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Photography by Randall Slavin

On August 29, Aaron Rodgers signed the largest contract in National Football League history, an extension worth $134 million. In the business of the NFL, he is worth every penny. There is no player like him. As Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy once put it, he has mastered the quarterback position. 

Aaron and I first met during his rookie season when he was backing up Brett Favre, who later became a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Imagine being the guy slated to fill those legendary shoes. My first impression of Aaron was that he was friendly, smart and serious about his career. We found common ground in our shared alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley.

Over time, I watched Aaron grow into an NFL MVP who could make any throw. His decision making on the football field was uncanny. His mobility was unique. And he was clever, particularly in his post-game interviews with me.

Many of his teammates have called Aaron the best player in the NFL. Not the best quarterback, the best player. It is difficult to argue with that assessment given the breadth of his abilities.

Aaron grew into a superstar, a guy State Farm entrusted to help sell its insurance. With his stardom has come a microscope under which his personal life has been scrutinized. Not even the small market of Green Bay, Wisconsin, could protect him from that. Understandably, Aaron became more private and kept his inner circle small. But he never ran from anything. 

In our conversation in August, just days before he signed his record-setting deal, Aaron was candid, honest, blunt and thoughtful. It was, by far, the most personal conversation I have ever shared with any athlete I’ve ever covered. In the pages that follow, you’ll get his take on religion, his relationship with Brett Favre and what it’s like dating an icon like Danica Patrick.

Photography by Randall Slavin

Back in the spring, you went to India on a hearing-aid mission with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. What made you want to do that?

Two reasons. The first was to meet the Dalai Lama, which is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The second was doing outreach and getting to go to Africa, where I’d never been. I love to travel but haven’t been to as many countries as I’d like.

I played three rounds of golf with Larry Fitzgerald in February in Pebble Beach, and I always ask him, “Larry, how many countries are you up to?” He’s been to more than 100 different countries, many of them with Starkey. Every time I’m around Larry, I’m inspired to see more of the world. And the opportunity came up, and I just could not pass it up.

You get to go to India and see Delhi and Dharamshala, and meet the Dalai Lama. Then you go to Africa, go on safari and do outreach where you’re helping change people’s lives. Starkey does most of the work, and we get to do the glory part: the actual installation of the hearing aids, checking the volume, making sure they are working.

There are few moments in life that you can really look back on where everything was just perfect, and that was this opportunity. The whole trip was amazing. It was a lot of travel, a lot of time on planes. But the group of people traveling with us was fantastic. 

What was it like watching someone hear for the first time?

It’s as amazing and as touching as you think it would be. Their face just lights up. It’s a little startling at first, then they’re just so excited. Somebody who hasn’t really heard before lights up, and it’s foreign to them. There was a group of deaf students there who all signed. One of my helpers was a boy who could hear a little bit. We put hearing aids in his ears, and then he was signing with them. And just the joy in them signing — the smiles on their faces got bigger. It was incredible. 

And seeing people who have had massive hearing loss hear again was also incredible. We had people dancing. We put hearing aids in this older gentleman’s ears — he barely talked before — and he stands up and in as clear English as you can possibly imagine goes into a two-minute talk about how important the work that we’re doing is and how there are so many more people in Zambia who need help. He was so appreciative. It was just a moment of pure clarity and joy.

It’s a different kind of joy when it’s coming from somebody else, isn’t it? 

When you’re doing something for somebody with no expectation, not getting anything out of it except seeing joy on that person’s face, it’s different. Just zero expectation of any type of receiving. And in those moments, you actually receive so much because the joy is overflowing in that person. It’s contagious — the hugs, the high-fives, the smiles. We’re all obviously very touched and very emotional about the trip. And we’re all going back next year in the off-season. 

Photography provided by the Dalai Lama/Ven Tenzin Jamphel

What was it like meeting the Dalai Lama?

Like any great leader, he has this charisma that you can just feel. It’s palpable in the room. It’s tangible. We had a private audience with him, which was incredible. When he starts talking, there’s a complete focus on what he’s saying. It’s interesting and heartfelt. 

And it’s a global vision of kindness and compassion — stuff that people can relate to. That’s some of the beauty of the Buddhist faith. It’s about acceptance, not about drawing lines in the sand about those who are saved and not saved, or have and have not. It’s, “How do we make this whole thing better?” And then hope for what’s next, the next life.

The other thing about the Dalai Lama is Buddhists believe it’s a reincarnation every single time. They have a search committee that finds the next Dalai Lama and asks that young kid questions that only the reincarnated Dalai would know. And then you know about the history of the Tibetan uprising and him having to escape over the mountains to India. It’s a really interesting story.

