GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The defeat is several days old, but the frustration and disappointment are lingering.
Usually, Aaron Rodgers is much better at letting go and moving on than this. Perhaps it's because he's so unaccustomed to this feeling -- the team is in the middle of losing four of five, something that hasn't happened to him since his first year as the starter. Whatever the reason, the Green Bay Packers quarterback is clearly downtrodden on this early December afternoon as he saunters toward the alcove that connects the team's locker room to the players' parking lot. Then he hears that familiar voice -- and familiar catchphrase -- and pivots.
"Hey, Buuuuuud!" Andy Gruber says cheerfully, steering his laundry cart into Rodgers' path.
From across the room, you can clearly see Rodgers' expression transform -- at least until he and Andy go into WWE wannabe mode, exchange John Cena's patented "You can't see me" wave in front of each of their faces, obscuring Rodgers' wide grin. The two share a fist bump and go their separate ways -- Rodgers out the door, Andy to the next towel-filled bin.
"Andy is the one guy at the facility who can always make me smile," Rodgers later explains. "He's the kind of guy that even after a rough loss, you come in here on Wednesday -- because he doesn't usually work on Monday or Tuesday -- and he's always smiling and saying, ‘Don't worry, we're going to get the next one.'
"I love Andy for who he is. He talks a little slower sometimes, but other than that, it's not something that you really think about, to be honest with you."
It is Andy's cognitive disability -- 18q deletion syndrome, a rare congenital chromosomal disorder in which a piece of chromosome 18 is missing. It occurs in an estimated 1 in 40,000 newborns and can cause a wide variety of developmental and intellectual issues, including hearing and vision problems, anatomical abnormalities and autistic behaviors that affect communication and social interaction.
Although Andy battles many of those challenges -- he endured 13 major childhood surgeries, including one to have his digestive tract rerouted, another to reconstruct both of his feet and four surgeries on his ears to improve his hearing -- social interaction is clearly not a problem. There might not be a more beloved employee at 1265 Lombardi Avenue than the 37-year-old laundry authority who has been part of the historic franchise for more than two decades.
It all began with new cabinets. In early 1994, Packers general manager Ron Wolf decided the team's locker room and equipment room required renovation, and he put the team's new equipment manager, Gordon "Red" Batty, in charge of the project. The carpenter who won the bid was Larry Gruber, Andy's father.
"So at the end of the process, out of courtesy for the great work he did over the three-month period, we offered him a couple T-shirts and hats," Batty recalls. "And he says, 'I appreciate that, but … '"
But Andy's dad had other ideas, asking instead if his soon-to-be 16-year-old son could spend a week working with the equipment staff. Batty and his right-hand man, Tom "T-Bone" Bakken, agreed to meet Andy a few days later.
"We sit down with him, and he's just glowing. Afterward, I said, ‘What do you think, Tom?' And he agreed. 'Let's see how it goes,'" Batty continues. "Basically, it was just picking up laundry.
"It was supposed to be for training camp. Just training camp. And he's still here today."
Andy was an instant hit with some of the team's biggest-name players and became especially close with Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, who playfully wrestled with him in the training room, and quarterback Brett Favre, who, along with usually gruff veteran center Frank Winters, ceremonially presented Andy with his first Packers paycheck.
During Andy's first few seasons on staff, Favre made sure Andy was comfortable in the locker room.
"When training camp would start, they'd get these kids in, 22, 23 years old. And like the rest of the world, some people are really nice, and some aren't," Andy's mom, Jackie, explains. "And those first couple years, Brett would introduce Andy. ‘This is my friend Andy. And if anybody messes with him, they're messing with me.'"
For Favre, his connection with Andy came naturally. Not only was Favre's mother, Bonita, a special education teacher while he was growing up, but Favre holds a teaching degree from Southern Mississippi with an emphasis in special education.
But that's not why the two hit it off. Instead, it was the way Andy interacted with Favre -- not as a three-time NFL MVP but as one of the guys.
"Andy treated us no different than our brother would treat us. You're just Aaron; you're just Brett," Favre remembers. "In my experience, it gets old, everyone telling you what you want to hear, not being real. And you didn't get that with Andy. You got the same old Andy. I've always just kind of wanted to be a regular guy, and Andy, that's how he treats you."
Including one summer at the end of training camp, when staffers were allowed to get their pictures taken with players.
"So Andy's a few seasons in, and he comes in with his camera, and he goes up to Brett and says, ‘I want some pictures,'" Jackie recalls. "So Brett gets up [to pose with him], and instead, Andy hands him the camera. ‘I've got some of you from last year.' And he has Brett take the pictures. Brett and the other [players], they roared. They laughed so hard. I still tell people when they look at those pictures, ‘Brett Favre isn't in any of them because he took them for Andy.' That's Andy."
Ask Andy what the best part of his job is, and he doesn't hesitate. He doesn't need to close his eyes and concentrate on his reply, as he sometimes must with more difficult questions. No, this comes easy: "I just love all the friendships I have with everybody," he says. "I always am a happy person. I'm always trying to have a smile on my face, and if I see some of the guys are a little bit down, I just try to make them laugh a little bit."
Batty, who started his career working in the CFL before joining the Houston Oilers in 1981, saw hiring Andy as an opportunity to pay it forward after he worked at fellow Canadian Wayne Gretzky's hockey fantasy camp each offseason in Las Vegas, where he met Joey Moss. While playing for the Edmonton Oilers in 1984, Gretzky befriended Moss, and helped him get a job as a dressing room attendant for the team -- a job he still holds today.
Batty downplays his impact on Andy's life, but Jackie knows better. She has watched Batty not only befriend and mentor her son, but gradually expand his responsibilities and thereby grow his confidence and self-worth.
