Rodgers blazing his own trail
Dec. 28, 2012
Jordan Rodgers can still recite the entire starting lineups for the Seattle Mariners teams of the late 90s. Growing up in Chico, Calif., Jordan and his two older brothers, Aaron and Luke, competed in everything, including whiffle ball. During the summers, the three boys would head to the backyard for whiffle ball games, but with a twist. Each brother would have to pick a Major League Baseball team as their own and would then bat through the lineup as if they were that team, imitating batting stances and hitting from the left and right side of the plate. Jordan was always the Mariners.
Sports were everything in the Rodgers household growing up and it sparked the competitiveness in the family. If they weren't playing baseball or whiffle ball in the backyard, the three boys were playing basketball in the front yard, roller hockey in the street or running pass patterns in front of the house.
"It was so competitive," Jordan said. "We put mom through it all because we were fighting over everything. Growing up in that kind of environment, it was and still is always a competition between us."
The son of Ed and Darla Rodgers, Jordan was born in Ukiah, Calif., spent four years living in Portland, Ore., when Ed attended chiropractic school, and moved to Chico, Calif., by the time he was in third grade.
Ed, was a former offensive lineman at Chico State and jumped at the opportunity to play sports with the boys outside. They enjoyed all sports, but were most drawn to football.
Many nights, the four would venture outside and toss the football around. Jordan would play center and snap the football to his dad, while Luke and Aaron ran routes against one another. Jordan would then switch positions and play receiver against one of his older brothers.
Everything was a competition. And more times than not - no matter the sport - Jordan came out on the losing end in most head-to-head competitions.
"I was always the younger one so I always had a disadvantage with them being bigger and stronger, but we were competitive with everything," Jordan recalled.
Despite how much they enjoyed football, Ed kept the boys away from playing tackle football until right before they began high school.
"We obviously played flag football and every other sport growing up, but dad just didn't want to get us burned out on it too quickly with the contact or injuries," Jordan said. "I think that was great and it helped not getting burned out on it."
Luke, the oldest of the three brothers, played wide receiver in high school and Aaron played quarterback. By the time Jordan reached the latter years of junior high, he was still split between playing the two positions.
"I still remember that first practice of junior high and they said, 'receivers go over here and quarterbacks go over here,' and I had a half second of indecision and decided to go play quarterback," Jordan said. "I know seeing Aaron play quarterback was a big influence on me wanting to play quarterback."
Since that day in junior high school, Jordan has been compared to Aaron. They played the same position in high school and wore the same number. Aaron attended Butte Junior College and then Jordan did.
Rightly or wrongly, it was inevitable that Jordan would be measured by Aaron's past and current success.
"I liked following him, but it was tough in high school and in junior college because the questions were always about him first and the comparisons," Jordan admitted. "I wasn't my brother and we are going to have a different kind of game. I'm not going to be him. That was tough for a while, but you start to embrace it and you realize that you get some attention and you are getting some of the best teaching that is possible."
Jordan was in high school when Aaron was drafted into the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. Aaron's first three years in the NFL were spent backing up Brett Favre. In 2008, Aaron became a full-time starter and it coincided with Jordan's first year playing at Butte.
Aaron experienced immediate success his first season as a starter and ranked sixth in the NFL with a 93.8 passer rating. In his second season, he was invited to the Pro Bowl. The immediate success Aaron had in the NFL magnified what Jordan did at Butte.
"In junior college it was the exact same coaching staff so the comparisons were always there," Jordan said. "Would I have liked to go somewhere else and not be right in the shadow? Maybe, but I think that pushed me the most, realizing that I was taking the same path and realizing that I wanted to be like my brother and I need to work hard."
The first few times Jordan watched his brother play in the NFL seemed surreal. Jordan knew only of Aaron as the brother he would wrestle with at the house and play sports with outside. In the matter of a few years, Aaron went from a backup quarterback to one of the most popular athletes in the country.
His success on the field brought him endorsement deals off it and has opened the door for a number of national commercials. He can be seen talking pizza with Pizza Hut or insurance with State Farm, which has incorporated his signature discount double check celebration into commercials.
