Editor’s note: Jason Wilde covers the Green Bay Packers for ESPN Wisconsin.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Laura Raske knew she was in trouble.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based marketing specialist had reached the finals of ABC’s “Big Fan,” a game show on which contestants compete against celebrities, answering trivia and biographical questions about the stars to see who knows more about them. Having bested two other Aaron Rodgers aficionados to reach the final round, Raske was set to go head-to-head with the Green Bay Packers quarterback in a lightning round of queries about the two-time NFL MVP.
“In the commercial break, he was like, ‘You are not going to beat me. I am going to win,’” Raske recalled of the episode, which was taped in late April but aired earlier this month. At one point, Rodgers even gave her the throat-slash gesture off camera, a move that would cost him 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons. “I’m super competitive, too, so I told him I was smarter than him. He just smiled and said, ‘Famous last words.’”
In that moment, Raske learned what teammates and opponents have known about Rodgers for years: In the ultra-competitive world of the NFL, Rodgers’ competitive streak is next-level intense.
“It’s unwavering. It doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter what it is. It never takes a break, it never changes,” said New Orleans Saints fullback John Kuhn, Rodgers’ teammate in Green Bay for nine seasons before leaving as a free agent last summer. “I consider myself one of his better friends, but when we compete and do things -- cards, golf, anything -- it’s always the same. If it’s something that he’s better than me at, he won’t give me a break. And if it’s something I’m better than him at, there’s this burning desire to improve until he’s better than me at that, too.
“I’m down here in New Orleans with Drew Brees, and Drew is very, very, very competitive. But there is a drive within Aaron that stems from somewhere deeper.”
And it extends far beyond the football field, to just about every aspect of his life.
“When I think of Aaron, I think of a competitor. If I’m a captain, and we’re picking teams, I’m picking him because I know I’m going to get his best shot. Even if it’s an it-doesn’t-really-matter thing,” said Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari, who works out with Rodgers in Southern California during the offseason. “Anything he wants to do, he wants to be the best at. You can just see it in his eyes. Which is fun. But it’s even the littlest things. You’re like, ‘Really, dude? Are you serious?’ But he wants to win. At anything.
“I feel like, if I grew up with him, and we were sitting at recess on a bench, and I spit, he’d spit and want to make sure it went farther than mine. That’s how he is. He wants to be better at everything. Which is awesome.”
Asked which qualities are his most defining traits -- as a player and as a person -- Rodgers said Thursday that his competitive personality ranks second only to his intellect. He said it traces to his childhood and the athletes he most admired as a kid: Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve been very competitive. Part of the problem -- it’s not a ‘problem,’ really -- is, all my favorite players were the best players in their sports,” Rodgers explained. “So I set the bar pretty high.
“I’m driven to be the best at whatever I do. When you combine that with the mental part, it’s frustrating to me to be bad at something. So you find way to figure it out. I might struggle at it at first, but I’m going to figure it out. And be competitive in figuring it out.”
‘All day, every day’
That competitiveness has the Packers one victory away from Super Bowl LI, thanks to an eight-game winning streak that took them from 4-6 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Rodgers’ first year as the starter, to their third NFC Championship Game berth in seven years. Rodgers was credited during the turnaround with instilling confidence in his teammates with his Nov. 23 “run the table” remark and his virtuoso quarterbacking, but those who know him best warn not to underestimate how much his will to win has been a factor.
“His competitive nature, it’s hard to match that. I think all of us in this building have that fire and that competition in us, but he definitely leads that charge,” said kicker Mason Crosby, whose 51-yard field goal as time expired last week in Dallas gave Rodgers back-to-back playoff wins for the first time since the 2010 team’s Super Bowl XLV title run and a career 10-6 postseason record as a starter. “Especially through this season, the ups and downs we’ve had, his competitive fire has been a confidence-builder for a lot of guys in here.”
Coach Mike McCarthy, meanwhile, calls Rodgers “clearly the most competitive player in our building. That’s the way he’s wired. It’s in the meeting rooms, it’s in the cafeteria, it’s all day, every day.”
For instance, as a safeguard to prevent players from engaging in spontaneous pick-up basketball games in the Lambeau Field gymnasium, McCarthy had the hoops raised several weeks ago from the standard 10-foot height to what multiple players said must be 20 feet off the ground. Next thing they knew, Rodgers had organized a regular game of H-O-R-S-E with a handful of teammates, with all of them taking shots at the elevated baskets. Bakhtiari won the most recent round, but Rodgers had won multiple games before that.
“He’s playing to win. He’s not playing around,” rookie No. 3 quarterback Joe Callahan said. “We’re competing with every shot. It’s not just a fun little game.”
