GREEN BAY — The route to the stadium has changed over the years. The memories remain.
Every August, for the past decade, as Aaron Rodgers made the drive from his home to Lambeau Field for Family Night, the thoughts have crossed his mind. It happened again on Saturday, as he made his way across Interstate 41, up Lombardi Avenue and into the Green Bay Packers players’ parking lot.
“Of course,” Rodgers confessed. “I think about it all the time.”
It’s hard to believe, he admitted, that 10 years have passed since that surreal night in 2008 — when Packers fans booed their own starting quarterback (during a Packers-vs.-Packers made-for-TV event that had long been as much a celebration of Packers fandom as football exhibition); when his predecessor, Brett Favre, flew in on a private jet, landing shortly before kickoff and watching the whole thing from a luxury box high above the field (after receiving a hero’s welcome from a cluster of fans who greeted him at the airport); when a line of thunderstorms moved through the area and forced evacuation of the stadium bowl (and was the least bizarre part of the evening).
“Every time I think about Family Night, or I’m driving in here on the day of Family Night, I think about what that felt like and how crazy that was,” Rodgers said. “I mean, I’ve talked to Favre (recently) about that night and everything he did. I mean, he was here. He was here. I didn’t realize (at the time) that he was here, watching it.”
What Favre, and the crowd of roughly 56,000, watched that night was one of the strangest and saddest moments in franchise history. While Rodgers got off to a decent start and was cheered while directing an early touchdown drive, his next two series were three-and-outs, and when he threw a fourth-down, end-zone interception in a 2-minute drill against the No. 1 defense, much of the crowd let him have it.
“It wasn’t like I was terrible. We moved the ball pretty well,” recalled Rodgers, who finished that night having completed 7 of 20 passes for 84 yards and one interception. “You know, Family Night is a great event — but it’s never been one where I played really well. So I can’t say I have the greatest feelings about how the night has gone for me.
“I obviously got booed — heavily — in ’08. Had an up-and-down scrimmage my first year (in 2005). I think I completed one pass that night. It wasn’t pretty. Threw a pick on the first play to (then-cornreback, now-scout) Brandian Ross for a touchdown the other way (in 2011). So it hasn’t been the greatestof nights for me.”
In truth, Family Night isn’t about players like Rodgers, who’ve been under the lights plenty of times and aren’t fazed by a cast of thousands watching them practice.
But for rookies and players who are new to the team, it is part of an indoctrination into what it means to be a Packer – and a test for how they handle the environment, even if they played at an elite college program. Even with the team having eliminated the live-tackling scrimmage portion of the night starting in 2014, it’s still a valuable experience.
“The format has changed — it’s more of a practice — (so) it’s less pressure, but as a young player, you do feel a lot greater pressure,” Rodgers explained. “Practicing for 3,500 to 5,000 people out there (at Ray Nitschke Field) and then 65,000 or 75,000 in Lambeau, the pressure goes way up because it’s the first time most of these people will have seen anything from you.
“And as a young player, you’re always trying to show you’ve improved every year and you’re better.”
Of course, that’s exactly what Rodgers was trying to do that night in 2008, after three years as Favre’s understudy.
“When the organization decided to go that route, I was 100 percent behind Aaron,” said cornerback Tramon Williams, who was on the team then and returned as a free agent this offseason. “I played with Brett for two years, and I was a Brett Favre fan, also. But as a guy who started out on the practice squad, you get to spend more time with the backup guy than the main guy, so I had gotten to spend time with Aaron. He’d take us out to eat — Red Robin, wherever — and he’d hang out with us all the time. So I got a chance to get to know him.
“For him to get that chance and turn out to be the player he is, it’s surreal. But that summer? It takes a courageous, strong-minded guy to do what he did. Because most people would not be able to do that. Obviously he’s the quarterback he is today because of that.”
On Saturday night, embarking on his 11th season as the starting quarterback, Rodgers was back under center for another installment of the part-pep rally, part-practice event. Having endured a dispiriting 7-9 season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008 after Rodgers broke his right collarbone early in the season, the Lambeau Field crowd was more than happy to see their team’s meal ticket on the field again and greeted him with full-throated cheering.
And why wouldn’t they, having seen him deliver a Super Bowl XLV title two years after many had booed him, having watched him win a pair of NFL MVP awards, having felt their jaws drop at him making throws not even the Ol’ Gunslinger could have completed, and having seen how awful life can be for their favorite football team when he’s not at the controls?
To his credit, Rodgers sloughed off the crowd’s harsh treatment back then — “I’ll tell you this: it’s not the first time I’ve been booed, and it probably won’t be the last time,” he said after the ’08 debacle — and as he looks back, he believes that the way he handled their reaction to him then led to their appreciation for him now.
“That camp was rough. But I do feel the love now,” Rodgers said. “I could have handled things differently, I think, which would have inhibited the close connection I have with the fans now — had I responded, had I taken it more personally.
“I didn’t take it personal. I really didn’t. I was disappointed, because I wanted so badly to be the guy and play well and be someone that the fans enjoyed watching. But thankfully, in the moment, I realized it wasn’t about me. And I didn’t take it personally. And that allowed me not to have any ill will towards anybody who was booing.”
Franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari suffered a left ankle injury during the Family Night practice and was taken to the locker room on a cart after being examined by the team’s medical staff.
Bakhtiari came off the field during a team period and could be seen walking gingerly in the bench area. After removing his shoe and sock on the sideline, he was seen being examined by team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie. At one point Bakhtiari was on the bench surrounded by McKenzie, head athletic trainer Bryan Engel and veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Friday but did not participate in the practice Saturday night.
In 2013, Bulaga was penciled in as the starting left tackle before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Family Night. With Bulaga out for the year, Bakhtiari, a rookie fourth-round pick, got the call to replace him and has been the team’s starting left tackle ever since.
Asked after practice if the injury was a major concern, Packers coach Mike McCarthy replied, “I don’t have enough information to answer that. I know it’s his ankle but that’s all I know.”
After Bakhtiari departed, Kyle Murphy took over at left tackle.
Meanwhile, McCarthy confirmed that the ankle that kept wide receiver Randall Cobb out of the practice was to his right ankle, the same ankle that required surgery earlier this offseason. No timeline was given on Cobb’s return, but Cobb indicated there was no new injury. “We’re just managing the soreness right now but it’s not a big (concern),” he said.
Along with Cobb, wide receiver Trevor Davis (hamstring), safety Kentrell Brice (ankle), running backs Devante Mays (hamstring) and Aaron Jones (hamstring), linebacker C.J. Johnson (hamstring) and defensive end Mike Daniels (quadriceps) sat out the practice. Bulaga also sat out after returning to practice the day prior, but only as a precaution.
Before practice, the claimed linebacker James Hearns off waivers from the Dallas Cowboys. The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Hearns signed with Dallas as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Louisville by the Cowboys on April 30 and was released on Aug. 3. As a senior at Louisville last year, Hearns tied for the team lead with seven sacks. He will wear No. 49 for the Packers. … The practice lasted just 91 minutes with storms approaching the Green Bay area and the Packers wanting to make sure the post-practice fireworks didn’t get rained out. “Obviously we sped up the operation because of the storm,” McCarthy said. “It actually worked in our favor because we got to go real fast with the tempo.”… As a result, unlike past years, Family Night did not end with a series of field-goal attempts from kicker Mason Crosby. At last year’s Family Night, long-snapping and holding issues led to concern about the field-goal operation. … Inside linebacker Blake Martinez was back practicing after the birth of his child the day prior. Fullback Joe Kerridge (shoulder) also returned to practice.