I propose a toast.
It’s time to raise our glasses and salute not only one of the greatest players in Green Bay Packers history but also one of the most beloved. A man who is “Packer People” personified from the way carries himself both on and off the field and his various charitable endeavors. A man who came from literally nothing and who beat the odds and made it on the NFL’s biggest stage despite being the Packers’ final selection in the 1999 NFL Draft. A man who not only made it in the NFL, but rewrote the record books for one of the most storied franchises in league history.
Donald Driver, stand up and take a bow.
Parts of this column may sound like I am writing a farewell column despite the fact Driver hasn’t retired yet and in fact is coming back for his 13th NFL season. I guess I’m guilty as charged, but I argue that it’s never too early to pay tribute to man of such importance to a franchise and its fan base as Driver.
Driver’s path to the NFL was an odyssey that would have even made Homer’s jaw drop. One of five children, Driver spent a decent amount of time in his teens living out of a U-Haul truck and sometimes spending holidays without either of his parents. Even at that age, Driver’s athletic gifts were apparent. Given the nickname “Quickie” by his mother because of how fast he was when she would chase him around the house, Driver continued to mold his body and stay in shape.
His father was a quarterback at Texas A&M who won an athletic scholarship and could have played in the NFL, but gave it up to support his mother after his father (Donald’s grandfather) passed away. It was a very large sacrifice to give up his dream to help his family and it’s a lesson Driver never soon forgot.
As he grew up it would seem Driver was determined to live his father’s dream and make it in the NFL. He scratched and clawed his way to Alcorn State where he became a world class high jumper (he could have made the 2000 Sydney Olympics but lucky for Cheeseheads he didn’t) and was selected in the 7th round of the 1999 NFL draft by the Packers.
No one knew then, but a legend was in the process of being made.
He didn’t play much early on, but by 2002 Driver was Brett Favre’s go to receiver and Driver put up his first 1000 yard season.
What followed was a performance as consistent as any in the history of the National Football League.
Driver put up 1000+ in every season from 2003-2009. He was named to the Pro Bowl three times. However despite all his individual successes, Driver never made it to a Super Bowl despite having three-time league MVP Favre at the controls of the offense.
That changed in 2010 with Favre’s successor, Aaron Rodgers, as the team’s starting quarterback. Despite missing most of the game with an injured ankle, Driver was still on the sideline cheering on his teammates as they fought for the team’s fourth Lombardi Trophy. NFL Films had Driver mic’d up and the audio still gives me the chills.
That was not Driver’s biggest moment of the season, however.
He made a play in a regular season game against the 49ers that (to me anyway) that sums up not only Driver’s career but his entire life. Driver caught the pass from Rodgers at the 49ers 35, but that was just the beginning. On the subsequent run, Driver made five 49ers miss by dodging, weaving and shoving players out of the way.
Just like throughout the rest of his career and his life, Driver would not be denied. His athletic gifts and sheer willpower carried him into the end zone and the same could be said for the beat up Packers team that won Super Bowl XLV.
Just watching that play again gives me goose bumps. I think I cheered louder for that play than I may have during the Super Bowl and in hindsight I am probably not alone. That’s how much Driver means to Packer fans everywhere.
To a national non-Packer fan audience, Rodgers is the face of the Packers and deservedly so. The man is the reigning NFL MVP and has put up ludicrous numbers since taking over for Favre in 2008. He has been nothing but pure class off the field and deserves every accolade being given to him.
To a Packer fan however, no one else is a more pure Green Bay Packer than Donald Driver. Work hard, play fair and treat others with respect. That has been Driver’s mantra since he arrived in the NFL. In 2000, when he was still buried on the depth chart, Driver and his wife Betina started the Donald Driver Foundation. He didn’t do it after he became a household name like so many athletes do today. He did it basically right away once he settled into life in the NFL.
Now he is holding the softball game that once had Favre’s name attached to it. Unlike #4, I don’t think that will change when Driver retires. The game sells out every year as the event raises money for Driver’s foundation.
He didn’t do it as a way to get his name out there to further his “brand” and just so happen to help others along the way. He did it because it was the right thing to and because of who he is.
I wrote awhile back that fans needed to come to terms that if Driver is let go, they needed to suck it up and trust Ted Thompson. Had (or maybe still even SHOULD) that day actually come, I now realize I would have had a hard time following my own words.
I was 16 when Driver was a rookie. As the 21st century beckoned, a new era in sports was beginning to dawn. Gone was the good sportsmanship of the past and in was a level of selfishness that has gotten even worse today. Athletes themselves become businesses. Individuals began to supersede the team and this was accepted generally as players like Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson/Ochocinco became some of the most popular players in the NFL.
That’s exactly why we should be so thankful for Donald Driver. The man took around a 50% pay cut just to stay on a team that he has to realize won’t be utilizing him as much as they once had. To see Owens or Moss do the same thing would be a sure sign the Mayans may have been on to something.
Not to Driver. He wanted to finish his career with the same team he began it with, a feat becoming more and more rare (see Favre and Peyton Manning). At 28, hero worship may seem a tad bit childish nowadays but I have to say it so it can be forever preserved on the internet:
Donald Driver is one of my heroes. If most of us could be one eighth the human being he is, the world would be a much better place. I want to thank him for showing me in 1999 and for showing kids today that good guys still succeed. He has shown that doing things the right way will pay dividends in the end and though things may be tough now, that those who do good deeds get good rewards.
Want proof? Driver has a Super Bowl ring.
Moss, Owens and Johnson/Ochocinco have a combined zero.
So what will Driver’s legacy be? I think we can look no further than the current Packers receiving corps, both on and off the field. The Packers offense is notorious for racking up yards after the catch, a feat which Driver used to propel him to all those 1000 yard seasons. The way the unit has an “all for one and one for all approach” is also a testament to DD’s leadership.
Look at how they carry themselves off the field. Greg Jennings hangs out at a Shopko to meet fans and take pictures without it being an official event thanks to Twitter. How cool is that? I personally witnessed Jordy Nelson being nothing but gracious despite being overwhelmed by fans at the JDRF walk last month. They have obviously learned a lot from Driver and I’m sure this means as much to him as all the stuff does on the field.
Thanks for the memories, Donald. Packer Nation is forever in your debt.——————
Kris Burke is a sports writer covering the Green Bay Packers for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WTMJ in Milwaukee. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and his work has been linked to by sites such as National Football Post and CBSSports.com. Follow @KrisLBurke