Above it all

This story appears in the July 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Here's what you see: The cool. The ball cap pulled low, the Cal T-shirt tucked into his jeans just perfectly so, as Aaron Rodgers orders Cobb salad -- no bacon, no blue cheese -- in the Berkeley restaurant he chose precisely because he couldn't afford it as a college student. The Nic Cage voice, the real-guy attitude, the movie-star smile, the way he treats everyone, even the starstruck waiter, with an engaged detachment that shows he's in on the gig. You see the perspective. The way he can talk about football -- or, as the pundits of profundity have renamed it, the Game of Football -- as something important but not important, a kids' game played by men who are paid like kings.

Here's what you don't see: the scars of disappointment. He's the kid nobody recruited out of high school. The kid who turned down such powerhouses as Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and Occidental (Occidental, which wanted him to sit out a year, for god's sake) to play in junior college. The kid who couldn't understand why nobody recruited him out of Butte College, in the bustling metropolis of Oroville, Calif., until Cal coach Jeff Tedford made a trip to see a tight end, and the quarterback caught his eye. Rodgers is the guy who wasn't chosen until the 24th pick of the first round, after some projected him to be No. 1, the guy who turned himself into Scout Team Hero while he waited three years for his turn in Green Bay behind You Know Who. And yet he seems to hold no grudges about any of it.

You know what Rodgers will tell you is an underrated virtue? The ability to tolerate disappointment. We've tried to eliminate disappointment, run it off like a deadly virus. The world's most potent economy collapsed when too many people decided they couldn't bear to be disappointed. They bought houses they couldn't afford and cars they didn't need. They believed that a parent's most appalling failure is a disappointed child. Oh, no, we can't disappoint the children. Lord forbid we allow our kids to be deprived. The dirtiest word in the English language: no.

Rodgers heard no. Several times. He heard it in its various forms: the silence of the uninterested college coaches, the politeness of those who bothered to respond, the carotid-popping vehemence of Packers fans who vented their spleen because of his arrival as the post-Brett Favre QB of choice. Rodgers is a connoisseur of disappointment. He laughs off the myth of the athlete's protective shield by saying, "We hear everything; we just pretend that we don't." Oh, he heard no. Lima Charlie, as they say -- loud and clear. He just chose to ignore its message and live in its echo.

Rodgers keeps a letter written during his senior year in high school by a member of the Purdue coaching staff. He highlighted a sentence that reads, "Good luck with your attempt at a college football career." Rodgers laughs now. This is a 26-year-old man, the face of a billion-dollar operation, who is remarkably comfortable in his own skin. He is a Pro Bowl quarterback with a TMZ presence and an offensive lineman's disposition.

"I see so many silver-spoon guys, and I don't think the mental toughness is always there," he says. "I've dealt with adversity. I've dealt with disappointment. I've dealt with not being picked and not being one of the guys. When I see adversity now, I look forward to it. When I see opportunity, I make the most of it."

In an oft-told tale from his youth, Rodgers once sat through an interview for a private Christian school in his hometown of Chico, about 90 miles north of Sacramento, and was asked one of those questions adults conjure as a means of torturing kids: "What can you bring to the school?" Young Aaron fidgeted for a few seconds before answering, "I'll make your sports teams better."

Damn it was weird. Rodgers walked the complex expecting to come face-to-face with Favre. It never happened. Three days passed. They didn't talk once.

It's that view of the world, especially the football world, that gives Rodgers more than his share of charisma. He assesses things with a slightly amused look, sort of like a dog tilting its head to watch its owner issue instructions. "The last thing I want people to think is that I don't take football seriously," he says. "I'm superultracompetitive. But at the same time, my life is not on the line. My playing reputation is on the line, but nothing tangible. When I tell people I'm not nervous before games, does that mean I don't take it seriously? No, it means I'm not nervous because I'm confident, and I prepared my butt off all week."

Rodgers has followed several self-imposed rules of NFL engagement: 1) behave yourself, play the game, be on time, keep your mouth shut and be a good teammate, because "your reputation in this league is important; everybody talks," he says; and 2) put in the time during the season and the off-season. "You get to this point by working your butt off, then you just decide to breeze? I don't get that."