"Originally, seeing him on TV playing the games at first was weird," Jordan said. "It is completely normal now, but with how many commercials he is in now, it is funny to me because I just laugh at kind of how goofy he is and how they have him playing a role in a commercial."
Jordan is also the first one in line to give his older brother a hard time about his acting.
"I just crack a little smile every time I see him on a commercial and tell him, 'hey, you look kind of goofy on that one.' I give him a hard time about the commercials for sure."
Aaron's fame also gave hecklers more ammo for when they saw Jordan at games.
"We'll go other places and they will give him a hard time about the discount double check," junior wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. "As a team, we don't really talk about his brother. I don't ask him about his brother much and I'm only worried about Jordan (Rodgers)."
He may not hear it from teammates, but Jordan still hears the comparisons to his brother at Vanderbilt. To outsiders or those new to Vanderbilt's program, Jordan is best known as Aaron's little brother. Even during Vanderbilt's television broadcasts, Jordan has been accidentally called Aaron on multiple occasions. Additionally, his bio page is one of the most heavily trafficked on vucommodores.com, thanks in part to the success of his brother.
While being Aaron's little brother has come with its challenges in expectations on the field, the benefits far outweigh any obstacles.
"I've got a Super Bowl winning MVP quarterback that I can pick up the phone any time and ask about anything," Jordan said. "And that is really the blessing that I have such a resource, a brother first, but such a great resource to use there."
In the offseason, the two brothers work out together back home in Chico at a gym where their father has an office for his chiropractic practice. When they are back together, it is just like they had never left and it was just yesterday that they were playing a game of roller hockey in the street or whiffle ball in the backyard.
"We still are competitive," Jordan said. "Any time we are back home, we will compete in something. My dad got in one of the basketball games last time and it was competitive as heck. Me and Aaron were getting into each other. It was basketball in the front yard, but it still gets competitive."
Jordan battled a shoulder injury and redshirted his first season at Vanderbilt in 2010. In 2011, he competed with incumbent Larry Smith for the starting job in camp. Smith won the job out of camp, but midway through the season it was Rodgers taking the snaps with the first team.
Given his chance to start, Rodgers took immediate advantage of the opportunity, passing for 186 yards and rushing for 96 more in a 44-21 win over Army. It would be the first of three wins Rodgers led the Commodores to down the stretch en route to securing a berth to the Liberty Bowl.
After the offense was seemingly stuck in the mud for the first part of the year, Rodgers' play provided a much needed shot in the arm for the struggling unit that improved significantly under Rodgers.
However, despite the success on the field, there was still much improvement to be made, and Rodgers knew this as well as anyone.
He had thrown for 1,524 yards and rushed for 420, but had a touchdown to interception ratio of: 9:10 and completed just 50.0 percent of his passes.
With his senior year on the horizon, Rodgers made a concerted effort to raise his game to the next level, and the route that would get him there would be through hard work. So Rodgers enlisted Jordan Matthews as his training partner for many of these extra sessions.
Quite often during this past offseason, Matthews did not need an alarm clock to get up. Well before his alarm went off, he was awoken by the familiar sound of his phone, and it wasn't because he was trying to get a few extra hours of sleep.
At 6 a.m., Matthews' phone would buzz with a text message or phone call from Rodgers. The day was just beginning and Rodgers was already scheduling a time when the two could meet at the practice field for extra work.
The two would meet at all times during the day, before and after scheduled team activities. Sometimes, Matthews would run routes from plays scripted in 7-on-7 drills and other times, they would just play catch. Whether it was early in the morning or long after the sun had set, Rodgers and Matthews could be seen together on the practice field all hours of the day.
"One of the best things about J-Rog (Jordan Rodgers) is that he is one of the first guys I've ever been in contact with that would call me to come in and do work with him," Matthews said. "I was always used to doing work by myself, but J-Rog would call me."
The extra time spent together created cohesion among the two and led to an innate understanding of one another's actions on the field. Time and time again, Rodgers would deliver the ball to Matthews before he had even turned out of his route. By the time the regular season ended, Matthews had set a school record with 1,262 receiving yards.