"This does not happen successfully for 20 years without Red. A lot of people like Andy, but they don't get him. Red gets him," Jackie explains. "He doesn't ever want to give Andy a job he isn't going to be successful at, but he also doesn't want him to spend his entire life folding towels.
"Having a child like Andy and knowing that he needs to be taken care of, in a sense, 24/7, I totally trust Red. I joke that I have a reputation for being overprotective, but you haven't seen anything, because Red is more overprotective than I am as far as Andy's concerned. I can send my son to that place and know he is safe and protected and loved. For a mom in my position, what more could I ask for?"
Born six weeks premature, Andy's health problems were clear to his parents and his doctors almost immediately, but discerning the root of the issues proved frustratingly elusive.
"He has all kinds of things wrong, but we didn't know what was causing it until he was almost 7 years old," Jackie explains. "We fought for his life many times."
During the darkest times, doctors weren't optimistic -- which Andy hasn't forgotten.
"Some of the doctors told my parents, ‘He won't be able to walk. He won't be able to run. He won't be able to do anything,'" he says, closing his eyes as he concentrates on firmly making his point. He then pauses -- intentionally -- and smiles. Quoting Toby Keith, the country-music star Favre introduced him to a decade ago, he adds: "But I would just like to say something to those doctors now: I'm still alive, and as my favorite country guy would say, ‘How do you like me now?'"
After Andy spent years crisscrossing the state to undergo various medical procedures, his physical issues were manageable by the third grade.
"Then we had to start facing the cognitive issues, and that probably for my husband and I was the hardest," Jackie says. "We knew he was behind; we knew he wasn't doing the things other kids were able to do, but you always had something to blame it on. ‘He's missed so much school.' ‘He's been in the hospital so much.' Once he got better physically, it was time to deal with those.
"I think you almost go through a grieving period when your plan for your child isn't what's going to be your reality. Then you get through that and say, ‘This is it.' You want him to have as full a life as you can.
"I don't know what kind of person I'd be if I wasn't his mom, but I know I'm a better person because of being his mom."
Jackie, who works with middle-schoolers in the Green Bay School District, says Andy operates at a 10- to 12-year-old's level -- which, she jokes, probably is what makes him uniquely qualified to work in a locker room filled with overgrown kids.
Andy has gotten them all at some point. Punter Tim Masthay has been ambushed a few times with Wet Willies. When long-snapper Brett Goode signed with the team, Andy was one of the first people to greet him upon entering the locker room, and Goode was left grasping thin air after Andy's signature handshake-pullback maneuver. Backup safety Chris Banjo gets the same smile-inducing warning from him -- "I got my eye on you, I know you've been misbehavin'" -- every time the two cross paths. And Rodgers? Andy's favorite line lately has been in reference to Rodgers' movie-star girlfriend, Olivia Munn. "‘Hey, tell your girlfriend to stop calling me!' he says," Rodgers recounts, chuckling.
"You're kind of on guard almost -- and I mean that in a good way," backup quarterback Scott Tolzien says. "Because you know he's going to say something to you or do something to you, so you'd better be ready.
"He's always happy, always pranking you. So you could come out of a bad meeting where the coaches just ripped you, and then you come out here and he's always the same. And you appreciate that. A lot. You've seen him when he walks through here -- everyone kind of perks up when he comes by. He brings that element to the team that nobody else does."
Although Andy has friends up and down the roster, the players whose lockers are closest to the entryway from the equipment room -- Tolzien, Rodgers, Goode, Masthay, kicker Mason Crosby and linebacker Clay Matthews -- form "Gruber Alley" and are closest to him in more than just proximity.
And it's Rodgers who shares the tightest bond with Andy. He sends Rodgers a good-luck text message before each game, and the two have engaged in "wagers" that have entailed a variety of dares, including Andy sporting a mustache or growing out his normally close-cropped hair before the quarterback-turned-barber shaved it following the team's Super Bowl XLV victory. Each has come with a cash reward, although Jackie believes the ulterior motive is obvious: "I think Aaron just likes to spoil him."
If the Packers are Andy's second family, then Batty is his second father, Favre is his fun-loving uncle and Rodgers is his mischievous brother, "because we tease on each other a lot," Andy says. "And, we talk about a lot of stuff. We talk about life."
Four years ago, Rodgers gave Andy an important job: Work his way around the locker room with a nameless No. 33 jersey and get it signed by every player on the roster. Each day, Rodgers would harp on him about getting each signature, repeatedly emphasizing that it was a gift for someone very close to him. After Andy had collected all the autographs and delivered the jersey to Rodgers, he handed it off to Batty, who delivered it to the team's head seamstress, Marge Switzer. She then sewed a nameplate onto the back, and Batty wrapped Rodgers' gift for him.
"A day later, we bring Andy back in, he opens it up, it's the jersey he'd gotten signed," Batty says, smiling. The No. 33 had been to commemorate Andy's 33rd birthday. "He loved it. He has it framed on his wall at home."
The Packers' locker room hasn't been the happiest place this season, not with the team going 4-6 in its final 10 games and stumbling into the NFC playoffs with back-to-back losses. But once again this week, as the Packers prepped for Sunday's NFC wild-card game at Washington, there was Andy, picking up towels and delivering smiles.
"When the opportunity came for him to work here, it was probably looked on as an opportunity for Andy to be part of the Packers and [people said], ‘What a great opportunity for him,'" says Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, who occasionally finds a good-luck note surreptitiously scrawled by Andy on the dry-erase board in his office after his Nike pullovers and sweatpants have been picked up. "But when you take a step back and look at it, we're the ones who've benefited from the opportunity. Because it's just great to be part of his life."