The Search For Aaron Rodgers
Winning isn't everything. After Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay's hero QB has been on a journey to find out what is.
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After the game, Aaron Rodgers got on the bus. It was unusually cold in Arlington during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLV; a winter storm had barreled into Texas, blanketing Cowboys Stadium with so much snow that slabs of ice cascaded from the roof. When the game against the Steelers ended, the team was showered with confetti, then the players trudged down to the bus, where they sat for a while in the bowels of the stadium before heading back to their hotel. Someone brought the Vince Lombardi Trophy on board, and the players passed it around like a collection plate, each taking a moment to palm the sterling silver.
As his teammates chattered away, the quarterback sat and listened and thought about the plays he had made that night: three touchdowns, zero interceptions, 304 yards. The bus rolled along, and he ran it all back in his mind, then pressed rewind and visualized his entire career, retracing the steps he had taken from Chico, California, to Arlington, from beleaguered backup to Super Bowl MVP. As he reflected on the sacrifices and the slights, he wondered whether it was all worth it, and then he felt something unexpected -- not regret or fulfillment but a different sensation, like a space had opened inside of him. He thought about life and football and everything he had invested in his sport, and a jarring realization sprang into his mind.
I hope I don't just do this.
It's an oppressively warm afternoon in Los Angeles, and I'm sitting in my living room, looking at Rodgers looking at my stuff. The night before, his agent had sent me his phone number, suggesting that we meet at either his place or mine. A couple of hours later, Rodgers texted me and told me he'd come here. So now he's sitting a few feet away from me on my sofa in a black T-shirt and jeans, Stan Smiths tapping on the floor, his arm -- maybe the most valuable arm in the world -- resting on a throw pillow.
Typically, writers meet their subjects at a neutral location -- somewhere a publicist has chosen to reveal something about the celebrity, like his taste in food or hobbies or charitable work. Exposition by way of description. But Rodgers wanted to meet here. When he sits down, he scans the room, his eyes flickering as he processes my books, my records, the dog toy I forgot to pick up before he arrived. He asks me whether I've read Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (I haven't) and whether the fuzzy white figurine on my mantel is an alpaca (it's a llama) and whether the berries sitting in a bowl on my coffee table are fresh (I have no idea, but I say yes). As he studies his surroundings, it occurs to me that when I write about this, I'll have to describe my things instead of his things, and I realize that's probably why we're here.
I set my phone on the table and press the record button. He pulls out his and does the same. So he won't be taken "out of context," he explains.
Rodgers is unusually cautious. This is evident whenever he opens his mouth. Before he speaks, he pauses, choosing his words like a surgeon plucking instruments from a table. Some of this comes with the territory -- all-galaxy quarterback, face of a multibillion-dollar insurance company, vessel for an entire state's hopes and dreams -- but it rarely feels calculated. Rodgers, 33, isn't studiously bland, like many of his elite brethren, and he isn't evasive either. He's just ... cautious. Wary of being misunderstood or revealing too much. Over the years, as his celebrity exploded, he closed certain windows, sequestering his private life while he charmed the public with his dry wit and quirky hobbies. (He does crosswords! He likes Wes Anderson films!) He showed us everything and nothing at all. And for a while, that was enough.
But a few years ago, something shifted. As Rodgers kept himself swaddled in bubble wrap, others started to pound away: former teammates and anonymous sources who called him aloof, bloggers who reported on every development in his relationship with actress Olivia Munn. His name, once the province of the sports pages, started to appear with greater regularity in the tabloids, and last summer, when his younger brother, Jordan, revealed on The Bachelorette that Aaron no longer had a relationship with the family, those stories took on a new life. Throughout all of it, Rodgers said little. But the drumbeat of gossip and innuendo kept rising, and at some point, he realized his voice was lost in the noise.
So he's found himself here, on my sofa, popping probably-not-fresh berries into his mouth as the room fills with light. Over the course of a few hours, he talks about the windows he's slammed shut and the ones he's cracked open, and I ask him why he feels compelled to let in any air at all. He cocks an eyebrow. "Just a desire to be seen," he says. "Just to be understood a little bit more."
Rodgers' biography, now the stuff of NFL legend, is best summarized as a long list of slights: A scrawny kid becomes a talented high school quarterback but fails to attract any interest from Division I schools. After a year in junior college, he thrives at Cal and draws hype as a potential No. 1 pick -- then plummets in the 2005 draft, sweating it out in a pinstriped suit as millions watch. He lands in Green Bay, where he spends three years as Brett Favre's understudy and is greeted by booing fans when he finally becomes the starter. Throughout his youth, Rodgers wore these indignities on his body like lashes, looking at the scars whenever he needed motivation.
