IT IS 2010. Aaron Rodgers is going into his third season as the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. He is a Pro Bowler, a superstar on the rise. Graham Harrell is new to the Packers, signed to be the third-stringer. Harrell is a friendly, fast-talking Texan from Brownwood, and he develops a real rapport with Rodgers. The banter between the two starts right away and never stops.
One day, Rodgers tells Harrell he thinks they are basically fraternity brothers. This becomes a running joke. The pair bro-talk constantly, and very quickly Harrell becomes amazed at the depth of Rodgers’ investment in this (completely imaginary) universe. The Packers’ other quarterback, Matt Flynn, is now in an “enemy fraternity,” Rodgers tells Harrell, and whenever Harrell does well in a drill, Rodgers compliments him by saying, “It’s about time you did something for the brothers.” Likewise, if Flynn is better than Harrell on a particular day, Rodgers laughs and tell Harrell, “Bro, you’re getting paddled when we get back to the house.”
Rodgers even names their fraternity: Tau Kappa Epsilon, or TKE.
All of this is going along fine until one afternoon at Packers training camp, which is held on the campus of nearby St. Norbert College. During drills, one of the ball boys overhears the banter between Harrell and Rodgers. “Hey, what fraternity are you guys in?” the ball boy asks Harrell after practice ends. After weighing whether to come clean about how he and the Packers’ franchise player have created an elaborate fictitious scenario involving two 20-something men being in a fraternity, Harrell simply says, “Oh, uh … we’re TKEs?” He hopes that will end the conversation.
It does not end the conversation.
“No way, I’m a TKE!” the ball boy erupts. Harrell is stunned. “Yeah, uh … TKEs, man,” he says weakly, looking around helplessly. Rodgers is giddy. The ball boy’s smile is ripping his own face apart.
The ball boy invites Harrell and Rodgers to a mixer that the St. Norbert chapter of TKE is hosting that fall. The mixer is known as the “Carnation Crush,” because it also involves the women of Delta Phi Epsilon, one of the college’s sororities. Harrell is certain this is where they will draw the line and explain that they’re not, you know, actually TKEs, but Rodgers is defiant. “There is no way in the world we’re missing this,” he tells Harrell.
They go to the mixer. It is like most college parties. Rodgers and Harrell sit with the fraternity’s president, Stephen Schumacher, and some of the brothers. Schumacher asks everyone at the party to respect that Rodgers and Harrell just want to hang out and not to take cellphone photos or videos. Somehow, everyone listens. Inside, Rodgers asks lots of questions about the fraternity and is very interested in all the small details. Schumacher, who is a Packers fan, tries to keep his heart from exploding out of his chest. As they talk, Schumacher notices that Rodgers and Harrell are eyeing a table where flip cup is being played. He asks if they want to play. Rodgers and Harrell jump up.
Flip cup involves two teams of multiple players flipping plastic cups in order. Rodgers and Harrell are on a team with Schumacher and some other brothers. They play against a team of women from one of the school’s social clubs. Schumacher and the brothers are very skilled. The women are even better. Rodgers isn’t very good, but he finally gets his cup over. Harrell is a complete disaster. He is struggling to find the sweet spot between weakly knocking his cup down and overflipping it four times in the air. The TKE team loses. Rodgers is frustrated. He tells Harrell he needs to “be better,” but then he brightens when a ceremony begins during which one of the sorority sisters will be crowned as a queen.
As part of the ritual, all of the brothers in attendance get down on a knee and sing a song while holding up one hand, as if offering the queen a flower. Harrell has no idea what is going on. He spins around and realizes he is suddenly surrounded by a bunch of teenage boys kneeling and shouting verses to a teenage girl who is up on a stage, and he assumes that now, surely now, is the moment when he and Rodgers — two professional football players who are, again, grown men — will finally make their exit.
Except then he looks to his right and sees Rodgers down on one knee with his hand up.
“This isn’t even real life, bro,” Harrell says to Rodgers, who gestures wildly for Harrell to get down beside him. Harrell sighs and kneels next to Rodgers. They raise their hands. They mouth words to a song they do not know. The queen is crowned.
