he’d know all the stats.

“Aaron is remarkable at keeping focused,” Rodgers continues. “I built him a wooden field, like a football field, and he’d make players—he’d sit there for hours and design plays. He had a playbook … stuff other kids didn’t do.”

Despite the early interest, the Rodgers kept the boys out of football until eighth grade, encouraging them to play sports like soccer to save their bodies from as much wear and tear as possible.

But once the football started, Dad joined his sons on the field.

“We always played a game called Pass Pattern,” Ed Rodgers explains. “One would be the receiver, I’d be the quarterback, the other would be the DB, and they’d try to guard each other. It got real competitive.”

HOME TEAM Behind the scenes, Aaron Rodgers’ family saves him a warm spot to return to in his hometown. From left, mother Darla, high-school sophomore Jordan and father Ed.

Photo By Tom Angel

In recalling those days, Aaron Rodgers admits that the sports-centric environment of his childhood—he also starred on the basketball and baseball teams at P.V.—was crucial in his evolution as an athlete, and that early on he knew that he didn’t want to limit his time on the field to his high-school years.

“Me and my brother used to always talk about, ‘We’re going to be NBA stars,’ ‘We’re going to be NFL stars.’ That was always a dream of ours, and Mom and Dad never shot it down.”

The Arizona State game is over, and at the spot along the concourse that overlooks the tunnel leading to the Cal locker room, people are piling up to catch a glimpse of the winning quarterback, who’s still on the field giving post-game interviews.

With his Coliseum adversaries summarily dispatched, the conquering hero passes below on the way to the locker room, with a shrieking chorus of young women above him shouting: “Aaron!” “Aaron!” “Over here!”

That kind of stuff is just beginning for Rodgers. It’s been only one year since his big splash against USC last season. In that time he’s gone from the backup quarterback on a team predicted to finish at the bottom of its conference to the starting quarterback on the fourth-best team in the country.

What’s that do to a guy’s life?

There are those screaming girls, for sure, and the everyday fans—backslappers and autograph-seekers—who do their part to help sustain that Saturday-to-Saturday buzz but also make walking across campus to classes a growing challenge.

And there are the rock stars. Well, one, Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz, a Cal alumnus, who joins the team in the locker room to sing the Cal fight song and whose stylish dreadlocks could be seen bouncing around the Cal bench during the Arizona State game.

There are also, of course, the media, not just clamoring for Rodgers’ time for interviews and sound bites, but also creating his football myth right in front of him, before it even plays out. The stories in the newspapers grow by the day, and Rodgers has gone from reading about what he just did on the football field to reading about what he’s going to do—in Pasadena, at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, or next spring for the 2005 NFL draft.

Even Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Plunkett is talking about him in interviews!

All of this is not really that crazy when you take a step back and look at the big picture. If Rodgers opts to leave Cal for the pros after this season, every expert from ESPN to The Sporting News is projecting him to be the first or second quarterback taken in the draft. Last year, the top three quarterbacks taken received signing bonuses of anywhere from $9 million to $20 million, and that kind of money, no matter what you’re doing to earn it, draws a lot of attention.

A climb so steep, so quick can give even the fittest athlete a bad case of altitude sickness, but Rodgers appears to be mentally acclimated.

“Being the quarterback, and with the success the team’s having, this stuff comes with it,” he says, adding, “It does kind of drain me sometimes mentally, but I don’t really mind it that much.”

The grounding effect of that quiet Chico neighborhood and the dependable foundation in the home at the end of the block go a long a way toward keeping Rodgers even-keeled despite the enormity of his two commitments—to a major football program with all its attendant distractions and to one of the toughest schools academically in the country as a communications major (with a business emphasis).

But at the press conference after the Arizona State game, there’s something else about Rodgers that comes to the surface, something hinted at in his childhood with the Sundays spent dissecting the 49ers on TV and the energy put into compiling play books for his toy football players.

When Rodgers comes in through the back door, wearing a Cal T-shirt, shorts and a pair of navy-blue socks, a bevy of beat writers turn their attention away from Coach Tedford at the front of the room and scurry back to the corner to meet him. The writers seem energized by the 20-year-old phenom. As he talks, these men who are double or triple Rodgers’ age seem like kids in awe of one of their heroes—giggling at his self-effacing humor and generally showing him a lot more respect than men their age are in the habit of doing for one so young.

Rodgers accepts the role. With his hands at his sides most of the time, he squares his jaw, assumes a command presence and like a true leader quietly takes control of the room.

If I were to guess, this will end up being the real story—the guy is a born leader. And the picture of the shy overgrown kid who still has a bedroom in his parents’ home belies a very serious side, a mental toughness at work that suggests that Rodgers’ devotion to this pursuit runs deep. Sure, the “almost never happened” twist will live on. But in the end, if Rodgers ends up being one of the great ones, it’ll be because he was born to do it, realized he was born to do it and was disciplined in his pursuit of fulfilling that promise.

All the same, though, he’s still playing a game.

“It’s so fun for me,” Rodgers admits. “Every day, just living out a dream.”

It’s hard not to get caught up in that sentiment. The Cal fans, alumni and students alike, are living out a dream season. Likewise, UC Berkeley’s dreams of an elite football program have Rodgers’ legacy and Tedford’s genius as a foundation to build upon (as long as they make good on promises to upgrade the stadium’s outdated facilities).

But no one dreams bigger than the press, and in a recent editorial in the San Jose Mercury News, columnist Tim Kawakami had a bright idea for what the struggling San Francisco 49ers could do to return the franchise to its former glory: “do whatever they can to land Cal’s Jeff Tedford” as head coach and “draft Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers (if he declares as a junior) with their inevitable high pick.”

It’s a tantalizing dream, and one that just might be swirling around the heads of many a football fan in the Bay Area (including one young quarterback in Berkeley resting up for the Big Game) as they lie in bed at night, dreaming of a new Joe Montana leading the team onto the field.