For Aaron Rodgers, desire to extend career comes from football 'love affair'

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers has fallen in love again.

No, we're not talking about the once fiercely private Green Bay Packers quarterback's personal life, which remains fodder for entertainment magazines and gossip sites. This "love affair" -- his phrase -- is more of a rekindling of a passion that has been inside him since he was an eighth-grader playing for the Chico Jaguars in his native Northern California.

To be clear, the two-time NFL MVP never lost his zest for the game. Those who watched him up close during last season's run-the-table, eight-game win streak -- or have been on the receiving end of one of his stern admonishments after a mental mistake -- can tell you his intensity hasn't waned.

But as the Packers kick off training camp Thursday morning -- Rodgers' 13th in the NFL and 10th as the team's starting quarterback -- Rodgers does so with a greater appreciation for the journey that is about to begin anew.

"I think it's a change, a slight change that happened the last few years, where it really has become just a love affair," Rodgers said in an offseason interview on Wilde & Tausch on ESPN Wisconsin. "From [being] a game I always enjoyed playing and enjoyed competing and am hyper-competitive [in] to just really loving the process even more -- the practice, the preparation, just enjoying those moments even more."

The result? The guy who used to say he wouldn't be an NFL lifer, who didn't see himself playing football beyond 36 or 37 years old, now has designs on playing into his 40s. He'll turn 34 in December, and inspired by his friend Tom Brady, the seemingly ageless New England Patriots quarterback, Rodgers thinks himself capable of playing for another decade. Brady, who has led the Patriots to five Super Bowl titles, turns 40 next week.

"[That feeling] has kind of given me the idea that this is what I want to do. I love football, and I want to keep playing as long as possible," Rodgers said. "And when you have that kind of slight shift in your thinking, then you start going to, 'How can I do that?' And the way you can do that, in my opinion, is taking care of yourself at a hyper-sensitive level to all the areas that that entails -- the rehab area, the eating area, the workout/focus area. And all those combined have kind of given me the idea that I'd like to keep playing at a high level, as fun as it is right now."

You are what you eat

To that end, Rodgers intensified his offseason workouts and made some adjustments to his regimen, alterations he wouldn't specifically discuss but ones intended to increase his durability and longevity. (Although Rodgers missed seven games in 2013 with a broken collarbone, he has missed just one other game due to injury as a starter.)

He has also become borderline obsessive about his diet, and though he hasn't authored a cookbook or created his own home meal delivery service like Brady, he is religiously following Packers director of performance nutrition Adam Korzun's dietary advice -- beyond his attention-grabbing decision to give up dairy awhile back.

"Tom takes really, really good care of his body and has for a long time. He understands what it takes to get that longevity," said Rodgers, who reported to the offseason program in April in the best shape of his career. "I try to work out at least five times a week during the offseason, but really the key as you get older is your diet.

"I'm getting older, [so] you have to be smarter about what you're eating. So for me, there's a greater awareness about what you're eating and then how the things you're eating affect your energy and your ability to burn fat and just kind of your daily quality of life when it comes to your health."

That has meant giving up some of his favorites, including Girl Scout cookies.

"I love 'em. C'mon. Give me the red box, the green box ... the Samoas," Rodgers said with a laugh. "But [eating them was something] I could do when I was younger, when your metabolism is a little higher and you're able to bounce back quicker. But when you get older and you've started a lot of football games and taken a lot of hits, for me, I just feel better when I'm eating a more plant-based, natural diet -- stuff that's grown in the ground. I just feel healthier."

Mind over matter

For Rodgers, though, what he's eating is only part of the equation. The more important shift, he says, has been in his thinking, something his predecessor remembers struggling with as well.

"The biggest challenge to me -- and I hate to say 'drudgery' -- was just the everyday grind," Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, whose 16 seasons in Green Bay included three with Rodgers as his backup (2005 through 2007), recalled in an interview earlier this month. "It wasn't a physical grind. For [guys] who had to put on pads and had to bang every day, it would wear on you. For a quarterback, especially the starter -- and Aaron probably is going through this in his mind -- it's a [mental] grind.

"There's a certain level of competitiveness in you which makes you great, and Aaron obviously has that, that when you step out on the practice field every day, you want to be the best. There's just an enormous amount of pressure that you put upon yourself, an everyday routine that you have to go through, that becomes sometimes almost too much.

"There were times I was like, 'I just don't want to be Brett Favre today. I just want to be normal.' Having people tugging at you every day, 'You've got to do this at 3, you've got to do this at 11, you've got to do this,' and along with that, the pressure and expectations that you put upon yourself sometimes are almost unachievable. It starts to wear on you. But that goes with the territory if you play a long time and have enormous levels of just ... greatness. It's a good thing, but that, to me, is what wore on me more than anything."

Those who know Rodgers best say the attitude adjustment, which they began to notice a year or two ago, has been subtle, one that others at Lambeau Field perhaps haven't picked up on.

"His love for the game will never change, but I think at times when you become an established, elite player, you need to find different ways to motivate yourself," quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said.

One of Rodgers' favorite aspects of game weeks, Van Pelt said, has become the challenge of going through the opponent's blitzes and the Packers' corresponding checks, then talking to teammates about slight route adjustments.

"I think part of it is the pressure of practice is way less for me. As [a] young player, you put so much into those reps, especially because you don't get that many of them, and it's not quite as fun because every play is so important to you [proving yourself]," Rodgers said. "When that kind of goes away and you're an established player and you can start working on little things within plays, within segments of practice, everything becomes a lot more enjoyable. Because then it becomes a chess match out there -- not only with the defense that you're seeing, but with yourself."

Or, as Van Pelt put it: "For him, getting to Sunday is the bonus. I think he really, truly enjoys the process."

'Be an irreplaceable part'

In some ways, Rodgers' slightly altered outlook is a survival mechanism. Given the Packers' constant roster turnover, which leaves them among the NFL's youngest teams year-in and year-out, Rodgers could easily grow frustrated and distant. Instead, though crestfallen by several recent veteran free-agent departures (guard T.J. Lang, outside linebacker Julius Peppers, fullback John Kuhn), he has redoubled his efforts to connect with players who were in elementary school when he was a rookie.

"He's taken it to another level this year," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We're doing some new things from a teaching standpoint, as far as fundamentals, and he's right there [telling the young guys], 'Hey, this is how I did it, this is how it felt, this is why ...' Because, like anything in life, when you teach somebody something, if you can tell them what the mistakes are before they make them, that's a tremendous teaching tool. And he's been outstanding that way."

Rodgers' competitive fire, which is legendary inside the building, might also be a factor. Having had a front-row seat for the Packers' messy divorce from Favre during the summer of 2008, Rodgers has come to view it as a cautionary tale -- one he can avoid living himself by making sure he never gives the Packers a reason to move on from him.

"I think as you get older, and you see a lot of your friends move on, retire, get cut, get injured and stop playing, you have that point where you think about your own career and how long you can go," Rodgers said. "And for me, I got even more motivated to be an irreplaceable part of our team.

"In doing that, I also, I think, started to really have a greater awareness of my surroundings and enjoy the little things more -- the preparation, the meetings, the practice. And when you're loving those things, the game is really icing on the cake for you.

"I love to compete and love to play. So for me, it was a natural progression to enjoy it even more and to want to play it as long as I can at a high level."

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.