GRAND CHUTE – As he stood on the pitcher’s mound on a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon – a sellout crowd’s standing ovation filling the air, the light glistening off of the much-celebrated Dancing With the Stars mirror ball trophy – there was no denying just how much the people of Wisconsin love Donald Driver.
The longest-tenured player on the Green Bay Packers roster, arguably the team’s most active community do-gooder, a successful businessman and advertising pitchman, the franchise’s all-time leading wide receiver has to rank among the leaders in another category: Popularity.
So when Driver accepted a hefty pay cut last week – seeing his $5 million salary-cap charge cut in half as part of a new one-year, $2.5 million deal – in order to return for his 14th season with the team that took a chance on him as a little-known seventh-round pick from Alcorn State in 1999, the possibility had to cross at least a few folks’ minds that Driver’s value to the team went far beyond the 37 receptions for 445 yards he had in 2011 or his three catches for 45 yards in the team’s playoff loss to the New York Giants in January.
Maybe, just maybe, general manager Ted Thompson, having lived through the ugly split with another beloved player in the summer of 2008, recognized that Driver not only had enough left in the tank as a player but meant enough to the team’s passionate fans that bringing him back was simply the right move.
Maybe, despite unceremoniously severing ties with other older but well-liked players (Al Harris, Mark Tauscher, Chad Clifton) in recent years, the all-football-all-the-time Thompson, like so many others, has a soft spot for the 37-year-old wideout. Maybe his return is partly about football but equally about something less quantifiable than catches and receiving yards.
“It has to,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after Driver’s annual charity celebrity softball game Sunday afternoon – an affair won by the Rodgers- and Driver-led offense, 22-10 – at Fox Cities Stadium. “You hear the response to him today. And I think him winning the mirror ball was directly related to the kind of voting the state of Wisconsin did for him. He’s been a Packer for life, and it’s going to be nice to be able to see him finish his career in Green Bay and hopefully send him off the right way.”
Driver was having none of that Sunday, of course. Having achieved what he has by turning others’ doubts about his talents into his personal fuel, he was unwilling to even consider the possibility that his popularity was a factor. To hear Driver tell it, the reason he is back with the Packers – the only reason – is that he can still deliver on the field.
When asked before the game if he felt his popularity and DWTS championship might’ve had something to do with his return, Driver replied with his signature smile, “So you don’t think I can play football?”
“Maybe those older guys weren’t playing to their potentials,” Driver continued after a brief back-and-forth about the question. “I just feel like I can still play at a high level. I’ve proven that. I think the playoff game proved it as well. I think one thing about it is, you’ve got to sometimes put the age out of it and (understand) that a guy is still productive. Sometimes in the National Football League, that’s what it comes down to – age, instead of how you perform.”
That’s not to say that Driver doesn’t feel – and appreciate – the love from Packers fans, of course. He just believes they played a role in his DWTS title, not in his return to Titletown.
“I would’ve never expected this in a million years. When I walked in here in 1999, I would’ve never expected to have the fan base that I have now,” Driver said. “I think you treat people like you want to be treated. I don’t put myself on a pedestal – they do. And when they put me on that pedestal, I bring myself back down to earth, knowing I’m just a normal human being. I think now they see that. I think not just the Packers fans see that and Packer Nation sees that, but the world sees that now: That I am a good guy, a great father, a great Christian man, and a great husband. And to me, that’s what I wanted to show the world.
“I have fun. The younger guys, they look up to me. And the thing is, I’ve always embraced them. I’m always teaching the young guys exactly what they need to know to play this game. In the receiver room, the young guys always look up to me and go, ‘Why’s he helping me?’ I tell them, ‘Look, one day, I’ll have to be gone and you’ll have to play. And you may not play here, but you may play somewhere else, so if I can give you as much knowledge as the guys gave to me, Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks …’ Why not give it to them? You know it’s always going to be competition in this game, but at the end of the day, we’re all family, we’re all friends.”
That’s certainly true for 21-year-old second-year wide receiver Randall Cobb, who spent his rookie season absorbing as much as he could from the old guy in the neighboring locker. Given the potential he showed as a rookie, Cobb figures to merit even more snaps this season, and Driver could be the one ceding playing time to him.
“That tells you his legacy and that tells you the type of person he is. He’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met,” Cobb said. “I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with him for another year this next year, just being able to learn from him and continue to grow as a player and a person.”
After agreeing to his restructured contract last week, Driver said he intended to play “one or two” more years before “putting the cleats up” and retiring. On Sunday, both he and his wife Betina said they never doubted he'd be back with the Packers.
“I don’t think we had a doubt. It was all a business decision that both (sides) had to come to an agreement with,” Betina Driver said. “As long as he was willing to do that (accept a pay cut) – and he always was – I don’t think it was nerve-wracking, whether he would come back or not. We knew that if he made the right decision, they would accept him back. So it was all good.”
This marked the fifth year that Driver’s name was on the marquee for the game as the host – he took the event over in 2008 after former Packers quarterback Brett Favre retired that spring and before his messy divorce from the Packers that summer – and it was the second time that the event was a sellout, with more than 8,000 in attendance. It benefits the Donald Driver Foundation, which helps homeless families and works to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth in Northeastern Wisconsin and in Driver's hometown of Houston, Texas.
“The fans have been so supportive and so great. It’s so nice to see,” said Betina, who also acknowledged that her husband’s off-the-field work might’ve factored into the Packers’ decision to bring him back. “It’s great being a part of this community. I love everything about Green Bay. It’s such a great place to raise a family. Just being here has been such a blessing for us, for our family – our closeness, our togetherness, our maturity in our marriage – so it’s really nice to be in this community, for sure.
“Who would’ve thought we’d be here so long and he’d be so recognized in Wisconsin? It’s a lot of fun, and we’re happy.”
Driver’s partner on DWTS, Peta Murgatroyd, threw out the ceremonial first pitch and received a nice ovation from the crowd, but nothing as compared to Driver’s. In fact, not even Rodgers got the rousing cheer that Driver received.
“Guys like Bart Starr, guys like Donald, (their) reputation goes farther than the way they play on the field,” Rodgers said. “Donald will be in the Packers Hall of Fame one day for sure, so he’s an incredible player, has had a great impact on the community, and for us guys, it’s nice to be able to share just a little part of that.”
Driver said he intends to continue hosting the game even after his Packers career ends, and based on how fans were still flocking to him along the dugouts 45 minutes after the game had ended certainly showed what a perfect host he is for the event – and for his legion of fans.
“I want to stay in the community. When I leave here, I want to continue to have my stamp here,” Driver said. “I think some players, they leave and they never come back. I’ve always wanted to come back and I’m going to continue to come back. My wife already said we’re keeping our house in Green Bay, so we’re not getting rid of that. We may rent it out to one of the players, but we’re going to keep it and we’re going to continue to support the community just like the community has supported me.
“For whatever reason here, the fans love their team and they’ve been behind them for many years – before I was born. I’m just glad I’m a part of it.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.