MADISON, Wis. -- After his left tackle was done hijacking his acceptance speech, after he’d dismissed out of hand the idea of talking about the impact his infamous “run-the-table” remark had on the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 season, Aaron Rodgers looked around at the Wisconsin Sports Awards audience inside the University of Wisconsin Fieldhouse last week and smiled.
The Packers quarterback was being honored with the state’s “athlete of the year” award, and while Rodgers was perfectly fine with Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari commandeering the conversation as a comedic mock protest for not winning the award himself, there was one thing he wanted to say to everyone before leaving the stage.
“The thing I love about Wisconsin is the people. We have such incredible people here,” Rodgers told the crowd. “It’s fun to recognize the incredible athletes and coaches and sponsors and people we have here tonight. But we also have incredible fans. And I know every team says that, but our Packers fans stuck with us when we were 4-6. ... I’m talking about those who believed when we said we were going to run the table that we could actually do that -- and you stuck with us and believed we could do that. And we appreciate that.”
Set to begin his 13th season with the Packers, Rodgers believes he understands Wisconsin sports fans because he’s become one of them. He embraced the Wisconsin men’s basketball team several years ago -- he was there at Madison Square Garden in March when UW’s Zac Showalter turned to Rodgers and gave him his signature belt celebration after hitting a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation against Florida -- and he’s a semi-regular at Milwaukee Bucks games, having taken several teammates to one of the team’s recent playoff games. (Rodgers was actually wearing a Bucks cap while in the stands for UW’s loss to the Gators.)
Rodgers also was seen at more than a few Milwaukee Brewers games earlier in his career -- until his friendship with Brewers slugger Ryan Braun dissolved after Braun admitted he lied about his PED use -- and backstage at last week’s awards ceremony, he chatted with everyone from college basketball coaches (Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski, UW-Milwaukee’s LaVall Jordan and UW’s Greg Gard) to Wisconsin legends (athletic director and former football coach Barry Alvarez) to the high school athletes being honored.
But Rodgers’ connection to the state transcends sports, he says. For him, Wisconsin has truly become “home.” While he does spend part of his offseason in Southern California, he’s in Wisconsin for much more of the calendar.
“I just love living here. So you just get into it,” Rodgers said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of great people here in all the different sports. It’s fun. It’s fun to get involved where you live. And this is where I live. I’m a registered voter here. I have my Wisconsin driver’s license.”
And, he says, this is where he became, well, him.
"[Besides dairy], I've embraced just about everything else Wisconsin -- especially when it comes to sports, but also the people and the interactions with our fans."Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on spending more time in Wisconsin
Born and raised in Chico, California, and having stayed close to home for junior college (Butte College, in Oroville, California) and for two seasons at California-Berkeley, Rodgers seemed destined to stay in the Bay Area and play for the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, he fell to the Packers in the 2005 draft, spent three seasons as future Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s understudy, then took over as the starter after the Packers’ acrimonious split with Favre during the summer of 2008.
That transition was tough on him -- Packers fans booed him at the Family Night scrimmage, which is normally a feel-good practice-turned-pep rally -- and the Packers missed the playoffs that year. But as he left the field after a victory over the winless Detroit Lions in the regular-season finale -- closing out a 6-10 season -- he got a standing ovation.
“For me, 2008 was really impactful,” Rodgers said. “That’s when I really felt the fans embraced me. I’d always enjoyed living here. You know, I was only in college for five semesters [two at Butte, three at Cal]. So this was really my first time really out on my own, away from my home state. I grew up here, and I’ve grown up here. I’ve been here over 12 years and I love it out here.”
And other than removing dairy products from his diet, Rodgers believes he’s become a true Wisconsinite.
“I wanted to really ingrain myself in the culture and the people. And I apologize about having an allergy to dairy products that gives me some irritable bowels,” he said with a laugh. “But other than that, I mean, I’ve embraced just about everything else Wisconsin -- especially when it comes to sports, but also the people and the interactions with our fans.
“There’s a different type of connection there. I really feel like I embrace that. I love it.”
Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin and hosts “Wilde & Tausch” with former Packers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison.