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One more victory would cement Aaron Rodgers' title legacy

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Tara Sullivan
February 2, 2011
— As Aaron Rodgers finished off a prolific high school football career in 2002, the Division I scholarship offers he dreamed of never would come, sending the Chico, Calif., kid to Butte Junior College in search of his dream.

As Steve Levy finished off a prolific high school career in 2002, a scholarship offer from Cal would take him across the country, from the fields of Don Bosco Prep to the hills of Berkeley.


A year later, Rodgers and Levy were teammates at Cal, after a prolific passing year and an accidental recruiting trip earned Rodgers the full ride he didn't get out of high school. And suddenly, the man who would become the NFL's most famous Brett Favre backup, had pushed one of New Jersey's best high school quarterbacks into a backup role.


"I could tell right away he was special. Before he got to Cal, he knew every play,"


Levy, now a football analyst for cable channel MSG Varsity, spoke during a phone conversation Tuesday.


"He's just one of those guys who gets it. He's a great guy and a tremendous football player. He puts in the time. He is such a good leader. He is one of my good friends to this day."


After redshirting, Levy's first year playing for Cal was ruined by a shoulder injury, and then, with too much depth at quarterback, he switched to fullback and special teams just to get on the field. But after Rodgers turned his two years into an early departure for the NFL, he had some advice for his former quarterback friend.


"Aaron was the guy who told me I should switch back to quarterback," Levy said. "He said, 'There's nobody next year. Why don't you go back?' He knew I wasn't having as much fun, so I went to the coaches and asked to switch. They said OK."


Levy led the Bears to two huge wins in 2005, including a 27-3 win over rival Stanford. "When I threw my first touchdown pass, Aaron texted me to say congratulations," Levy said.


By then, Rodgers was starting on his winding road to the Packers' starting job, a journey that was littered with drama due to Favre's retirement/unretirement antics. Finally, after Favre led the Packers to the NFC championship game in the 2007 season, a season in which Rodgers was supposed to have taken over until Favre returned, management made up its mind. When Favre tried to unretire once again, the Packers chose Rodgers and shipped Favre to the Jets.


Now in his third season on the job, Rodgers has the Packers on the cusp of a title. He arrives at Super Bowl XLV as the hottest quarterback on the planet, scorching a path through Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago to get to Arlington. He may never erase the memory of Favre's Green Bay days, but he surely has silenced the debate about his readiness to take over. Management chose the right guy. And the way he went about it, silently and patiently waiting his turn, made as much of a mark around the league as any of his countless touchdown passes.


"He has overcome so much adversity," Levy said. "For him to be in Brett's shadow and rise above it in a couple of years, now it's like, 'Brett Favre who?' He is a rock star."


If Rodgers should beat the Steelers on Sunday night, he will match Favre's Super Bowl title total at the same age, 27, that Favre won the big one.


"Phenomenal. How can you not root for Aaron Rodgers?" former Giant Michael Strahan said in Arlington as part of the Fox television crew. "Think about it: You have to replace probably the greatest quarterback everyone remembers, a tough guy who never missed a game, and you have to be the guy after that guy. That's really hard to do and he's done it."


The NFL is littered with forgotten quarterbacks who followed a legend, from Jay Fiedler, who followed Dan Marino, to Brian Griese, who followed John Elway, to Scott Hunter, who followed Green Bay's first QB legend, Bart Starr. This is a disposable league that chews up players and spits them out, an unforgiving test of the physical and mental fortitude of everyone who puts on a uniform.


Rodgers has done more than survive the grueling road; he's thrived. He did so by turning challenges into opportunities. When the high school standout received only one Division I offer, and that was to be a walk-on, he went to junior college and lit up the scoreboard. When the Butte JC record-breaker was discovered by accident because Cal recruiters came to see a teammate, he won himself a full ride to Berkeley and again emerged a star. When the projected potential No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft fell all the way to No. 24, a painful day made even worse by his lonely wait in the draft-day green room, he embraced his eventual arrival in Green Bay.


And there, where Brett Favre's retirement/unretirement drama forced Rodgers to win, lose and regain the starting quarterback job, he never lost sight of the real goal: a week like this.


"I don't think you can train yourself to be patient," Rodgers said from his Super Bowl media day podium Tuesday. "One thing I remember (former commissioner Paul) Tagliabue said to me after I was picked, like 4 hours after the draft started, was that 'good things come to those who wait.'


"I believed him."


As Rodgers ascended the Green Bay love ladder, turning fans who once booed him at team events into devoted followers who believe he will rechristen "Title Town" with another Lombardi Trophy, the shadow of Favre never dissipated. But while he once admitted growing facial hair in a desperate attempt to generate interview questions not about Favre, he no longer needs to deflect the issue. Now, he politely describes his relationship with his former teammate by saying "we're competitors," and speaks only of his "enjoyable" days as Favre's understudy.


The ironman streak that forever will elevate Favre's prolific career beyond any statistical measure finally came to an end this season, when a shoulder injury benched him in the regular season's penultimate game.


But when one final attempt at returning ended with Favre's head smashing into a frozen tundra, the retirement that once stood in Rodgers' way appeared to become reality. Rodgers still is playing, and with one monumental win Sunday, would cement his own championship legacy.



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