He’s really fun to be around. Really engaging. He had no idea about football. [laughs] But we still put the Packers hat on him and got a great picture. 

I saw.

And that is who he is. The look on his face — there’s nothing staged. There’s nothing fake. It’s all him and his gregarious and outgoing personality. He looks people in the eyes. This guy is in his eighties, and everywhere he goes, he’s a rock star. In Dharamshala, people line the streets just to get a glimpse of him when he’s going by. They wait for days to even have a five-minute audience with him. So, again, for us to get to do that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

I know you’ve been journeying through the world of theology and spirituality. How did this trip impact your thinking? 

I think it’s especially important for someone like myself who grew up in the Christian culture where there isn’t a lot of open-mindedness to learn about other people’s ideas and beliefs. And doing that can actually strengthen your own faith, whatever that is. Because at a certain point, even when you’re taught something at a young age, you have to embrace what you believe.

And there are going to be questions. For me, I had a great trajectory because I went to the University of California, Berkeley, and everything I thought I knew got challenged right away. So you have to start thinking about things differently. There’s an incredible culture in Berkeley.

Then I moved to Green Bay in the Midwest, and I’ve been here for 14 years now. It has its own culture, and you’re getting to know people from different walks of life. You’re traveling, and you’re meeting people. And you start to figure out what you believe, what’s important to you. 

For me, it’s that there’s more connectiveness in this world and less division if we approach things with an open mind and acceptance and appreciation for our differences. And then we realize once we go out and travel that we’re actually more alike than we’re told. A lot of our society is set up to divide us in binary systems based on your politics or your race or your socioeconomic class.

And for me, that’s the journey. It’s realizing that we’re definitely more connected than we were told when we were younger. And that’s what I love about the Buddhist faith; it’s a very inclusive faith. I’m fortunate for the foundation that I had in theology but very appreciative of the people I’ve met along the way who have challenged those beliefs and helped me figure out what’s important when it comes to spirituality.

Do you consider yourself affiliated with any particular religion? 

No, I just think I’m on a spiritual journey and that it’s personal. But we’re in this thing together; that’s how I look at things. I don’t confine myself to one ideology or theology, because I think exclusivity defeats the purpose of spirituality. 

Photography by Randall Slavin

You mentioned division. I recently posted on Twitter about the NFL, and someone tweeted back, “Sorry, Michele. I won’t be watching until these guys stop protesting the anthem.” Now, you can feel however you want about that response. Personally, I’m a big free speech person; even if you say something I absolutely abhor, it’s your right to say it. But how much do you think this issue is affecting how people view the NFL? 

I think it’s definitely affecting some people’s views, but I think the anger and the hatred are misplaced. Because first of all, as of week one of the preseason, it was three out of 3,000 people. It’s one-tenth of 1%. And if one-tenth of 1% of a population makes you so mad that you’re going to stop watching something, you should check yourself. The issue is one that’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. And to me, that’s what it’s all about: People aren’t ready to talk about race relations, social inequality, social injustice — the real issues.

And that’s disappointing. But it’s wrapped up in the guise — G-U-I-S-E — of the anthem and the flag. I think two things are true about the movement. One, that we all love the troops and have the utmost respect for these men and women giving their lives and the ones who have gone before. They’re incredible people. That’s the truth. And the other truth is that there are more than three people who feel strongly that social injustice is an issue that we need to tackle head-on. Those things I know to be true.

It’s a sticky one. People love watching football, but that guy on Twitter isn’t the first person who has told me that. And I agree with you; it’s such a small percentage. It’s gotten so much attention that it’s now a major narrative of the game, of the league. It’s a distraction. Or isn’t it?

I think the distraction is with the movement. It’s been taken from conversations about inequality and injustice to the anthem. And the anthem and nationalism and patriotism are hot-button issues. Because we all love and appreciate the freedoms afforded in this country. But one of those freedoms that’s specifically outlined in the Bill of Rights is freedom of speech. There’s a lot of hatred on Twitter that bothers me — especially stuff directed at me. [laughs]

But people are entitled to their opinions, even if you don’t agree with them. I got asked about it last week, but that doesn’t mean you have to respond to it. Indifference can be powerful. Don’t give the hatred a platform and it won’t distract from the original message and goal.

That’s right; you are actually giving away your power when you allow someone to offend you or disrupt your thinking so much. How did you learn that there’s power in indifference?

I learned that along the way. Having sensitivity in our culture is often looked at as a negative. But sensitivity is just having an empathy for people at times. And it means you take things to heart a little more because you’re a deep thinker and because you care about other people.

