GREEN BAY — The look. Jordan Rodgers had seen the look so many times before.
His brother’s eyes turned cold. A quiet, calculated wrath built. As the 2005 National Football League draft dripped late into the first round, a day for celebration eroded into four-plus hours of embarrassment.
“As he slipped — and as teams that told him they’d take him at certain spots passed on him — I think it kept building,” Jordan Rodgers said. “All the frustration and motivation was just building.”
No Division I college offers. The draft-day wait. The summer of 2008. The pressure of following an immortal in Brett Favre. As the world learned of the slights and snubs of Aaron Rodgers on the periphery, Jordan lived it.
First as Aaron’s little brother. Then as a quarterback prospect himself.
Later this month, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers should join his brother in the NFL. Their paths are similar. Like Aaron, Jordan received zero Division I scholarship offers. Like Aaron, he needed to use Butte College as a junior college bridge. Doubts were recycled as motivation. He didn’t forgive, didn’t forget.
Jordan Rodgers cannot be Aaron Rodgers. He may even go undrafted. There will be no long, tense wait in New York City.
But they are wired the same.
“We both have that mentality,” Jordan said. “We hold that chip on our shoulder of always being overlooked and having to work really, really hard for everything we’ve gotten.”
He has never shied away from his brother’s shadow. Jordan has embraced it. That temperament, that borderline bitter drive to stick it to critics, morphed his brother into arguably the best quarterback in the game. So why run away from those footsteps?
For Jordan, Aaron is a blueprint, not a burden.
“I love the challenge of living up to that expectation,” he said. “If people think I’m going to live up to him, it adds to the motivation, it adds to the fire.”
SHOT-PUTTING THE BALL
He wasn’t always this comfortable, this confident. At Pleasant Valley (Calif.) High School, Jordan once stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 160 pounds. When Aaron became an NFL prospect, Jordan remained mired in puberty.
He “looked like he was 10 years old” and “could barely throw the ball,” recalled Craig Rigsbee, then the high school’s offensive line coach and now the athletic director at Butte College. Jordan wasn’t the starter and told Rigsbee he should be the starter. The high school junior knew the offense, knew all the audible calls.
But he could hardly drive the ball downfield.
“It was like he shot-putted the ball,” Rigsbee said. “He looked like a little kid trying to throw the ball.”
Rigsbee knew it wouldn’t last. He previously coached Aaron at Butte. Rigsbee told Jordan “to relax,” to be patient. A growth spurt was coming. Sure enough, he grew, started and led Pleasant Valley to an 8-3-1 record as a senior in 2006. By graduation, he was off to Butte, like Aaron, with no D-I offers.
Late bloomer. Snubbed.
Just like that, Jordan was on the same trajectory as Aaron.
“But I wasn’t my brother and people expected me to be him,” Jordan said. “Until I really started establishing my own success with my own style of play did I start to really embrace that role and embrace the competitive nature that I have to be as good as my brother, to live up to those expectations that people had for me.
“When he exploded onto the stage with the success he had, it’s definitely what everybody talks about. It’s what everybody asks you about.”
Jordan wasn’t Aaron. But they were blood. As such, they’re both ruthlessly, ungraciously competitive. In one-on-one Wiffle ball, Jordan was the Seattle Mariners and Aaron often the Oakland Athletics or San Francisco Giants. Each brother had to bat through the entire lineup — left-handed and right-handed — with the same quirks as Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, Joey Cora, etc.
In pickup basketball, Aaron often sharpened the elbows and tried to barrel into the paint for a 4-foot jump hook. And to this day, whenever they meet up, a wrestling match ensues.
There’s trash-talking. There are excessive celebrations. No one wins or loses with grace.
“Both of us are competitive to a fault, so the loser is usually very sour for the next couple hours or days or however long it takes to shake it off,” Jordan said. “We like to rub it in when we win and sulk when we lose.”
