There was a time — not all that long ago, actually — when Aaron Rodgers was already planning for life after football. He’d led the Green Bay Packers to their first Super Bowl title on his watch — the first of what would be multiple NFL titles, he wholeheartedly believed — in 2010, standing atop the victory podium at the ripe old age of 27. The way he figured it, another nine, 10 seasons tops would be enough.
He wasn’t going to be a lifer, having entered the league as a self-assured 21-year-old kid, surviving an excruciatingly long time trapped in the green room during his freefall at the 2005 NFL Draft before serving a three-year apprenticeship on the Packers’ bench. Even after all that waiting, he was certain he could carve out a Pro Football Hall of Fame legacy during a 15-, 16-year run and walk away from the game while he could still, well, walk. Then it would be on to other pursuits — documentary filmmaking, charity work, coaching high school kids, relaunching his music label, whatever.
But then, something changed. Actually, a lot did. For starters, inspired by his friend, Patriots star Tom Brady, Rodgers revamped his diet a couple of years ago, realizing he could improve his health and his long-term football-playing prospects by changing what he ate. An inquisitive, intellectual fellow by nature, he began researching nutrition like he would an upcoming opponent’s defensive strengths and weaknesses, giving up sweets — his culinary Kryptonite — and removing lactose from his diet, much to the chagrin of some in the Dairy State.
Meanwhile, Rodgers hearkened back to the three years he spent as Hall of Famer Brett Favre’s understudy from 2005-07, watching as the iconic quarterback struggled with a changing locker room that was growing younger and younger as he got older and grayer.
Rodgers was there during that surreal summer of 2008 when Favre’s 16-year run as the face of the franchise ended with an acrimonious divorce and awkward transition to Rodgers. Favre, who’d announced his retirement that spring after years of will-he-or-won’t-he drama, went on to play three more NFL seasons (one with the New York Jets, two with the rival Minnesota Vikings) before retiring after the 2010 season, at age 41.
From watching all that unfold, Rodgers learned two lessons that he believes are more important now, at age 33, than ever before: Find a way to stay relevant and connected to the youngsters who enter your locker room each year, and do everything you can to make sure your employer never has a reason to give your job to somebody else.
“I think as you get older and you see a lot of your friends move on, retire, get cut, get injured and stop playing, you have that point where you think about your own career and how long you can go,” says Rodgers, who will be entering his 13th year in the NFL and 10th as the Packers’ starting quarterback. “And for me, I got even more motivated to be an irreplaceable part of our team. And in doing that, I also think I started to really have a greater awareness of my surroundings and enjoy the little things more — the preparation, the meetings, the practice. And when you’re loving those things, the game is really icing on the cake for you.
“I love to compete and love to play. So for me, it was a natural progression to enjoy it even more and to want to play it as long as I can at a high level.”
To that end, Rodgers significantly altered his diet. The same guy who used to proudly walk into In-N-Out Burger and order his off-the-menu “double-double animal style” usual, abruptly reduced his red-meat intake. The same guy who’d been photographed with his then-girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn, at the 2016 Academy Awards munching on Girl Scout cookies didn’t place an order this year. While he may not have his own cookbook like Brady does, and he isn’t extolling the virtues of avocado ice cream, Rodgers is definitely following the Patriots quarterback’s lead in the kitchen.
“For sure. Tom takes really, really good care of his body — and has for a long time — and he understands what it takes to get that longevity,” Rodgers says of Brady, who’ll turn 40 on Aug. 3 and just engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in February. “What I tease him about — and actually applaud him for — is, it seems like the older he’s gotten, the more athletic he’s gotten. He had a 15-yard run in the Super Bowl for a first down; he’s actually moved in the pocket more and made more plays out of the pocket, which has added another dimension to his game, which obviously helped him a lot [last] season. Down the stretch of [the Super Bowl], he was able to keep plays alive and move and make accurate throws.”
