Donald Driver performing a Lambeau Leap. Photo by signonsandiego.com.
What does it mean to be a Green Bay Packer? This was the simple question that FOX 11 asked in an interview series last season. Donald Driver answered:
It means everything. It means the world. I came in here in '99 and never thought I'd be wearing the colors...the tradition...behind this great organization - and that's the green and gold. [...] To be able now to sit back and say that I'm part of a great organization, it's amazing. [...] To all the fans out there we love you guys. [...] Green and gold for life.
It's rare in this day and age to get a professional athlete who will make comments like that about an organization and a city. And unlike certain other players, when Donald says "green and gold for life", I believe him. Little did anyone know back in 1999 that a 7th round draft pick out of Alcorn State would make such a huge impression on an organization as steeped in tradition and success as the Green Bay Packers.
By now a lot of Packer fans have heard Donald Driver's basic story of overcoming obstacles en route to the National Football League. It was difficult for his family to make ends meet at times, and they bounced around from friend's houses, to hotels, to even the back of a U-Haul truck (source). That is hard to imagine for a lot of people. It's hard for me to imagine. Despite all the problems of his childhood, Driver made a promise to his family that he would get them a better life. He worked through high school while living with his grandmother, and stood out at football enough to land a scholarship to Alcorn State. Through his hard work and the thoroughness of the Packers scouting department, his excellence in D1-AA college football landed him in the Packers training camp.
It's difficult to tell the story much better than the man himself, so here's a special 4-minute clip that ran on ESPN about him:
Even though he was drafted by an NFL team, anyone who is at least a casual football fan will tell you that being a 7th round draft choice is far from a guaranteed roster spot. But the work ethic that Driver built in high school and college gave him the determination to win over the coaches in training camp. He knew that if he could pour in 110% effort day in and day out, he might be able to get an NFL paycheck, and fulfill that promise to his family.
And so, Driver made the Packers roster in 1999 - a 24 year old rookie with nothing to lose, a deep appreciation for the city and organization that was giving him a shot, and a vast reservoir of talent, focus, and effort. However, Driver did not become a regular starter until 2002. In his first 3 NFL seasons, he started just 4 games (appearing in more) and caught 37 passes, reaching the end zone 3 times.
In 7 of the next 8 seasons, he would have at least 70 receptions and 1000 yards receiving.
Currently, Donald Driver stands at 37th on the career receiving yards list in the NFL record books, and 34th on the career receptions list. Entering the Super Bowl, he only needs 42 receiving yards to pass James Lofton as the Packers all time leading receiver.
Will Driver get inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame? Almost certainly. Will he be placed in the "ring of honor" at Lambeau Field? Perhaps. Will he have a shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame? That is a tough place to get into, but if they honestly judged by both the character of the individual as well as career accolades, I'm not sure you could find a more deserving candidate than Driver.
As Rick Reilly's article (linked above) points out:
The Packers say he makes more community appearances than any other player on the team. "He's a wonderful man," says Cathy Dworak, the team's manager of community relations. "He's always smiling, fun, positive. He calls me up and asks if there are any appearances I need done. Can you imagine?"
From what it says on his website, Driver has made over 300 appearances and is very active in charitable endeavors. In 2002, he received the Walter Payton Man of the Year award from the NFL - which recognizes excellence on and off the field. He has created the Donald Driver Foundation which aids homeless families among some other things.
Photo from donalddriver80.com
Driver, unlike some players, did not just make it to the NFL and then celebrate his stardom. He figures out ways to get better. He is always the first one to try to deflect attention away from himself, and he is one of the first players to look for ways to give back to the community. He's not a guy that you would see complaining about getting less playing time, being targeted less in a few games, or being subbed out at a critical time in the game. He's not a guy that you would see running away from Green Bay for a bigger paycheck elsewhere. Despite his success, Driver never forgot where he came from, stayed humble, and kept a high work ethic throughout his playing career which continues now into Super Bowl XLV.
It has really been a treat to watch Donald's playing career with the Packers. I don't know what it will be like to watch Packers games a few years down the road and not see the trademark wide grin of good ol' number 80.
Donald Driver has really embraced the city of Green Bay, the state of Wisconsin, and Packer nation. And as a result, Packer fans everywhere have embraced Donald right back. I can think of no more deserving individual to have enjoyed the success that Donald has.
And so, when someone asks me, "who is the 'ultimate' Packer?", I always say Donald Driver. Why? Because I'm sure that Donald would consider it the ultimate honor.
He shows up to work, doesn't complain, doesn't ask for attention, and puts his family and friends first. That's a true Packer.
Donald, we're all rooting for you to become the Packers leading receiver on the world's biggest stage. You are already a legend in Packer history, and the very definition of a professional.
Green and Gold for Life.