New Contract In Hand, It’s Time To Honor Donald Driver

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Donald Driver
Quickie's trademark grin will be in Titletown for 2012

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.

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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

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  • joe

    Third to last paragraph should read “1000 yard seasons.”

    Otherwise, I agree 100%. DD is Mr. Green Bay.

  • cow42

    absolutely love donald driver.
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    hope he doesn’t make the team.

    • Oppy

      Let me connect the dots for those who can’t interpret:

      If Donald Driver doesn’t make the team, it means that the Packers have a very bright long-term future at the WR position.

      If DD beats out every young WR on the team to take the #5 slot, it means we have a bunch of kids in the system who don’t have enough talent or promise to beat out a 37 year old WR on the back side of his career.

      As much as you love DD, you should want the young guys to push him out- it’s a sign of great long-term health at the position.

      • cow42

        bingo.

      • http://sportingnews.com W.Erickson

        Agreed in that football is a business. That business has a product called “winning”. No winning, no business. On the same aspect football is also about public relations. The Cowboys, when winning, are uber-popular. When they’re not then not-so-much. The Packers, in contrast, are consistently very popular, win or lose. That is in its greatest part due to the exceptional PR the Packers have and that comes from things like “tradition”; “loyalty”; “moral character”. Ever notice how few Packers players get into serious hot water? Even when the Packers take on “bad-boys” they seem to straighten up and fly right. Not all, but most. The public appreciates that and it adds to the Packers fan loyalty. Hard to put a price on PR and how it affects the business part of the team. Safe to say, its big. Point being; you can’t put a price on what DD brings to the team in the way of PR. We could talk all day about leadership and experience he brings as well. His presence actually forces the younger WRs to be better. DDs’ value is evolving from yards and TDs into PR value. He’s worth having just for that. He’ll know when his time has come and I expect he will graciously retire as one of the most beloved players in team history. I hope the Packers, Inc. will offer him a place within the organization after his player time has concluded and more so that he’ll take the offer. He damn sure earned it!

  • Johneblood

    Awesome article…well said.

  • LMB

    I understand this is business but let’s look at it from a regular person’s livelihood perspective. You are a lifer….a company man or woman. You’ve been a top notch employee who everyone counts on. You’ve been w/company for a very long time and can still get the job done. You work with a team of talented people. It’s a close partnership of sorts that works like a well oiled engine. There are ALWAYS new people who can take over. Is this a reason to kick you to the curb? NO NO NO. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Period.

    • Tarynfor12

      Progress dictates that you break it to some/total degree and those that don’t get passed by.
      The Pony Express worked…should we not have used the telegraph or not the phone or not the internet.All these things ‘worked’but progress dictates break away from it or get passed by.
      As for keeping the employee from rider,to telegrapher to phone operator to user in IT…can’t..it’s called pasture and putting them out there.

  • Tarynfor12

    Keeping Driver at the expense of loss in long term talent has a Shakespearian aura to its outcome and that is never good.

    • LMB

      I know DD won’t be around forever but he IS long term talent. The new prospects are there every year.

      • Tarynfor12

        He WAS long term talent…at 37 he isn’t any more no matter how one dresses it up.

        • LMB

          Tarynfor, I’m getting that you are judging him based on his age. How bout judging everyone on their performance level? . Seems like we had some players last yr….like j. Finley who had the dropsies. But b/c he’s a youngster, he gets a free pass. Hmmmm. RonLC, I like your take on this subject. Have a great!

          • Tarynfor12

            Believe me when I tell you,Finley got nothing for free in my assessments of him at seasons end.I was not afraid nor alone in the let him go mantra.
            And yes,age has a very important part of assessing which person you keep employed.Is it totally fair,no,is it needed,absolutely.
            However,as most would agree,Finley because of his age can/should bring more to the table as could/would/should the guys of Gurley/Borel etc,than DD for the longer term of success than DD at this juncture.
            You perhaps are judging him based on the infamous play-off performance of catching the ball( which is really nauseating to constantly hear) when others didn’t…lets cut those who produced high all season who got us there and keep he who won’t catch enough to get us back there.
            I wished Driver all the best with thanks in the perceived leaving of GB or football…honestly,now I wish he would just go away so this team can move on.

          • Oppy

            Age is a factor, but it’s not about “He’s 37 and they are 21″.

            Let’s judge on performance level, but also include projection on future performance where, the unfortunate reality is age is a factor.

            Donald Driver’s production was its lowest since he first became a starter for Green Bay. Everyone except the rookie Randall Cobb out-performed DD last year. That’s the reality of his production, no mention of age whatsoever.

            Now, you have to look at things like this: at 37, Donald Driver isn’t going to get any faster, any stronger. His football skills are honed and he’s got no room to grow. It is not a matter of will a 37 year old continue to regress, but when.

            A WR at the age of 21 has about 5-8 years to get stronger and faster, and has the opportunity to grow his talents and knowledge of the game to continue his perfection of his craft.

            Long term outlook must be weighed. As I stated in a post a week or so ago, Jordy Nelson’s first two seasons were lesser in terms of production that Donald Driver’s 2011 production. If Jordy was in camp this season as a rookie vying for that #5 spot, and the only thing the Packers judged was production and who looked better in camp RIGHT NOW, we’d be kicking ourselves in the ass in a couple years when DD’s production completely falls off the charts and he retires, while the guy we didn’t keep around has developed and grown into himself and no other WR in the league has performed at a higher level in the last 22 or so games…

            Football rosters are a revolving door. We all love DD; I’d love to see him stay so long as the Packers keep SIX wide receivers. If Donald stays and we let young talent walk, it’s a poor decision, IMO.

    • Tarynfor12

      Also Kris..I’m sure Jennings and Nelson are happy to have been saved from being total jerks ala Drivers instructions in the ways of life.You have literally said they would not be who they are without him…how do you know that to be true or to even surmise to be.Seriously,no one on the team is good without Drivers influence…wow.

      • LMB

        Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson could very well be the mentors, influencal players next in line. Every team has them. We are lucky our players are who they are in general. Look at some of those “jerks” out there. Wow…real role models huh.

      • Kris Burke

        I did not say Driver was the sole influence on these guys. Jennings I know has said how much of an impact Driver has had on him. I’m not so full of it to say if Driver wasn’t there, Jennings and Nelson would be total jerks. Younger players naturally look to the veterans.

  • Ron LC

    The decision on DD will be made on the field of play. That’s where it should be made. All the assumptions on the talent/potential of 2 Psquad guys are based solely on a few play from last year’s pre-season and the fact the Packers gave them more money just to stay on the Psquad.

    It is now their turn to show MM and the boys just how good they are. If they perform at a higher level than DD they will stay. If not, you still have a solid 1 through 5 WR roster. Either way the Packers win.

  • Michael

    Once a player puts dancing with the stars over football, it is time to retire n let the young, hungry replenish the talent!

    • Oppy

      Michael, I don’t think that is quite the end-all, be-all of the situation, but there is some truth in what you’re saying.

      DD states that he took the DWTS gig to expose himself to the national audience, people outside of the influence of football. Without a doubt, he’s making decisions to put himself in the best position for a post-NFL career.

      While you can not fault a man for looking out for his future, it is certainly a sign that he’s looking to his post-football future. Why is it so hard for people to understand that the Packers must do the EXACT SAME THING- making the decisions NOW that put them in the best possible position for the post-DD future of the Packers.