When he arrived in Green Bay, in 2005, the rookie set out to define his sphere of influence. As a first-round pick, Rodgers was perceived by Favre to be a threat. They never had a close relationship; the legend simply wasn't interested in the mentor-pupil stuff everybody so desperately wants to believe happens when an aging star encounters his possible replacement. Rodgers knew he wouldn't start, and after a few weeks of uncharacteristic wallowing, he rechanneled the disappointment for his benefit. Playing on the scout team, he ran plays with unequaled vigor, throwing himself into the task of being someone else's quarterback so thoroughly that his coaches at times had to tell him to ease up and let the defense feel good about itself. "Aaron would pull us off to the side and give us a talk," says former Packers receiver Ruvell Martin, who now plays in Seattle. "It was like every day was Aaron's Super Bowl."

Rodgers drew on lessons learned in a coaching class back at Butte by identifying personalities and understanding which teammates needed a boost and which ones needed something more vigorous. Wait -- he paid attention in class? Rodgers laughs. He even remembers the teacher, Russ Critchfield. "I don't know how many junior college guys there are in the league," says the QB, "so I had to learn." The Packers noticed. As receiver Greg Jennings puts it, "There was a purpose to everything he was doing. You knew he wasn't settling for being the best scout-team quarterback of all-time."

In fact, the young gun had a plan, and when Favre retired after the 2007 season -- remember that? -- Rodgers identified his new sphere as being the whole team. He started inviting his teammates and their families to his Green Bay house, where a chef cooked meals and the players partook in what Rodgers calls Dude Time. Wives and girlfriends gradually huddled up on their own as the Packers sat around and strummed guitars (Rodgers is an accomplished player), shot pool and talked football. "I wanted them to know, This is me, we're all in this together, I'm one of you, and this is how I'm going to lead," he says.

It worked. As guard Daryn Colledge says, "When you've got something invested in the guy, it's easier to suck it up and make those two or three extra plays late in the game."

And what did Rodgers do when Favre's unretirement became the world's biggest story? He talked to his parents, who advised him, "Just be yourself." He also chatted with Steve Young, who endured a similarly bizarre experience replacing Joe Montana in San Francisco, and who told Rodgers he couldn't win by picking a fight. So Rodgers went about his business as if the whole surreal episode were happening to someone else, remaining deferential toward Favre and issuing few opinions.

But it was weird. Damn, it was weird. For three days in August, Favre wandered the halls of the Packers' complex while trade rumors swirled and cameras rolled. Rodgers finished a practice the first evening Favre was around and found a text from a friend: Sorry about practice. He didn't understand. He found out later that an online columnist had written that the QB had endured his worst practice as a Packer, citing his completion percentage. It was proof, somehow, that he was cracking with Favre in the building. Rodgers laughed at first, thinking he had had a good night, but he watched tape of it just to be sure. His suspicions were confirmed: He'd done fine. Besides, it was practice.

Rodgers could write a book about those three days, but nobody would believe it. He walked the complex, expecting to turn a corner and come face-to-face with Favre. He wondered what the moment would bring. It never happened. They didn't talk once, not even when Favre was traded. In fact, the next time the two spoke came more than 14 months later, when they exchanged perfunctory pleasantries following Minnesota's Week 4 win over Green Bay last season.

Despite all the strangeness, Rodgers wouldn't change anything about those years playing under the future Hall of Famer. He says it emphatically and repeatedly. After all, studying and working out and hyping the scout team reduced the physical toll on his body and eliminated the learning curve experienced by most QBs who are handed the keys on draft day. Not coincidentally, Rodgers is the only player in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in his first two seasons as a starter. He is both accurate (his career completion percentage is nearly 64%, not counting practice) and athletic (316 rushing yards in 2009).