So this is how the kid shot-putting footballs in high school would make it. Even after the growth spurt, Jordan had more of a BB gun for an arm to Aaron’s muzzleloader. Yet, as Rigsbee said, the two brothers were strikingly similar in one regard. Jordan was the same guy who “wants the ball in his hands when there’s 10 seconds left,” the same guy who “is trying to bust you out on the last deal” in cards.
At Butte, Jordan did something Aaron couldn’t — win a JUCO national title. With that, he secured a scholarship to Vanderbilt.
He wasn’t intimidated by the unrealistic expectations.
“I don’t think he was,” Rigsbee said. “It inspired him. It drove him.”
Of course, he’s not the first little brother, either.
LIFE AS THE LITTLE BROTHER
No other teammates, no other coaches. Only Eli Manning and Tim Hasselbeck — younger brothers of established NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Matt — were in the film room.
The New York Giants were just beaten by the Chicago Bears, 38-20, in Manning’s third pro season. After the loss, criticism revved back up in the tabloids, the airwaves, everywhere. And this time, in this dark, desolate film room, Manning cracked. As the two watched film of the loss — Manning handling the remote — the film stayed stuck on pause.
For five, 10, 15 seconds.
“I’m sitting there like, ‘OK, let’s move onto the next play here,’ ” Hasselbeck said. “It’s not moving, not moving, so I look around.”
Finally, Manning said he needed to get something off his chest. Without specifying, Hasselbeck said Manning “opened up and unloaded a little bit.” For the first time, criticism had rocked Manning.
And that was it. Through their two years together, Manning was otherwise indestructible. Since that day in 2006, he has won two Super Bowls, two Super Bowl MVPs and become a beacon of hope for little brothers everywhere. Manning lived it. Hasselbeck lived it.
The key to handling the comparisons, the expectations, Hasselbeck said, is to embrace the positives of the situation and deflect any negativity. As for Hasselbeck, he stepped into his brother’s shoes at Boston College. There was plenty of badgering from the stands — “Your brother is better!” type shouts. But whenever Hasselbeck heard that, he said his reaction was, “You know what? You’re right.”
In the backyard, he wanted to beat his brother. In the NFL, he was Matt Hasselbeck’s biggest fan. So through his seven-year career as a backup, Tim used Matt as a resource. When he played for Philadelphia — with Andy Reid, who briefly coached Matt in Green Bay — the two talked regularly about that offense.
In the Rodgers brothers, he senses a similar relationship.
“Is there that pressure there? Sure there’s pressure,” Hasselbeck said. “Guys understand it’s there and maybe it motivates them. For other guys, it becomes something they try to live up to and they can’t do it.
“The best thing is to embrace that your brother is the best quarterback in football.”
HIS OWN QUARTERBACK
One chant reigned supreme on the road. As soon as the decibel level dropped and Vanderbilt’s Jordan Rodgers was in shouting range, raspy, beer-bellied cries of “Hey Rahhh-gers!” sprayed from the stands.
Over and over. Packs of fans mocked the quarterback with the “Discount Double Check” from the officially overplayed State Farm ad featuring his brother. Jordan didn’t cringe, didn’t turn his back. He smiled.
“To hear that stuff in the stands, that kind of fueled his fire,” said Jordan’s backup at Vanderbilt, Austyn Carta-Samuels. “Some people could take that the wrong way and let it affect them — he never did.”
Yes, the shadow stalked Jordan from California to Nashville, Tenn.
While Aaron was leading a Super Bowl-winning season in 2010, Jordan redshirted at Vanderbilt and underwent shoulder surgery. While Aaron was crafting an MVP season in 2011, Jordan’s baptism in the Southeastern Conference was littered with bells rung and turnovers. He finished with 1,524 passing yards, nine touchdowns, 10 interceptions and one very public realization that he’d never be his brother.
“I think the expectation was, shoot, as soon as Jordan’s healthy, he’s going to go out there and be just like Aaron,” Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne said. “That can be hard. There are so many built-up expectations.”
He never rebelled or repelled his brother. Rather, the two talked regularly during the season. Each week, Aaron and Jordan had two extended, football-centric conversations. On Monday or Tuesday, Aaron called Jordan. He asked about Vandy’s opponent, their tendencies, the game plan. On Friday night, they talked again.