When you learn about projection in psychology, you learn that the things people say about you say more about them than about you. It’s others’ projections onto you. And you don’t have to accept it, acknowledge it or take it on. When you have indifference to that, it takes the power away from those statements and really just bounces them back to that person. It’s like holding onto bitterness or jealousy about someone. It does nothing to that person; it just eats you up.

You seem more open to sharing about your personal life these days. You joined Instagram finally, right? Last year?

Yeah, I haven’t posted for awhile, but I’m on there.

Why do you think people are so interested in your personal life? You started out as a football player, now you’re a celebrity. Is that just what you signed up for?

That’s part of it. The other part is that I have been so private for so long. I believe that you should be able to have some private life that’s not out there all the time. I have been private for so long, and when you are that private, it can isolate you a bit. When you just let go and don’t worry about it as much, you’re actually practicing that indifference all the time. Then any type of response, positive or negative, to one of my posts or one of Danica [Patrick]’s posts that I’m in doesn’t bother me. 

So you just don’t worry about it. You’re not scrolling through the comments. You’re just living your life. And every now and then, you just open the door a little to that. I’m not worried about what will happen, what the response will be, what TMZ or random people will say. Just live life and don’t worry about the other stuff. It’s pretty freeing actually. 

Photography provided by ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

It’s liberating as hell. Danica certainly doesn’t shy away from talking about you. Are you more open to talking about your relationship?

It’s more normal. In the right settings, it’s normal. There’s still the right time and right place, but I don’t feel like I have to be reserved all the time. We’re just two people who enjoy being around each other and love each other. We’re really into each other. So there are going to be posts with each other because we enjoy each other’s company a lot. We’re really attracted to each other. 

I know you guys read a lot. What else do you and Danica do for fun? 

We really enjoy traveling. She went on the trip to India and Africa, and we had a blast. And we’ve taken some trips domestically that have been fun. I’m a little further out there in my love for history; I want to go to historical sites around the world. She’s getting into it as well, but she’s spontaneous. She’s up for anything travel-wise, which is fun. She’s a good travel partner because she’s so laid-back and low-maintenance. And she’s a hell of a cook, so we love just staying in, too. She eats really healthy. She’s inspired me in that way. 

Danica was the first woman to host the ESPYs, and you were there with her. What was it like watching that unfold?

I’m really proud of her for that. I always enjoy going to the ESPYs, but to finally have a woman up there was awesome. Doubly awesome that I’m dating her and that I got to be in the I, Tonya spoof. I remember talking through it with her, and she was really drawn to being the first woman host. She’s a strong woman who’s had to fight through some gender issues in her sports for years.

There aren’t many women who race. None who ever won an Indy race and none with as many top-10 finishes as her in Nascar or on the pole. Every now and then, a woman plays in a PGA Tour event. But it’s rare to see a woman go into a man’s sporting world and do as well as she did. It’s tough. She’s a strong woman, and she went through a lot in her career. I’m proud of the way that she ended, and I’m proud of her doing the ESPYs. 

I guess the only sticking point is that her family is going to cheer against you because they’re Bears fans, right?

They can’t come to the games if they’re doing that. 

A little more football. Everyone has talked about your draft night a gazillion times. But in retrospect, that night is a big part of the Aaron Rodgers story. How do you look back on it?

I think it was the most important night in my career, because I needed some humility in that moment. In the draft process, you have so many people telling you how good you are in your camp — your new agent, your new business manager, the guys you’re working out with. It’s all about justifying why you should be the No. 1 pick. Getting passed 23 times was the best thing that could have happened to me. And then there’s the other thing most quarterbacks don’t get to have in front of them: a Hall of Famer [in Brett Favre]. For three years, I got to sit and see what greatness looked like, and that’s what I needed.

Quarterbacks today are different, because they’re more ready to play. The coaching is better in college. The offenses are better. Guys can step in and play right away. I wouldn’t have had a ton of success right away. 

The competitive part of me says I would have figured it out by the time I was done with my first year. But one of the best things that happened to me was sitting for three years and seeing how Brett did things. The kind of pressure that comes with following a legend is tough. I’ve always thrived in those moments where there’s not a grace period and you have to be at your best when your best is needed. For me, that was from day one as a starter following Brett Favre.

Photography by Randall Slavin

What is it about that moment that clicks for you, that makes you respond? 