Then he won the Super Bowl.
For years, Rodgers seemed convinced that the world didn't believe in him; then, in an instant, he'd produced irrefutable evidence that the world was wrong. The overlooked, undersized kid had made it to the mountaintop. But when the Packers' bus left Cowboys Stadium on that chilly night six years ago, he didn't feel like he had risen to a higher plane. Rather, he realized he was still looking for something -- for a sense of clarity, or purpose -- that was beyond his current line of sight. "It's natural to question some of the things that society defines as success," he says. "When you achieve that and there's not this rung -- you know, another rung to climb up in this ladder -- it's natural to be like, 'OK, now what?'"
I ask him where this search has led him, half expecting him to reveal some second act. Instead, he says he looked inward.
"I think in people's lives who grew up in some sort of organized religion, there really comes a time when you start to question things more," he says. "It happens for some at an early age; others, you know, maybe a little older. That happened to me six or seven years ago."
Like so many players in the NFL, Rodgers devoted much of his young life to those twin pillars of American culture: football and faith. As a boy growing up in Chico, he attended a nondenominational church with his parents, both devout Christians, and absorbed the religion's traditional tenets. And yet, even as he soaked up those lessons, there were aspects of dogma that left him dissatisfied. "I remember asking a question as a young person about somebody in a remote rainforest," he tells me. "Because the words that I got were: 'If you don't confess your sins, then you're going to hell.' And I said, 'What about the people who don't have a Bible readily accessible?'"
For years, these concerns nagged at him, especially as he met more people from other walks of life -- teammates who grew up in different parts of the world, friends with different religious backgrounds. He started reading books that delved into alternate interpretations of theology. Then, not long after he became the starter in Green Bay in 2008, he met Rob Bell, a young pastor from Michigan whom the Packers invited to speak to the team. When the talk ended, Rodgers waited for the group to dissipate and then introduced himself to Bell, best known for his progressive views on Christianity. The two men struck up a friendship. Bell sent Rodgers books on everything from religion to art theory to quantum physics, and the quarterback gave him feedback on his writing. Over time, as he read more, Rodgers grew increasingly convinced that the beliefs he had internalized growing up were wrong, that spirituality could be far more inclusive and less literal than he had been taught. As an example, he points to Bell's research into the concept of hell. If you close-read the language in the Bible, Rodgers tells me, it's clear that the words are intended to evoke an analogy for man's separation from God. "It wasn't a fiery pit idea -- that [concept] was handed down in the 1700s by the Puritans and influenced Western culture," he says.
"The Bible opens with a poem," he adds. "It's a beautiful piece of work, but it was never meant to be interpreted as I think some churches do." I ask him whether he still sees himself as a Christian, and he says he no longer identifies with any affiliation.
After Super Bowl XLV, Rodgers and Bell spent a lot of time talking about what he experienced on that bus -- how he felt, or didn't feel, and his realization that absolute success on the field didn't make him completely content. It wasn't until he confronted his own "narrow-minded" views about the world and his place in it, he says, that he experienced a sense of the fulfillment he yearned for. "I think questions like that in your mind lead to really beautiful periods where you start to grow as a person," he says. "I think organized religion can have a mind-debilitating effect, because there is an exclusivity that can shut you out from being open to the world, to people, and energy, and love and acceptance.
"That wasn't really the way that I was, maybe the first 25 or 26 years of my life," Rodgers continues. "I was, you know, more black-and-white. This is what I believe in. And then at some point ... you realize, I don't really know the answers to these questions."
Before Rodgers comes to my house, he stops in a hipster café in my neighborhood (think: exposed brick, single-origin list, baristas with deliberately misshapen haircuts) and texts to ask whether I want a cup of coffee. I tell him I'll just meet him there. When I open the door, I see him sitting in the middle of the store, surrounded by aspiring screenwriters glued to their laptops. All appear to be unaware -- or uninterested -- that a future Hall of Famer is in their midst.
Rodgers stands, and no one looks up. He smiles.
He's lived in Los Angeles for about three years. While he owns a house in San Diego, he spends pretty much all of his non-helmet-wearing time here. Rodgers likes LA for the same reasons most transplants do: He grew up in a small town and was drafted by a football team in a small town, and aside from the one and a half years he spent at Cal, he'd never experienced life in a city before. He likes it all: the live music, the organic grocery stores, the expectation that he can walk around without being stalked by middle-aged men with Sharpies asking him to sign memorabilia they'll later sell on eBay. Angelenos are, for the most part, pretty chill, he says: "They see a lot more famous and recognizable people than me every day."