Shouts and cheers ring out from all corners of the room. The queen beams. Rodgers giggles uncontrollably.
Harrell has never seen him happier.
IF HARRELL’S STORY about Rodgers and their (pretend) fraternity seems weird, well, fair enough — it definitely is. But the truth is that it is also squarely in character for Rodgers, whose athletic prowess has always been rooted in an equally intense desire to push and prod and challenge and question. To take things to such a degree as to be, at times, uncomfortable.
For Rodgers, nothing is irrelevant and everything is subject to review. He wants to know about people and places and things. He wants to understand motivations. While almost every high-level athlete is ambitious and determined to kick down doors, Rodgers is among the few who also want to know why the door was closed in the first place and, while they’re at it, where the hinges came from.
Now, it should be said: Plenty of that unconventionality is channeled toward Rodgers’ actual job. His ability to scramble out of plays, to see throwing lanes that aren’t there, is fabled. He has passed for nearly 50,000 yards and 377 touchdowns (including 13 so far this season). There are scads of highlights showcasing his ingenuity — the miracle Hail Mary against the Lions in 2015, the roll-left-throw-back 48-yarder to win the game against the Bears in 2013, among many others — and the magic is absolutely an everyday thing.
Joe Callahan, who was a rookie quarterback in 2016, recalls an otherwise nondescript drill from early that year that has always stuck with him. It was a quick drop drill, Callahan says, and Rodgers backpedaled. He saw two defenders blanketing the tight end from both sides. Instead of chucking the ball away, Rodgers simply dropped his elbow and unleashed a wicked 15-yard pass that curved in the air like a golfer hitting an intentional slice around a tree. The ball bent at an angle, then dived sharply into the tight end’s belly.
Callahan was slack-jawed by the play and even now shakes his head as he describes it. “Coach [Mike] McCarthy turns to us and he’s like, ‘You need multiple MVPs to be able to make that throw,'” Callahan says. “I’m still not sure how he was able to pull it off.”
Extrapolate that out — a seemingly obvious conclusion to throw the ball away, completely unpacked and turned on its head. That is what it’s like being around Rodgers, Callahan says. Often this would happen on subjects unrelated to football: Rodgers is unabashed about his belief in the existence of UFOs, for example, and frequently engages with teammates in long, drawn-out discussions about who actually built the Egyptian pyramids. (“We can’t reveal what we know,” Callahan says when I inquire about any conclusions.)
Brett Hundley, who was a Packers backup from 2015 to 2018, also had discussions about UFOs with Rodgers, as well as the existence of aliens. “His brain is just always processing so much information,” Hundley says. And then there was the time in 2013 when Rodgers stopped in the middle of practice, pulled aside then-backup Seneca Wallace and pointed to an airplane that was flying overhead.
“‘What do you think all that stuff is flying behind that jet stream?'” Wallace recalls Rodgers asking. “‘Do you think that has anything to do with maybe why everybody’s getting cancer?'”
Wallace snorts. Rodgers “marches to the beat of his own drum,” he says, “always looking for loopholes” or things that “set people apart.”
Bizarrely, many of these potpourri discussions actually originate from a football staple: the weekly quarterback scouting tests. Each week, as happens on many clubs, one of the backups is responsible for putting together a 45-minute exam for the starter and the other backup to take.
Naturally, Rodgers’ instructions about the exam are pointed: There should be questions that cover strategy related to Green Bay’s upcoming opponent (Sample: What is the correct audible if the Bears come with an all-out blitz?), but there must also be a lengthy section devoted to pretty much anything else (Who really assassinated President Kennedy?).
Rodgers has high standards for the tests, and Hundley conceded that his exams “went from a B-minus to an A-plus” when he began focusing his off-field questions around conspiracy theories. Rodgers is also a trivia freak, and he appreciates a quarterback who can hew to a strong theme. Geographic questions about the team’s next road trip can be fertile ground for the test composer, as can pop culture.