And -- this is where fantasy owners salivate -- he'd like to think he's just getting started. His confidence is quiet but fierce, and his body is stronger but lighter because he's eating better (no bacon, no blue cheese), and he has spent part of his off- season working out with Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson near their San Diego homes. Clearly, Rodgers is no longer on the outside, but when did he know he had made it? When did he realize no had finally become one long yes? Well, there was the standing ovation he got at Lambeau Field after a 6-10 season in 2008. There were also the many comments he got from Packers fans, most of them beginning, "I didn't want to like you, but now I'm a huge fan because of how you handled yourself."

That's what sticks with him: because of how you handled yourself. It's one thing to be a good player, but it's another to be described as a good player with character. "My character will last longer than my football career," Rodgers says.

But for true, honest-to-goodness breakthrough celebrity moments, two stand out. The first was when teammates text-teased him about appearing on tmz.com, linked to country singer Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum. ("Rumors," Rodgers says.) The second was when he walked through a high- rollers room at Harrah's casino last July during the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship at Lake Tahoe and heard someone calling his name from one of the tables. "Hey, Aaron, is this your first time here?" Michael Jordan asked. "No," Rodgers answered. "Actually, it's my fifth." The QB wasn't insulted: "That was one of my highlights. Michael Jordan made a point to talk to me."

Here's what you see: Rodgers taking the snap and firing a slant pass to Donald Driver on second and 10 against the Steelers last December, a simple eight-yard gain that set up a first down that set up a touchdown. Here's what you don't see: the preparation, the time spent in the film room that revealed Pittsburgh's tendency to bring the outside linebacker up tight when the offense sets up in a particular formation. The Packers run a draw out of that formation, so Rodgers told Driver, "The first time we run a draw. The second time, I'm going to hit you with a slant." They ran the draw the first time; the second time, Rodgers walked to the line and gave Driver a look. The outside 'backer was tight. Rodgers took the snap and threw the slant.

Those eight yards are the reason Rodgers plays football -- that decision, that glance, that feeling of being so thoroughly in tune with your teammates. It's the culmination of Scout Team Hero and Dude Time and whatever else Rodgers has done to define and expand his sphere and purge the disappointment from his system. "We were the only two who knew what was happening," he says now.

Here's what you see: a seven-yard TD pass to Driver on a third-and-five play against the Lions on Thanksgiving. Not a great throw, a little behind Driver, who ran hard off the line, then stopped just inside the end zone, turned and caught the ball. Here's what you don't see: The Lions were bringing too many guys for the Packers to protect. The play called for Driver to run a corner route, but there was no way he was going to complete the route before Rodgers got pummeled. They'd seen this scenario on film. So Rodgers took a short drop and trusted telepathy. "I bet all my money that Donald saw what I saw and that he'd stop his route and turn around," Rodgers says. "There was not a word exchanged, or even a look. He did exactly what I thought he would do, and I did exactly what he was hoping I would do. If either one of us is wrong, it looks terrible."

Up in the TV booth, Troy Aikman said that Rodgers got a little bit lucky. But the Packers QB, who has become something of a media scold (he blasted Tony Kornheiser during a recent radio interview), begs to differ. "That's the greatest play I've ever been a part of. There's so much trust involved, and it's not built overnight. That's the most important thing to me, the relationships and the chemistry. That's what I play for."

After the Cobb salad, Rodgers stands outside the Berkeley restaurant waiting for his ride. Out of nowhere, his college roommate, a local firefighter and former Cal linebacker named Joe Maningo, pulls up in an old, dark Chevy Blazer. It stops barely long enough for the NFL's coolest QB to hop in and head east on Durant.

Disappointment can lead places. It can harden nerves and cool the blood and create a sense of independence and self-confidence. How many NFL quarterbacks were unrecruited out of high school? How many NFL quarterbacks -- how many Pro Bowl quarterbacks -- went to junior college?

Sometimes no doesn't matter. Sometimes cynicism and doubt meet their match. Sometimes two players exchange a glance on the field and just know. In that glance is the knowledge born of sweat, study and hard work, and the intoxication of doing a job well in the face of skepticism.

There is what you see, and what you don't.

And in between lies the death of disappointment, and its triumph.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.