GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers has not turned into get-off-my-lawn guy, grumbling about “kids these days.” He is not morphing into a grumpy old man who can’t understand the millennials he shares a locker room with or bemoans all of this newfangled technology they’re using. He’s not using America Online dial-up for his internet access -- the AOL email address he’d had since high school is finally disconnected -- or carrying around a flip phone.
But, as the Green Bay Packers' face of the franchise, he has noticed a sea change in locker room interaction brought on by smartphones and the age of constant connection. And that means being more proactive about getting to know his younger teammates.
“It’s just a different type of interaction,” Rodgers said during an appearance on ESPN Wisconsin’s Wilde & Tausch recently. “You have to be a little more intentional about starting conversations with guys and getting to know them.”
Rodgers, who at 32 is entering his 12th NFL season and ninth as the Packers’ starting quarterback, recalled learning how to play dominoes from rookie wide receiver Walt Williams during his first NFL training camp in 2005, and how he and his camp roommate, wide receiver Terrence Murphy, got to be close friends through nighttime conversations before lights out.
Now, whether it’s playing Pokemon GO -- yes, there are more than a few Packers players who are searching for Pikachu, Rattata and Magikarp around Lambeau Field -- or Snapchatting with friends, face time often takes a back seat to FaceTime.
“When there were breaks, we played cards or dominoes -- or chess one year. You were always doing something interacting with your teammates,” Rodgers said. “Now, there’s a break and everybody’s sitting in their locker looking at their phones.”
This change is not unique to NFL locker rooms. Walk around any college campus and if you’re an alumnus who is used to eye contact and saying hello to passers-by, you’re in for a shock. It’s also not just a young-player issue -- veterans like Rodgers are far from immune -- but given the draft-and-develop Packers’ constant youth movements, it can seem more pronounced.
“I definitely notice it. I guess it’s just the world we live in now,” said veteran guard T.J. Lang, who’s entering his eighth season. “Everything’s technology and everybody’s kind of rushing to their phones. I’m not going to act like I don’t do it, because when you sit in a meeting for three hours, you want to get out and respond to a couple texts, check what’s going on in the news. So I’m guilty of it, too.
“We don’t sit in here [in the locker room] as much anymore and play backgammon or cribbage like we used to.”
In an effort to promote more interaction and improve team chemistry, the Packers, as part of a larger renovation, redesigned their players’ lounge last year. A short walk from the locker room, players have video games, pingpong, billiards and other activities, along with overstuffed recliners and traditional table seating for game-playing.
Still, even with those amenities, connecting in a meaningful way can be a challenge.
“You try to break down those walls, but it’s a hard thing to do,” said veteran kicker Mason Crosby, who’s starting his 10th season. “A lot of these guys are single. They go home, they’re just on their phones all the time. You get so used to that.
“I’m definitely on mine too much, too. I know that. And I have to watch myself with my kids. You’ll get home and you’ll be in a group text or something with funny stuff going back and forth and all of a sudden your kid is tackling you or hitting you because he’s like, ‘Pay attention to me!’ And you think, 'Gosh, what am I doing?’ It’s something we need to be conscious of and guard against and not just be everybody head-down. We’ve got to continue to connect and grow as a team.”
To that end, Rodgers and other veteran players try to be more cognizant of their roles as initiators. While the team was in the dorms at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Rodgers pulled his annual training-camp prank of letting live crickets loose. In the team cafeteria, he tries to eat with different teammates as often as possible. And on charter flights for road games, he looks for other opportunities for conversation, whether it’s while boarding, flying or deplaning.
“They’ve all got a story,” Rodgers explained. “So whether it’s at lunch -- instead of eating with the same guys you ate with for the last eight or nine years -- you maybe go sit at the rookie table and listen to the conversation or talk to them about what’s going on or how camp is going or where they’re from or whatever. And then you slowly hit a couple of guys a day, and the next thing you know, you’ve got some sort of a start to a relationship with some of these guys and know them on a more personal level -- where they’re from, what they like to do, what kind of music they like or what’s important to them.
“You have to break down the initial barriers of them looking at you like you are the older guy and this person they watched on TV and let them get to know you a little bit and they start to open up slowly from there.”
For example, two lockers down from Rodgers is Blake Martinez, a rookie inside linebacker from Stanford. Rodgers, who played at California, used the Cal-Stanford rivalry as an initial entrée into further getting-to-know-you conversations.
“He messes with me all the time. It’s constant. It started out Cal-Stanford. I was like, ‘C’mon, we can’t keep this Cal-Stanford thing going too much longer.’ But we’re still joking back and forth,” Martinez said. “He’s helped me out a lot. He’s gone against a lot of great linebackers. So just asking him little tips here and there on, ‘OK, what did [ex-Chicago linebacker Brian] Urlacher do against you to confuse you?’ And he’s given me tips here and there to help me improve my game even more.”
On a personal level, there is an element of self-preservation for Rodgers. As the team’s longest-tenured player -- 36-year-old outside linebacker Julius Peppers, while older, is in only his third season in Green Bay -- many of his closest friends have moved on, be it to other teams or into their post-football lives. At the same time, he must also overcome young players’ preconceived notions about him.
That’s the one situation where Rodgers finds himself adjusting the most. To him, his time as a young, so-much-to-prove player trying to live up to being a first-round draft pick and Brett Favre’s successor doesn’t really feel like it was that long ago. But just as he arrived in Green Bay slightly wide-eyed upon becoming Favre’s teammate, he sees that same reaction now from young players who grew up fans of his.
“It’s funny to hear that, because it’s weird to go from being the 21-year-old rookie [in 2005] to now you’re the second-oldest guy on the team,” Rodgers said. “But you have to approach them. You have to kind of initiate those conversations because they are nervous to talk to you sometimes. But, they want to listen. They respect your opinion. And I think [offensive players] know they need to get on the same page with me to make me feel like I can trust them and see them out there.
“I say it a lot: It’s about the relationships, the chemistry. Knowing you can count on the guy next to you, knowing that guy is doing his job and is ready to play. And that when the going gets tough and adversity hits, that that guy is going to fall back on fundamentals and his preparation and he’s going to the right play at the right time. You spend every day with these guys and you care about them and you want to do this together. Because doing things together is bigger than doing things for yourself. And that’s when you’ve got a great team.”