No one tells a supreme athlete that he’s vulnerable. It clashes with every power impulse that has made him successful, every ego burst that has enabled his sense of invincibility. It doesn’t matter to Aaron Rodgers that the collarbone broken eight weeks ago — an injury that typically shelves athletes for several months — easily could crack again and jeopardize his precious prime as one of football’s elite quarterbacks.
He is playing anyway Sunday.
Is he returning so the Green Bay Packers, a flawed team, can beat the equally flawed Chicago Bears and win one of the NFL’s all-time flimsiest divisions? Is he playing so the Packers potentially can play an opening-round postseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, who will be a solid favorite even if Lambeau Field channels its inner frozen-tundra beast?
I’ll tell you why Rodgers is playing. He’s tired of hearing Packers fans, whose memories are fresh of a quarterback who played 321 consecutive games as football’s all-time ironman, whisper in the beer bars and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores of small-town Wisconsin: “Hey, you know Favre would be playing right now.” That would be the same Brett Favre who admitted recently, at 44, that he
couldn’t recall if his daughter played soccer two summers ago. That would be the same Brett Favre who suffered a horrific toll of head trauma as America’s fearless, swashbuckling folk hero.
Having done a remarkable job of maintaining a superior performance level as Favre’s successor, if also somehow elevating the level at times, Rodgers should be more long-sighted about this situation. If we’re quibbling right now about whether he or Peyton Manning is the best quarterback alive, Rodgers could own that title long after Manning retires. Just 30, he still has six or seven dominant seasons left. Are the long-term risks really worth the short-term reward of beating the crappy Bears?
Of all the names to invoke, Rodgers responded to these public doubts by mentioning a recent comment by Kobe Bryant. Didn’t Kobe just suffer a left knee fracture only months after tearing an Achilles on the sane leg? Doesn’t it stand to reason that Bryant came back too soon — and may have jeopardized his future in the process?
Rodgers isn’t listening. He’s superhuman, remember.
“I read a great quote by Kobe, actually, recently,” Rodgers said. “He was talking about his injury and how when you’re injured it heightens kind of your awareness of that injury. But when you get back on the court or the field, it’s all about performing and trying to block that out. I think that’s the easy part when you’re out there. It’s easy to talk about it with you guys and understand the risks. But when you’re out on the field, it’s about performing and playing and not worrying about it.”
Rodgers’ coach, Mike McCarthy, made it seem the team doctor has kept Rodgers on death row the last few weeks. If there is a hero in this drama, it’s Dr. Pat McKenzie, who ignored public — and, surely, internal — pressure to declare Rodgers fit. This week, he finally lost the war, though It’s hard to believe a collarbone that was vulnerable last week suddenly is stable a few days later.
“Every football player that plays in this game Sunday will have risk. I think we all understand that,” McCarthy said. “So we’ve done our due diligence, we’ve gone through all the evaluations, and we feel it is time. Aaron is ready to play. … Frankly, there was a lot of discussion. I think anybody that knows our history, the people involved in those discussions, clearly understands that it was going to be talked about it, talked about again, talked about it over again, and so forth. That’s why we’ve taken the time to get to this decision.”
The return of Rodgers elevates the pomp of a Packers-Bears game that still could be lame, given the struggles of both teams. If Rodgers stays healthy and leads a victory, I’ll applaud him. And then I’ll worry that a vicious hitter such as San Francisco’s Donte Whitner, who tried to change his name to “Hitner” in protest of the league’s new safety rules, might get a clean look at that still-healing collarbone a week later. Put it this way: The Packers have as much chance of winning a Super Bowl as Wisconsin has of registering a healthy cholesterol level.
Don’t tell that to Rodgers, though. He trying to one-up Brett Favre, who might advise his successor that he shouldn’t play this weekend, if only he could remember the phone number to dial.