When I ask Rodgers whether he dislikes fame, he pauses for a second. He's wary of complaining about his own celebrity, given the attendant benefits. But he admits there are "some things" that cause him discomfort. "Decreased privacy," he says. "And increased strain or pressure or stress associated with relationships. Friendships and dating relationships."
In 2014, Rodgers started dating Munn. (He previously was engaged to a woman he knew from high school, which he's never publicly discussed.) In April, it was reported that the couple had broken up. I ask him what he learned from the experience. "When you are living out a relationship in the public eye, it's definitely ... it's difficult," he says, jostling on the sofa and blinking a little, as though I've just pointed a flashlight at his face. "It has some extra constraints, because you have other opinions about your relationship, how it affects your work and, you know, just some inappropriate connections." It seems clear that he's referring to the fans and pundits who asked whether his famous girlfriend might be hurting his performance, so I say as much. He nods, adding, "They're such misogynists, right?"
Rodgers sees the media the way a person strapped to a spinning wheel might regard an amateur knife thrower; he's deeply concerned about his words being carved into fodder for the aforementioned pundits, used to drive news cycles beyond his control. "There's some horrible media outlets that ... you say something or do something, where there's a story, and they just go with it and run with it," he says. Rodgers tells me he's gotten better at ignoring his critics, but he admits it's still a struggle. Throughout our conversation, he repeatedly criticizes the media for overblowing storylines, including ESPN (which he refers to several times as "your network").
"When somebody thinks of you a certain way that's not real, or says something about you that's not true, I ... you know, that's not me," he says. "You're not seeing me the right way."
Last summer Rodgers found himself in the center of a minor maelstrom when his brother Jordan, who's now a commentator on ESPN's SEC Network, discussed their fractured relationship on TV. For fans who had followed the quarterback's career, the revelation came as a bit of a shock. In years past, his parents had featured prominently in stories about his wholesome upbringing, flanking their son in Arlington. But in January, The New York Times published an interview with his father, Ed, reiterating what Jordan had said. (Jordan and Ed did not respond to requests for interviews.) Afterward, Rodgers told The Times he didn't think it was appropriate to comment on the story. I ask him whether he still feels that way.
"Yeah, I do."
"Because a lot of people have family issues," he says. "I'm not the only one that does." He tells me he doesn't see any upside in discussing those issues in public. "It needs to be handled the right way."
It bears mentioning that Rodgers never pulled me aside to tell me off the record his side of the story (about this or any critique). His belief in the value of privacy is abiding. "I think there should be a separation between your public life and your personal life," he says. "I've just always felt like there should be a time when you don't have to be on."
And yet, in recent months, he's tried to open up a bit more. "I do have a desire to be myself and not have to feel like I've got to be so private," he says. "I think, because I live in a fishbowl, you either kind of internalize everything or you just relax and let life be." He mentions a couple of times that he recently joined Instagram. (Imagine: a famous person who was not on Instagram in 2017.) He's uncomfortable with all of it- -- the selfies, the location tagging, the performance of being Aaron Rodgers -- but he's doing it anyway because he's found that silence can be suffocating in its own way.
Rodgers moved to Green Bay when he was 21. Since then, he has voted in every major election: presidential, local, even the 2012 failed vote to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. When I tell him I was surprised by his level of civic participation, he shrugs it off. "I'm a proud Wisconsin resident, so I feel like it's a duty of mine to vote in the Wisconsin elections," he says.
Rodgers tells me that he doesn't identify with any political party but that he believes some issues shouldn't be partisan: climate change, human rights, civil liberties. I ask him if he's wary of possibly having to decide whether to visit the Donald Trump-helmed White House (this year, several Patriots made news when they skipped the NFL champions ceremony) and he grins. "No, because that means we're in the Super Bowl." He adds: "I don't shy away from those things. I think that you just have to think about what you say before you say it. But at the right time, you can say things that have a major impact."
Consider a comment he made two seasons ago, during a news conference after the Packers lost to the Lions. Before kickoff, the team held a moment of silence for the victims of a recent terrorist attack in Paris, and a fan shouted an anti-Islamic comment. When the game ended, Rodgers told reporters that he was disappointed, adding: "It's that kind of prejudicial ideology that puts us in the position we're in today, as a world."
Afterward, he received a letter from then-President Barack Obama, "which is something I still have and means a lot to me," he says. "A lot of times, you'll go back, and even with this interview, I'll go back and say, 'Maybe I should have said this.' But in that moment, I said exactly what I wanted to say."