Callahan said he’s also seen Rodgers’ cutthroat ways in closest-to-the-pin battles on the golf simulator in the players’ lounge. Wide receiver and longtime friend Jordy Nelson recalls Rodgers getting fired up about water-balloon fights at the St. Norbert College dormitories during training camp. Backup quarterback Brett Hundley recently lost a hard-fought ping-pong battle at Rodgers’ house in suburban Green Bay. (“He got lucky,” Hundley insisted.) Wide receiver Randall Cobb, another of Rodgers’ close friends, has taken on Rodgers in basketball on the regulation-height hoop in his driveway. Rodgers has so frustrated long-snapper Brett Goode in games of Words with Friends that Goode recently quit playing against him -- or so Rodgers claims.
Perhaps the most memorable non-football competition came during the summer of 2012, just before training camp during a birthday party/barbecue at Nelson’s home, where Rodgers, Nelson, Crosby, then-backup quarterback Graham Harrell, athletic trainer Nate Weir and several others played an impromptu Wiffle Ball game in Nelson’s backyard.
A few weeks earlier, playing in an annual charity softball game, Rodgers had called his shot before hitting a home run in his first at-bat, leading the offense to a victory over the defense that avenged a defeat the previous year. (“We’d lost the year before, and I wasn’t too happy about it,” Rodgers recalled. “So we called it up before the game, and I said, ‘Hey, it’s for charity, but let’s make sure we win this thing.’”) In the Wiffle Ball game, Rodgers decided there had to be an imaginary outfield wall, where balls hit beyond the line of demarcation would be ruled home runs.
At the plate, Rodgers unilaterally decided that balls hit beyond the fire pit and a cluster of lawn chairs would be a home run. While Rodgers insists he made the rule before hitting the ball, Nelson is certain Rodgers changed the rule only after hitting a ball that carried across the line and was caught by a defender.
“For a Wiffle Ball game, there were a lot of competitive juices flowing that day,” Crosby recounted. “I’m pretty sure I remember guys sliding into bases; it was full go. I can’t claim that he did that, but I will say that there was competitiveness going on.”
Said Rodgers: “Those guys are such cheaters. Such cheaters.”
Although Cobb acknowledged that Rodgers’ intensity could rub folks the wrong way -- “I’m sure there are some people who don’t like him because of that, but there’s a lot of people who love him because of that,” Cobb said -- Kuhn said those who don’t understand Rodgers’ must-win approach must not have seen him on the practice field early in his career, before he succeeded Brett Favre and started building his own Pro Football Hall of Fame-caliber resume.
There, Rodgers would run the scout-team offense as his coaches told him to -- at least, most of the time. If a card of an upcoming opponent’s play called for him to throw to a certain receiver, and that pass was subsequently intercepted by a defender who knew the play-call, Rodgers would stew.
“He would get so pissed,” said Kuhn, who pointed out that Rodgers’ famous championship belt/Discount Double-Check celebration came from one of the goofy ways Rodgers and other scout-teamers used to celebrate touchdowns they’d score against the starting defense. “It just drove him mad that he wasn’t allowed to go out there and just do what he wanted to do. If he had done that, he would have picked the defense apart. That throttle that they put on him on that show team, it just drove him.”
A few years ago, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett invented a way to test his players’ knowledge of the weekly offensive game plan while also stoking the competitive fires in the room. Each Friday, Bennett administers a 10-question quiz that contains five random questions (Packers history, NFL trivia and "guess this teammate" have all been categories) and five questions about that week’s game plan. Ties are then broken with oral questions, delivered in front of the entire group to the youngest player at each position.
Last week, Callahan nailed the sudden-death question about which two NFL teams were 0-4 in Super Bowls (answer: Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings) to give the quarterbacks first place. A win on Friday would lock up the season title, giving the quarterbacks a two-game lead with only a potential Super Bowl game plan still in play.
“The competitiveness has gotten a little out of hand,” Callahan confessed.
Kuhn, meanwhile, said Rodgers used to compete with him for the title of which player knew the offense the best. And the one sure way to annoy Rodgers was to assert that Kuhn had a better grasp of it.
“Let’s not get crazy here. When it comes to the offense in Green Bay, it’s his offense. He knows it, he creates it. He doesn’t just know the offense the best, he creates parts of that offense himself,” Kuhn said. “I was probably the one guy people could compare that he couldn’t complete dismiss, and so I know it ate him a little.”
Which brings us back to Raske, Rodgers’ official “biggest fan” who knew the quarterback’s SAT score (1310) but not her own.
After she beat Rodgers to the punch on the first few questions of the final round, Rodgers accused her of cheating. Whether he was trying to get into her head or was merely being a stickler for the rules, Raske isn’t sure. But it worked, as Rodgers told Raske her hand couldn’t be hovering over the buzzer but instead had to be on the podium, like contestants on “Family Feud” must do.
After that, Rodgers got four of the next five answers to win, 6-4, while Raske wondered if her buzzer was broken.
“I should have been more prepared for that,” Raske said. “He literally showed no mercy. He was super nice to all of us [contestants] -- it’s not like he was mean about it -- but he was not going to let me win. And he didn’t.”