On Donald Driver, fan adulation and smiles

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
10:46
AM ET
Donald Driver's retirement announcement Thursday brought me back to a muggy training camp morning this past summer when it became apparent that he was the most popular player on the Green Bay Packers' roster of elite-level superstars.

You had the NFL's reigning MVP, Aaron Rodgers, at quarterback. One of the league's best pass-rushers, Clay Matthews, was also on the field. Defensive back Charles Woodson, meanwhile, is a certain Hall of Famer. Yet every time Driver touched the ball, the camp crowd cheered madly.

[+] EnlargeDonald Driver
ESPN Images/Don Juan MooreDonald Driver, right, announced his plans to retire from football Thursday on ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning."
Driver was perhaps best known at that point for his victory on reality show "Dancing With the Stars." It was pretty clear he would be Green Bay's fifth or sixth receiver in the regular season, but his deep connection with the Packers' fan base was undeniable. We can't forget that Driver will go down as one of the best receivers in team history, having caught more passes (743) for more yards (10,137) than anyone else who wore the uniform. But I thought we would spend today reflecting more on why he generated such intense interest and loyalty from fans.

I put out a request along those lines via Twitter this morning and literally couldn't keep up with your responses. Many of you were drawn by his underdog story; he was a seventh-round draft pick whose background as a track star left questions about his aptitude for a long-term football career. His family was homeless for part of his childhood, and he has admitted to dealing drugs in his college years.

"[H]is stories of his childhood broke our hearts and his redemption swelled us with pride as if he's 'one of our own,'" tweeted @Deweymad84.

"There is an openness with him when he talks you can tell he is being honest & he seems to have a fun time playing the game," added @HeatherWellnitz.

Indeed, there was something about the way Driver approached the game that appealed to so many of you. In the end, you love football because it's fun, and, over the years, no player appeared to be having more fun than Donald Driver.

"He had the biggest smile in the world and loves playing football!!" tweeted @TtrentC.

I'll be the first to admit that sports writers, myself included, tend to be quite cynical about unfettered fan adulation of professional athletes. These days, it is easy to cultivate a public image that conveniently leaves out the fuller picture that can only be seen behind the scenes.

That observation can be heightened in cases like Driver's. How much of the accompanying popularity is the result of self-promotion? How much is real? And how much interest should fans have in a player who managed just 153 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, including just 14 in the final six games of the regular season?

I haven't spent enough day-to-day time around the Packers to tell you whether there is a big difference between the public and private Donald Driver. What I can tell you is that, like you, I appreciate it when people recognize their privileged position and treat it with the requisite respect. Driver always seemed to understand how fortunate he was to be an NFL player, and his physical condition, even at the age of 37, was visual proof that he never took it for granted.

Driver will host a rare event on Wednesday: a public news conference at Lambeau Field to discuss his retirement and his plans for the future. He said Thursday morning on ESPN Radio that the Packers were expecting 3,000 to 4,000 fans at the event. Often there are tears at retirement news conferences. But in this case, there probably will be smiles all around.

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