Rodgers has said he envies the NBA's culture, which enables athletes to speak more freely about social issues. "The guys who are most vocal in the NBA are the best players," he says. When I point out that he obviously falls into that category for the NFL, he says he believes that he can say what he wants but that it has to feel "authentic." He mentions that he's interested in taking on a role in the players' union (he used to be a players' rep), leveraging his unique position to strengthen their cause.
I ask him why he thinks the NFL is more restrictive than the NBA, and he points to the structural differences between the sports: specifically, the absence of guaranteed contracts in football. "[In the NFL], if you're on the street, you're not getting paid unless you have some sort of bonus that goes into another year. So there's less incentive to keep a guy, which gives you less job security. Less job security means you've got to play the game within the game a little tighter to the vest," he says. "Part of it has a really great nature to it -- being a good teammate, being a professional -- the other part is not being a distraction. And I use 'distraction' as more of a league term."
We talk about his friend and former Cal teammate, recently retired Patriots and Chiefs lineman Ryan O'Callaghan, who came out as gay in June. In an interview on OutSports.com, O'Callaghan described how he feared coming out, even contemplating suicide for years. "I'm incredibly proud of him," Rodgers says. "I know he had a lot of fear about it, and how he would be accepted, and how people would change around him. I think society is finally moving in the right direction, as far as treating all people with respect and love and acceptance and appreciation. And the locker room, I think the sport is getting closer."
He adds that players like O'Callaghan worry about retribution not only from their teammates but also from executives, again pointing to the absence of guaranteed contracts. "There's a fear of job security," he says. "If you have a differing opinion, differing sexual orientation, they can get rid of you. So is it better just to be quiet and not ever say anything? And not risk getting cut, with people saying: 'Well, it's because you can't play'?"
I think he should be on a roster right now. I think because of his protests, he's not.- Rodgers on Colin Kaepernick
I bring up Colin Kaepernick. It's July, and the media are still speculating as to why Kaepernick isn't on an NFL roster after kneeling during the national anthem last season to protest racial inequity in policing. The word "blackballed" is being used with greater frequency, though some people in and around the NFL maintain that the quarterback simply isn't very good. I ask Rodgers what he thinks, and he demurs at first, then says it would be "ignorant" to suggest Kaepernick's stance didn't play a role in his employment status.
A few weeks later, he reaffirms his point. "I think he should be on a roster right now," he says. "I think because of his protests, he's not."
Rodgers tells me that while he doesn't plan on sitting out the anthem, he believes the protests -- which he describes as peaceful and respectful -- are positive, mentioning that he's had conversations with a new teammate, tight end Martellus Bennett, about the issues they represent. "I'm gonna stand because that's the way I feel about the flag -- but I'm also 100 percent supportive of my teammates or any fellow players who are choosing not to," he says. "They have a battle for racial equality. That's what they're trying to get a conversation started around."
I ask him what he thinks about that battle -- the actual subject of Kaepernick's protest. As always, he pauses to collect his thoughts. "I think the best way I can say this is: I don't understand what it's like to be in that situation. What it is to be pulled over, or profiled, or any number of issues that have happened, that Colin was referencing -- or any of my teammates have talked to me about." He adds that he believes it's an area the country needs to "remedy and improve" and one he's striving to better understand. "But I know it's a real thing my black teammates have to deal with."
When Rodgers explains how his worldview has evolved over the past six years, he says he has grown better at seeking out people with backgrounds different from his. He doesn't offer many examples, but Packers receiver Randall Cobb, one of Rodgers' best friends in Green Bay (he was recently a groomsman in Cobb's wedding), describes the quarterback as a "sponge" in all matters, including social issues. "As we've grown closer, I've been able to give him the perspective of a black man who grew up in the South and opened his eyes to the challenges in my life," Cobb says. He adds: "Football is one of the things we rarely talk about when we're outside the building."
After we've been chatting for a couple of hours, Rodgers stands up and walks across the room, stretching his legs and leaning on the mantel next to my television. I think about how, a few months ago, I was sitting on my sofa, watching him on the screen that's now inches from his head. Rodgers' persona on the field adheres closely to his manner off it: calm, to the point where he almost seems amused, but competitive as hell. There are legions of Michael Jordan-esque anecdotes about him gutting out hard-fought victories in everything from pickup basketball to cards. A.J. Hawk, his former teammate, tells me a story about being paired with Rodgers for a party game and watching the quarterback grow irritated with his lack of effort. "He was trying to scold me and tell me I wasn't engaged," Hawk says, laughing. "I was like, 'You're right -- this game sucks.'"