“He’s good at history, good at music, good at movies,” Harrell says. But it’s possible to stump him by leaning into extremely niche subject areas. Rodgers — despite his famous championship-belt celebration — is actually weak on professional wrestling knowledge, for instance, so Harrell, who is a die-hard WWE fan, would enrage Rodgers by constantly peppering his tests with questions about, say, WrestleMania V.
As an alternative for those who prefer to avoid challenging Rodgers’ general knowledge acumen, Rodgers allows the second part of the quiz to also feature tongue-in-cheek “questions” about top opposing players, as long as there is some component to the question that Rodgers might be able to use on the field. Like everything else, Rodgers wants to challenge the traditional notion of trash-talking — give me something different I can use, he tells the test makers. Find me something new.
That can be difficult too, though, particularly because Rodgers has played for so long. There are only so many embarrassing photos of Matt Stafford to be found, Callahan says, meaning that often “you had to go deep back into the mid-2000s to find some old MySpace picture that they still have floating around.”
Callahan shrugs. With Rodgers, originality is prized above almost all else, so the pressure to learn the offensive scheme in any given week is frequently overshadowed by the pressure to dig up a new, entertaining nugget about Kirk Cousins. “We got pretty good at searching the internet for funny pictures of opposing teams,” Callahan says.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Packers used their first-round draft pick on Jordan Love, a quarterback seen as a strong contender to be Rodgers’ eventual successor. Many wondered whether Rodgers would be offended — Wallace suggested Rodgers might have been “a little butt-hurt about it” — and speculated that the selection could have led Rodgers to become overly competitive.
For those who have been in the position of backing up Rodgers before, the notion that the selection would change anything about the way Rodgers approaches his job is absurd. It isn’t about competitiveness (after all, Rodgers is already plenty competitive) — it is, once again, pushing back on the idea that has been accepted. Putting in work on something that seems decided. Rodgers is not simply going to cede his place because it seems that the Packers might have decided the time is coming.
So there will still be tests. There will still be trivia. There will still be moments of extreme social discomfort, like when Callahan was a rookie and Rodgers invited him and the other quarterbacks over for a friendly hang and then brought out his own personal karaoke machine, which tracked and rated each participant. Suddenly, Callahan found himself being forced to try to hit the high notes of Adam Levine on Maroon Five’s “She Will Be Loved” (it didn’t go well), while Rodgers cackled and then selected a song for himself with a much more reasonable range.
“You could definitely tell that he practiced,” Callahan says. “I would also definitely double-check the calibration on that microphone because his score seemed a little too high that day.”
Not all quarterbacks would assert their superiority through karaoke contests or authoritatively answering questions about the population density of the greater Houston area (Harrell learned all about that before a Texans game once). But what Love will find, the former backups say, is that those experiences are intensely valuable, if only because they put on display a critical part of what makes Rodgers the star that he is. Thinking counterintuitively is a skill that can be honed just like a seven-step drop, and so whether or not you personally believe that airplanes cause cancer or that there are residents of Mars who are longtime Packers fans, the simple act of pondering — even for a second — the possibility that those things might be true uses roughly the same muscle that Rodgers uses when he looks at a disintegrated offensive line and still sees a way to make a play.
Making our brains more elastic, more open to things that are not exactly the way we assume them to be, is the most basic path to creativity. And for Rodgers, creativity is his light.
“He loves seeing guys get outside their comfort zone,” Wallace says, “and pushing them to a point where it’s, ‘Oh, man, I don’t do this so well.’ Then he wants to see what happens.”
That is definitely what took place with Wallace and Hundley in the testing room and Callahan at the karaoke party and Harrell at the Carnation Crush. It is what will happen, over and over, with Love. Rodgers might be deeply cerebral (if not deeply weird), but he is also deeply talented, and there is no doubt those things are connected.
Will being around that help Love’s development? Will it change the way he sees the quarterback position? Will it affect his perspective on how to run an offense?
It is difficult to see how it won’t. And, knowing Rodgers, it is also difficult to imagine Rodgers not pushing to make Love’s learning period last for as long as possible.
“He’ll learn,” Hundley says. “But I’ll tell you what: Jordan is going to be sitting for a while.”
Hundley laughs. “Aaron’s not going to give up that position, that’s for sure.”
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