The morning following the Green Bay Packers’ 2020 NFC Conference Championship Game loss I had a simple, but reassuring realization.
Sipping coffee alone in my kitchen, pondering the Packers’ future, and perhaps my own, I thought of my favorite writers and their most prescient stories.
The obvious occurred to me; many of the greatest stories ever told are tragedies.
Powerful stories, profound stories, valuable stories — but tragedies nonetheless. They’re the most relatable stories. They’re some of the oldest stories mankind has recorded, with heroes reduced to sympathetic figures. We all know what it feels like to come up short at times.
It appears that Aaron Rodgers’ story with the Green Bay Packers, despite incredible highs, may be a classic tragedy after all.
Some tragedies are simply a lesson in patience without the eventual payoff.
Miller, McCarthy, Steinbeck — each wrote uniquely American tragedies. Any one of them could have conjured this story, however this one was penned on America’s largest stage across numerous fateful Januaries.
Perhaps Rodgers’ story with the Packers was always meant to be a tragedy of sorts.
I mean, what’s more Shakespearean than the old legend Brett Favre being replaced by a young Rodgers, only to go on to join the Packers’ bitter rival Minnesota? Rodgers was then thrown into a narrative far larger than himself, at no fault of his own, with the pressure of Hall of Fame greatness and an insatiable fan base on his young shoulders.
He lived up to the immense pressure and far-exceeded all reasonable expectations. He led the Packers to a Super Bowl Championship in Favre’s final year with the Vikings. Rodgers’ story was set up to be the classic story of righteous revenge turned into a career of sustained greatness. Perhaps a modern day dynasty.
Where The Story Turns
Aaron Rodgers’ only sin was he, along with his teammates, couldn’t live up to the incredible standard he set for himself in his first four seasons as a starter (one Super Bowl ring; one league MVP).
Today the soon-to-be three time MVP is nationally viewed as equal parts hero and villain, due to probably nothing more than a string of bad luck.
Without a few mishaps, some out of his control, he’d have played in numerous Super Bowls already.
People often want to talk about legacy, Rodgers’ legacy specifically. What isn’t fair about this conversation is that he’s probably the greatest quarterback in the history of football. Of course, that beats out Bart Starr and Brett Favre. Royalty in the state of Wisconsin with four combined MVP Awards between them. And still people will associate him, and his Packers, with losing in the biggest postseason games more often than not.
Four Conference Championship losses in seven years following what was one of the best starts to a career in NFL history.
The meteoric rise, the bitter fall and… well, this is where sweet redemption comes into play.
This is where many scripted stories follow the same path. The former hero rises from the rubble of nearly-insurmountable pain to find victory once more before riding off into the sunset with that cliche Hollywood shot panning wider until the credits roll.
No, this appears to be a classic, profound tragedy.
The type of tragedy you read and are better for having experienced it, even if you wished like hell for a happy ending that never came.
Rodgers outplayed the quarterback who will go down as having the greatest legacy in NFL history in the 2020 NFC Conference Championship Game, but still lost. No, this story isn’t a fair one. Most tragedies aren’t.
Legacy isn’t something you can quantify, but you can certainly feel it. Rodgers’ legacy, to me, is firmly found in the many moments when we asked, “how on earth did he do that?”
And now the Packers have drafted another young quarterback as Rodgers finds himself, the living-legend fighting father time, kept just short of another Super Bowl appearance. A career come full-circle as history eerily repeats.
I’ve had multiple people ask me how I can possibly accept just one Super Bowl appearance in the Aaron Rodgers Era in Green Bay. The same way people asked about just one Super Bowl championship in the Packers’ Brett Favre Era.
I have a pretty simple, honest answer:
We don’t love the Green Bay Packers because they win. We love the Green Bay Packers because they play.
It’s the god-honest truth. This view of the team has set me, a pretty emotional fan, free to find peace in the tumultuous Rodgers Era.
Over the last 30 years the Packers won quite a bit of games, too. So even the ‘fan’ that only loves them when they’re winning has found themselves in love more often than not.
We don’t love Aaron because he wins, although he wins a lot, we love him because he competes.
We love him because he represents all of us out on that field, often times playing through injuries just like his predecessor. We love him, as we loved Brett, because he wears our colors. Rodgers is unique in that he understands and respects his place in Green Bay Packers history.
He knows his story is a part of the larger story.
A league-leading 13 World Championships from the smallest market team in the league. Rodgers’ tragedy sits within the larger underdog story, the unsuspecting David overcoming all gridiron Goliaths.
To Give Grace
Remembering these players, and specifically Rodgers, are human helps me find perspective.
They’re just as fragile, emotional and self-conscious as we are. When they win we fawn over them and pen stories of legacy and when they lose we, more times than not, we ignore them or criticize their play.
However, it is when we offer grace that we experience what it is to be human in its simplest form.
This is true in life far outside of the confines of sport.
Aaron Rodgers has a certain demanding, perfectionist aura about him. People focus on the moments when he’s been angry, demanding more from his teammates. Little do many people know, that’s what his teammates love about him most.
Although what jumps out to me far more are the times his receivers have dropped wide-open passes in big games. In the moment he often looks to the sky, disgusted, disgruntled. But on the very next drive he throws the ball to them again.
At the most critical of times, he has continually offered grace.
He famously did it in Super Bowl XLV with Jordy Nelson after he dropped multiple passes. He’s done it for James Jones, Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and others. When you would think his competitive, arguably vindictive side would take over — he’s offered grace. That builds trust, confidence and love between him and his teammates. Each receiver got exponentially better after receiving that gift from Rodgers.