That has long been a key part of Rodgers’ game — his improvisational keep-the-play-alive ability with his legs is one of his best traits — and must remain so in order for him to play at the level he demands. Thus, making sure his legs don’t fail him is vital — not because he wants to be a running quarterback into his 40s, but because he wants to be able to extend plays in order to make big-play throws.
Asked if he believes Rodgers can play into his 40s, Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s reply is as quick as a Rodgers release. “I mean mentally and physically, clearly yes. He has that ability. I think there’s no question there. But I think all positions in football are the same. It’s their legs. You watch a player — and it’s no different with quarterbacks — as long as they have their legs, they can compete at that level.
“Just with anything in life, the more education, the more [information] that’s available to you. If you do have good fortune and good health and you’re able to keep playing at a high level, I think these guys will play a lot longer than the generation before them.”
But for Rodgers, altering his diet and workout regimen to increase his longevity is only half the equation. Being able to play into your 40s is of no value if you don’t actually want to still play, so rediscovering his passion for the game — while simultaneously seeing so many of his longtime teammates depart — has been just as important.
“Football has become even more fun for me,” Rodgers says. “And I think it’s a slight change that happened the last few years, where it really has become just a love affair. [It’s gone] from a game I always enjoyed playing and enjoyed competing and am hyper competitive in, to just really loving the process even more — the practice, the preparation, just enjoying those moments even more.
“And that has kind of given me the idea that, ‘This is what I want to do. I love football, and I want to keep playing as long as possible.’ When you have that kind of slight shift in your thinking, then you start going to, ‘How can I do that?’ And the way you can do that in my opinion is taking care of yourself at a hyper-sensitive level to all the areas that that entails — the rehab area, the eating area, the workout/focus area. And all those combined has kind of given me the idea that I’d like to keep playing at a high level. And [as a result] it’s as fun as it is right now.”
Teammates who’ve been with Rodgers the longest — remarkably, only six players remain from that Super Bowl XLV-winning team of 2010, including Rodgers — say that despite all the love-of-the-game talk, what remains Rodgers’ most driving on-field motivation is his ultra-competitive personality, which extends beyond just football.
“His competitive nature, it’s hard to match that. I think all of us in this building have that fire and that competition in us, but he definitely leads that charge,” kicker Mason Crosby, Rodgers’ teammate since 2007, said during the 2016 season. “Especially through this season, the ups and downs we’ve had, his competitive fire has been a confidence-builder for a lot of guys in here.”
Adds wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who joined the Packers in 2008 and is one of Rodgers’ closest remaining friends on the team: “[Rodgers’ competitive fire] is the most intense I’ve ever seen — on little things. From cards to games to a water balloon fight at the dorms [during training camp], he’s always trying to one-up someone else.”
And perhaps that’s part of the equation, too, though Rodgers might be loath to admit it. Though pained by the seemingly yearly departures of his longest-tenured teammates — from linebacker A.J. Hawk to fullback John Kuhn to wide receiver James Jones — Rodgers might also be just competitive enough to want to make sure his career in Green Bay doesn’t end the way Favre’s did. If he can deliver another title or two to Titletown — and leave on his own terms — his legacy in Green Bay just might surpass that of his predecessor.
Of course, for now, Rodgers is simply focused on 2017 and making sure he enjoys every moment, not just on game day but every day.
“With A.J. getting released [after the 2014 season] and John Kuhn moving on [after 2015], and James Jones not coming back, [that’s] a lot of close friends that I still keep in contact with very regularly moving on. I think that starts to make you think about your own duration and career and how long you want to play.
“I think part of it is, the pressure of practice is way less for me. Obviously, I want to go out and perform every day and make the plays that I know I can make so I have good images for when I’m on the field. But as a young player, you put so much into those reps, and it’s not quite as fun because every play is so important to you.
“When that kind of goes away and you’re an established player and you can start working on little things within plays, within segments of practice, everything becomes a lot more enjoyable because it becomes a chess match out there, not only with the defense that you’re seeing but with yourself, on what you can show yourself you can do and then what you can do to the guys you are playing against.”