The offenses are very similar, Jordan said. His head coach, James Franklin, was Green Bay’s wide receivers coach in 2005.
Each phone conversation ended the same way. Before hanging up, Aaron told Jordan repeatedly to “trust your feet.”
Year Two in Vandy was different. Jordan adopted his brother’s acute decision-making and sliced his interception total in half. In turn, Vanderbilt (9-4) — perennial SEC punching bag — finished the season ranked for the first time since 1948. Completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,539 yards, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions, Jordan was the catalyst.
When the backup Carta-Samuels arrived at Vandy’s facilities at 6 a.m., Jordan was watching tape. Vanderbilt had practice and then Carta-Samuels would hang out with his girlfriend; when he stopped by the film room again at 10 p.m., Jordan was still there.
“Maybe that was part of the sixth-year senior thing, maybe it was the chip on the shoulder,” he said, “but the guy never left the football facility.”
Most likely, it’s the chip on the shoulder. When the two quarterbacks played the soccer video game FIFA — Carta-Samuels as Brazil, Jordan as Argentina — games usually ended with a face-to-face shouting matches and airborne controllers. Carta-Samuels doesn’t golf, yet he’s heard about Jordan’s antics.
It’s something like Aaron barking at James Jones after an interception against the Chicago Bears.
“I’ve heard he goes ballistic out there,” Carta-Samuels said.
On the field, Jordan harnessed this mentality. He didn’t play angry. He listened to his brother and played like his brother. Played with an edge. Carta-Samuels points to Vanderbilt’s bowl win over North Carolina State.
On fourth down in the fourth quarter — with Jordan on the verge of upstaging the more highly touted Mike Glennon — N.C. State blitzed the house. Everyone. Jordan completed the pass, took a vicious shot to the mouth and started drooling blood. On the sideline, Carta-Samuels prepared to go in. Instead, Jordan didn’t so much as take a step toward the sideline.
He stayed in, hid the blood from officials and, three plays later, ran for a 15-yard touchdown. This time, Jordan did the “Discount Double Check” to the fans.
“He’s got those California pearly white teeth and he had red blood all through his mouth,” Carta-Samuels said. “That’s what Jordan Rodgers is all about.”
A NEW CHIP
There’s a good chance you haven’t heard about Jordan Rodgers since that game.
The 6-foot-1, 212-pounder wasn’t invited to the NFL scouting combine in February. He didn’t play in the Senior Bowl or even the East-West Shrine Game. No, Jordan’s post-season all-star game was the not-so fabled NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Carta-Samuels called this all “kindling added to the fire.” Indeed, there’s a distinctive acidity to Jordan’s voice.
“This whole process — not getting an invite to the combine — was frustrating because I think I can throw with anybody in the country,” he said. “I believe that. I would have loved the opportunity to throw against those guys that are highly rated.”
After the combine snub, Jordan talked to Aaron. His brother’s message was to store the memory. Aaron himself still keeps Division I rejection letters hanging in his closet at home. Remember this and get ready for your pro day, he told him. At his pro day, Jordan completed 45 of 52 passes with three drops.
He was not able to settle a score. A tweaked groin prevented Jordan from running the 40-yard dash. After plenty of trash-talking, he didn’t get a chance to top his brother’s 4.66. Naturally, Aaron is convinced Jordan got cold feet.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jordan said. “He says I’m a little scared.”
Expectations? He has none. Fifth round, seventh round, street free agent, he doesn’t care. Aaron may have been fuming for 4 hours and 35 minutes in the green room eight years ago. Not Jordan. He took a more cosmic, refreshed perspective that day. At 16 years old, he said he realized “I wanted that — I wanted a taste of that.”
So now, he’ll get a chance to play in the NFL. And a skyscraper-sized shadow comes with him.
Jordan Rodgers insists he doesn’t want it any other way.
“However I use that extra spotlight,” he said, “it can be nothing but advantageous to me.”