A gift he didn’t have to give, mind you.
When we talk about Rodgers’ legacy, I think he deserves that same grace he’s offered to his teammates.
And his character can be judged by the fact that despite these painful losses, he hasn’t changed who he is or the type of teammate he is.
Rodgers is one of the most individually decorated and individually talented players in NFL history. If he ends his career with “just” one Super Bowl ring, it’s okay. It is. We’re all better for having gone through that recurring pain with him than not experienced it at all.
It’s like reading one of those old tragedies or fables; we grow far more in our pain than our successes.
It’s a Continuum
What was the next in a long line of excruciating Packers losses for you, this latest Conference Championship Game, is some child’s first time experiencing that special heartbreak. And it is special, that damn pain.
That loss to the Buccaneers was an initiation of sorts for thousands of kids.
She or he suddenly now knows that feeling that you know all too well. It’s a “Welcome to the fandom, kid” moment. It hurts, sure, but it makes a better story when sharing a drink with a stranger than that time when everything just went right.
Packers fans have dealt with ample heartbreak, but that’s only because they’re routinely on the doorstep of greatness. This recurring pain is born of recurring fantastic opportunity.
But for some fans this will sadly be their last Packers-induced heartbreak. And I’m sure they would have loved to have their hearts broken once more. Life is short, the moments when we can outwardly feel our heartbeats are rare. Rodgers’ teams made us feel those beats with regularity, didn’t they?
Don’t lose sight of that, the great paradox that is Packers fandom.
There are fanbases absolutely longing for an inkling of this pain, to feel their heartbeat racing in the name of competition. Packers fans of a certain age experienced nearly 30 years without distinct heartbreak. They call those seasons the “Lean Years” for a reason. Not a single fan would trade this tumultuous decade, the last 10 years of the Rodgers Era, for those hapless seasons.
Not a single fan.
I like to think of the little kids whose first Packers memories were Rodgers’ Hail Mary’s. What if the first season they fully experienced was the “Run the Table” season? What if the first time they ever watched a game on the edge of their seat was the 4th and 8 game against the Chicago Bears — with the division, the playoffs, the season on the line?
Do those memories not matter because the Packers didn’t get to the Super Bowl?
What about when we saw Antonio Freeman catch the “he did what?!” ball from Brett Favre? What about the night after Favre’s father died and how we all cried during the Packers’ blowout win?
What of the kids that saw Bart Starr throw four touchdowns in a road win against the Cowboys in 1968?
Do those moments not matter because a Super Bowl didn’t follow?
Of course not. They matter. They all matter.
Something of Bravery
Getting up again, turning on that television, heading to that stadium again knowing that same certain pain is always around the corner is brave.
It’s a fantastically silly kind of brave, sure, considering we are talking about a game. But it is a beautiful, encompassing game! A game worthy of our time. And it’s a beautiful reason to be silly. And our modern American life doesn’t invite us to be silly nearly enough. Sometimes the silliness of all this can distract us, if even momentarily, from monotony or pain or stress or bills or whatever we need a three hour break from.
Aaron Rodgers gave us countless jaw-dropping memories within those three hour breaks from reality. Mesmerizing moments I’ve shared with family that I wouldn’t trade for another Super Bowl. And I mean that whole-heartedly.
That is how I can live with the fact that he’s only been to one Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers.
And Rodgers has been brave, without the silliness. He’s been bruised physically and emotionally and has continued to lead his team. He’s continued to bring us these moments that we get to keep long after his career is over. Often times he’s had to play perfect for the Packers to win and to his credit, he often has. His teams still have a winning record in the postseason.
But his story with the Packers may just be a classic tragedy. And it might be the tragic story we all collectively needed; perhaps we are bound closer together as fans, friends and family because of the (silly) pain and heartbreak we’ve shared.
The 2020 season will always be a special light within the darkness of a horrendous year. It deserved a better ending, but that’s not how tragedies unfold.
I for one am genuinely thankful for Rodgers and these many excruciating losses, even this latest one. But the magical thing about Packers fandom is, I always remain optimistic that next season will end differently. Because it just might.
The 2021 season’s Super Bowl is being held in California — Rodgers’ home state.
You see where I’m going with this, right?
We could actually see that Hollywood moment after all. That classic ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ moment when all hope seems lost; an aging homecoming hero finally slays the enormous dragon. And we all cry and celebrate at long last as the credits roll.
Or the tragedy could reach its climax as we all realize that this time it really is the end. And all that’s left is the grace we’ve learned to give, the memories he gave us and the scars we’ll forever share. No one said this story was destined to be a fair one. Again, none of the most romanticized tragedies are.
Either way, we should be grateful for and at peace with the story we’ve been able to witness — tragedy or not.
Who knows how or where his career will end or who will be the Packers’ next MVP quarterback. But we do know that we have at least one more sacred season to (despite every warning to not get our hopes up) foolishly embrace.
Like Aaron recently said, the future is a beautiful mystery.
Thank you Aaron, for everything. Go Pack Go.
Thanks for writing this. I was having similar feelings thinking about the game on my jog tonight, kind of coming to grips that this was probably it for Rodgers getting to the Super Bowl, and having trouble processing it, and I think it is just kind of a depressed acceptance.
Thanks for reading, Sam! Having trouble processing… I think a lot of people can relate.