When Rodgers wasn't on the practice field with Matthews, he was in the film room, oftentimes with Matthews by his side.
"Out here I am more vocal, but in the film room I am more quiet and more reserved," Matthews said. "Just learning from him and taking what he tells me and what he sees and trying to apply it to my game, I feel like has helped me as well."
Rodgers and Matthews spent a substantial amount of time together in the offseason, but even when Matthews was not by his side, Rodgers was still working.
"I put more time in the film room than I've ever spent," Rodgers said. "Probably more time in the film room this spring than every season I had prior combined."
Rodgers studied every detail and put extra emphasis on improving his footwork, making sure he was balanced when he released the ball. The film study also helped him to better understand what protections he needed to call at the line of scrimmage.
This fall, Rodgers needed just one class to graduate with a degree in human and organizational development. The added free time outside of the classroom gave Rodgers a schedule that was more similar to an NFL quarterback.
Throughout the semester, Rodgers would come in early in the morning and watched film until lunch. He would then go eat lunch and return to watch film before practice. After practice, he stayed late and watched the practice film.
It was a significant change in his routine from the previous fall when he had 15 hours. But despite the decreased class load, Rodgers actually found himself to be even busier.
"I thought having just one class I wouldn't be as busy as having four or five as I was before, but I was busier just because there were more opportunities to be in there watching film, and the coaches expected me to be in there watching film."
When he did have time outside of the classroom or off the practice field, Rodgers was reaching out to others in the community. Each Monday - the team's off day - Rodgers could be found at Franklin Road Academy off I-65 South in Nashville, where he was a YoungLife leader. Rodgers would go hangout in the cafeteria during lunch, drop by football practice and then meet with the students at night.
He and his brothers were a part of YoungLife growing up and this was his chance to remain connected. "Ever since I got out here, I've wanted to work with YoungLife, but haven't had the time to do it right," he said. "I love working with kids, especially the young athletes."
Mondays were Rodgers' break from an endless grind of practicing, attending meetings and watching film. On Tuesday, it would start all over again with an early trip to the film room.
The extra work has paid major dividends through 12 games of the season. He has already tossed for nearly 1,000 more yards (2,431) than he did all of last season, improved his completion percentage by nearly 10 percent (59.5 percent) and cut his interception total in half, despite attempting 78 more passes.
"I think his main development this year was his overall confidence in the offense and just knowing where to go with the football in certain situations," quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne said.
"I think he's realized that he doesn't have to make the big play every time. He can check the ball down and throw the ball away and I think that has really been a key, him having confidence in us that if he makes the right decision by throwing the ball away that we are going to give him another opportunity to throw the ball and make a play for us."
For Matthews, seeing Rodgers' growth on the field is even more rewarding given the hours they spent together in the offseason.
"Last year everybody saw the sparks of greatness," Matthews said. "He put up great stats, but sometimes we just weren't able to pull it off. This year, him being out there and being able to will us to victory; I think it says so much about his poise and confidence in himself and his natural ability all around."
No matter what happens on Monday, Rodgers will have accomplished something no other Vanderbilt quarterback has by starting in two bowl games. And he has done so in what will have been just 19 games as a starter in his Vanderbilt career.
It is difficult to know how Rodgers will be remembered years from now as compared to the program's previous quarterbacks, given his relatively small sample size as a starter, but his numbers stack up favorably.
Despite attempting fewer passes than nine of the Vanderbilt quarterbacks who rank in the top 10 in career passing yards and having attempted 151 fewer passes than any quarterback with more yardage than him, Rodgers still ranks sixth all-time in school history with 3,955 passing yards.
Rodgers also has a very realistic opportunity of moving into the second place all-time for the most passing yards by a Vanderbilt senior quarterback. With 2,431 yards through the air so far this season, Rodgers needs just 118 yards to surpass Eric Jones for second place.
When it is all said and done on Monday, the final chapter of Rodgers career at Vanderbilt will come to a close. We won't know whether that will be the final chapter to his football career or if more chapters are to be written. But if Jordan has taught us anything in his football career, it is that he cannot be counted out.