Rodgers doesn't dispute any of this. "I've always wanted to be the best and hated losing, I think, more than I enjoyed winning," he says. He does object, however, to the stories that paint him not just as competitive but also as incapable of letting slights fall to the wayside. "I'm not the grudge holder I'm accused of being," he says. "I don't have this stack of chips that I, you know, need to have on my shoulder all the time."
Unprompted, Rodgers mentions a 60 Minutes story from 2012 that focused on his responses to perceived slights, a piece he says left him frustrated and confused. "So then that narrative kind of gets out there a little bit," he says.
I point out that when he criticizes a show like 60 Minutes for making him look sensitive, it makes him look, well ...
"Yeah." He smiles. It's true, he admits, that he used to dwell on the indignities he faced in his youth -- that he kept the rejection letters from Division I colleges, called out analysts who misjudged him, needled his coach, Mike McCarthy, about passing on him in the draft (McCarthy was San Francisco's offensive coordinator in 2005). It's all true! And yet: "I just don't need it the same way I used to need it," he says. "That was what fueled me -- to wake up at 5 o'clock and work out before school and stay after and do extra sets and do extra throwing. The root of that was to be great ... to prove a point every single day. I don't need to prove a point every single day anymore."
Entering his 13th season, Rodgers must find new sources of motivation, catalysts that, more often than not, come from within. Take Run the Table. In November, the Packers were 4-6, and it seemed like they'd miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years. On a Wednesday, Rodgers looked at the standings and realized the team would probably have to win out in order to make it to the postseason. So he stood in front of a gaggle of reporters and, in a moment that has since been memorialized in countless montages, said: "I feel like we can run the table, I really do." And they did.
Rodgers says he wasn't anxious about his prediction. "I wanted that extra pressure on myself," he says. "If anybody had any nerves or stress or pressure or doubt, just, you know, put it on me. I'm going to play better. And then, in turn, if everybody else is less stressed and feels less pressure, they're probably going to play better too." Over the course of those six games, he threw 15 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. It was arguably the most impressive stretch of his career, and the Packers made it to the playoffs, where they lost, somewhat brutally, to the Falcons in the NFC championship game.
Since 2011, Rodgers has been selected for five Pro Bowls, but the Packers have yet to return to the Super Bowl. His sole championship appearance has become a flashpoint for debate: Can one of the most talented quarterbacks to ever play the game be truly great if he wins only one ring? I ask Rodgers whether that possibility scares him.
For once, he answers quickly: "No."
He adds: "I mean, it'd be disappointing. But no. I'd love to go back at least a few more times. But at some point, my career's going to be over, and I'm going to move on and do other things and be excited about that chapter in my life."
At the moment, that next chapter is a work in progress. While Rodgers has a number of business interests -- he says he'd prefer not to name them because he wants them to stand on their own -- he's also spent the past few years exploring fields that were foreign to him, picking the brains of experts like film producers, investors and CEOs. He loves -- like really, really loves -- documentaries. One of his other passions is health care. After watching a former coach battle cancer, he grew interested in his treatment and wants to explore new forms of therapy for the seriously ill, including better nutrition. As we discuss his various enthusiasms, it dawns on me that he hasn't brought up football, so I ask him whether he'll be done with sports when he retires. "Sports will always be a part of my life, but I don't have a desire to coach them or broadcast," he says.
Throughout our conversation, Rodgers mentions several times that he cherishes his work on the field. He has no plans to leave the game any time soon. But the time he's spent searching for meaning outside football has, paradoxically, made him cherish it more, he says. "Because I'm not obsessing over a ball."
Later that day, after our interview, I think about what Rodgers said about winning another Super Bowl and wonder whether he was telling the truth. It seems so unlikely that someone so fiercely competitive, so gifted, would tolerate anything less than a perfect ending -- one that would immediately vault him into the greatest-of-all-time conversation and silence any lingering debate. Then I think about his description of that long bus ride in Texas and what it must feel like when the world assumes you're preoccupied with one question while you're really wrestling with a different one.
In February, when New England and Atlanta met in Super Bowl LI, Rodgers watched the game in Los Angeles, at Rob Bell's house. He sat on the sofa next to the pastor's 8-year-old daughter, the family's dog curled up at his feet. The Bells had a guest visiting from Northern Ireland, a philosopher who knew nothing about American football. Rodgers tried to teach him how the sport worked. While the entire country was losing its collective mind over the game, the most talented quarterback in the world not playing football that night was "literally explaining downs," says Bell, who laughs as he remembers the scene. And in that moment, he says, his friend seemed truly happy.
It had been six years since Rodgers' trip to the Super Bowl, and Bell still remembers what his friend told him after he won: "'I've been to the bottom and been to the top, and peace will come from somewhere else.'"