(Note from blogger: I inadvertantly ommitted the fact that this article was published in the Sacramento Bee).
By MATTHEW BARROWS
April 19, 2005
If you were to write "The Aaron Rodgers Story" as a screenplay, the producer might hand it back to you with a note: Been done to death.
And you would have to admit, it does have a certain made-for-TV-movie quality.
After all, it's the story of a young quarterback who gets shunned by all the big-time colleges because he's a small kid from a small town.
So he winds up at the local community college where, almost by accident, he catches the eye of the best college coach in the region.
Thrust onto the national stage, he performs so well that he's in a position not only to be the top pick in the NFL draft, but - and here's the pinch-me scene - to go to the team he dreamed about playing for as a boy.
A little too Hollywood? Perhaps.
But Sterling Jackson can vouch for its authenticity.
The coach of Chico's Pleasant Valley High School was there when his star quarterback didn't get a single Division I scholarship offer during his senior year. Rodgers was so distraught over the snub that he felt becoming a lawyer was more realistic than becoming a football player and nearly gave up the game.
Rodgers had two strikes against him.
For one, most college recruiters consider Chico on par with, say, Nome, Alaska, when it comes to producing football players.
"They think we're in the sticks somewhere," the good-natured Jackson said. "A scout can go to Sacramento or Southern California and in a weekend can see five or six potential players. We're not even on the I-5 corridor - we're off Highway 99."
Then there was the quarterback's stature.
When Rodgers, 21, paid a visit to Jackson last week, the 6-foot-2, 223-pounder who filled the doorway bore little resemblance to the 5-6 runt Jackson first laid eyes on in the summer of 1998. He was the type of kid coaches usually turn into a receiver or defensive back.
Two things told Jackson that Rodgers would someday be a good player.
The first was his right arm, which, even attached to a flimsy, 135-pound frame, was powerful. Then there were the legendary feet - size 12 aircraft carriers (they're size 14 now) that looked silly on a scrawny teenager but suggested to Jackson that the young man in front of him wouldn't stay 5-6 for long.
"All he needed was a red, curly wig, a plastic nose and a horn, and he would have made a perfect clown," Jackson said with a chuckle.
Fast forward a bit: Rodgers grows but not at a rate that makes Division I programs take notice.
After Rodgers made a trip to the University of Illinois, Jackson thought his guy might be headed to Champaign, Ill. But the coaches there felt he was too slight - a wispy 6 feet - and didn't like that he threw 50-yard passes on a line instead of floating them into his receivers.
Three years later, Rodgers would make a return trip to Champaign to lead Cal to a 31-24 win over the Illini. Afterward, Jackson said he received a call from a chagrined Illinois coach who admitted their assessment of Rodgers may have been a tad off.
But as his high school career drew to a close, Rodgers had just one offer - from nearby Butte College. He took up pitching his senior year in hopes of getting a minor-league baseball contract. When that didn't happen, he figured his sports career was over.
"He wanted to play Division I, and he thought anywhere else wasn't worth it," older brother Luke said. "He talked about not wanting to play football when that happened. It was 'Rigs' that really got him excited again."
"Rigs'' is Craig Rigsbee, the Butte College coach who plays the role of affable mentor in this story.
Rigsbee made frequent visits to the Rodgers household that year and slowly chipped away at the image Aaron had of junior college. The two cut a deal: Rodgers would play for Rigsbee but was free to leave if he finally received that offer from a bigger school.
Coach and quarterback each got what he wanted.
With Rodgers running the offense, Butte went 10-1 and was ranked No. 2 in the nation. Finally, a Division I program noticed Rodgers.
It happened following the 2002 season when Cal coach Jeff Tedford slipped in a Butte tape. Tedford was looking for a pass-catching tight end and received a tip that Butte's Garrett Cross was worth checking out.
He was. Cal signed Cross that spring, but it was Rodgers who really made an impression. The cool, confident one threw six touchdown passes that day against Shasta. Tedford, who has molded six college passers into NFL quarterbacks, casually inquired about the freshman and was shocked by the response.
Not only were no other Division I schools looking at Rodgers, his grades were in order and Rigsbee was willing to let him go.
Two years in Tedford's system produced a 17-5 record, 5,469 passing yards, 43 touchdown passes against 13 interceptions and a 150.3 passer rating that is better than any quarterback who ever set foot on the Berkeley campus.
The performance also set the stage for the next chapter, the one that's really hard to believe.
That Rodgers grew up a 49ers fan is not all that surprising. But Rodgers was not merely a casual fan. For him, the 49ers bordered on obsession.
The allegiance was passed down from his mother, Darla, who used to accompany her parents to games at Kezar Stadium when Dick Nolan, the father of current coach Mike Nolan, was the 49ers' coach.
"I have to laugh, because that means Mike Nolan was probably the kid on the sideline with his dad when I was a kid in the stands," Darla said.
Aaron flipped on 49ers games on Sundays as soon as the family returned home from church. He unwrapped 49ers paraphernalia - a Jerry Rice jersey one year, a Joe Montana poster the next - on Christmas and birthdays. And when he played at Cal, he wore a Montana T-shirt, which was "borrowed" from Luke, as it turns out, underneath his Bears uniform.
Now the late bloomer from Chico has a chance to heal the heartbreak of being ignored by the major college programs by becoming the most sought-after player by the NFL. And with his beloved 49ers drafting first, he can do so by donning the same scarlet and gold jersey he wore as a boy.
Asked whether he'd be crushed if the fairy tale falls apart and San Francisco passes on him, Rodgers played the politician and said he'd be happy in Cleveland or Tampa Bay or any NFL town. But he also conceded there would be something special about playing across the Bay from Berkeley.
"Obviously, being from Northern California, I'd love to play for the 49ers," he said. "They were my childhood team growing up."
It also might send this town of 100,000 into a tizzy.
Meanwhile, Rodgers already has been living like a movie star.
His friends in Chico couldn't believe their eyes a few months ago when Rodgers appeared on a television skills challenge in Miami. Not only did he brashly predict he'd beat out the other college stars - he did, handily - but he shamelessly flirted with leggy model-host Marisa Miller throughout the show.
"We were all, like, 'Who is that?' He wasn't like that in high school," said an adoring Jackson, adding that Rodgers doesn't drink, never had a serious girlfriend and spent his weekends taking elementary school kids on camping trips.
"He was borderline nerdy," Jackson said.
The nerd who becomes an NFL quarterback and gets the pretty girl? Might make a decent screenplay.