The focus kicks in. The moment is never as big as it seems, and that’s what is overwhelming for a lot of people. I’ve always just clicked in and become hyper-focused. That allows me to minimize the enormity of a moment, whether that’s a Super Bowl, a two-minute drive or an important part of the game, into a few little things that I have to get accomplished. That was even before I learned more about the mental side of the game. I’ve always had that innate ability to relax in those moments.

What some people wouldn’t give for that. There was so much drama surrounding Brett’s departure and you stepping into the starting role. How did that impact your relationship with Brett and your relationship with the fans?

It was tough. It was very, very tough on me. And I know it was tough on Brett. It’s tough when you want to keep playing and you get traded away from the place you’ve been for 16 years. But I was the guy caught in the middle. I’m just the new guy up, a backup who started to show promise in the preseason and played well the previous year against Dallas. I was drafted the first round by a new GM who wanted the kid to play at some point. 

I was caught in the middle. I was coming off two seasons with Brett where I felt like we got really close and had a great relationship — just us two being active on game days and a lot of times just us two in the room. So it was disappointing to see that relationship just kind of go away for a few years.

And then the fans — some of them were tough on me. And in those situations where you have a fan base of millions and there are a few threats on your personal well-being, ridiculous comments at practice, notes, things like that, you try not to let that affect your feeling toward the entire group. But it’s tough because you know there are people out there who are putting those needles in that voodoo doll and who want you to do poorly because they wish Brett were still playing. 

The moment that sealed all that for me was the last game of the 2008 season when we beat a winless Detroit team in a game that we obviously needed to win for personal pride. We were out of the playoffs, but just not losing to a 0–15 team. And the ovation we got, the ovation that I felt as I left the field was definitely a special all-time moment in my career. To come off the field a 6–10 team missing the playoffs and to get that kind of ovation sealed the relationship for me with the fans. I knew that we had all moved on and that they were going to be behind me. I see a lot of 12s at the stadium now.

And what is your relationship with Brett like now?

It’s great now. We’re text buddies. I went down and saw him this off-season in Mississippi. It’s really good. We got to talk through some stuff that was just unsaid, because other than seeing him at the NFL Honors when we did our handshake — which kind of started the healing process — and a few other meetings, we haven’t had a chance to just sit down and talk like old friends do. We got the chance to do that, and it was awesome. 

I see things differently now, being 34. He was 36 when I was drafted. So I see some things differently about the way it went down, and now I understand how difficult it is to be an older player in the league and to try to connect with new guys every year. I see that. So it’s fun to share stories and have a friendship with someone you looked up to and you enjoy being around and playing with. And now on the other side, there’s nothing but love and appreciation between the two of us. 

You two are really different personalities. You’re really cerebral; he’s more fly by the seat of his pants. Where is the connection? 

I think in our differences. It’s that he respects the way that I play, and I respect the way that he played. Watching him… You didn’t want to copy everything that he did, because he was the gunslinger. He was making reads that don’t follow a certain protocol and zinging the ball in tight windows. But I think that was the allure with him — you never knew what was going to happen.

With me, it’s obviously more calculated. I’ve got an affinity for not throwing any interceptions. It’s more by the book. But I think there are still those splash plays, the Hail Marys, the scrambles that I think fans enjoy and look forward to every year, because I do have a little bit of that in me. There are going to be those “wow” plays like I got to see firsthand watching Brett. 

Photography by Tom Dahlin

There are certainly some wows, Aaron. I remember talking to Coach McCarthy a couple years ago and he said, “Aaron Rodgers has mastered the game of football.” So, if you’ve mastered it, where do you go next?

Hopefully not down. Try to stay at that mastery level. When you get complacent, you stop growing, in life and in football. You start dying. Your leadership starts dying. The kind of teammate you are starts lagging. 

So it’s checking yourself. It’s remembering what got you to where you’re at, and that was leading by example, being a good teammate, making number 53 in the roster feel as important as your best friend on the squad, getting guys to buy in, doing the little things.

[motions to his head] You have so many memories locked up in here, and the best players — Brett was amazing at this — have the ability to, in an instant, recall things that happened years ago or in practice or some odd film and incorporate that into their decision making. It’s training yourself. It’s visualization. It’s all the little things that got you here and staying on top of those so you don’t slide. Because ultimately all those people who built you up on this pedestal can’t wait to knock you off. 

Ain’t that the truth. You are, as I said, so cerebral. What part of football gratifies that part of you?

Telling somebody something in a Wednesday meeting then it happening in a game on Sunday four weeks later, and the guy remembering what I told him and executing exactly.

For someone who prizes the mind the way you do, how do you react to all the talk about CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and concussions?

I’m aware of it, and it’s a real thing. It’s the danger in this game. But at the same time, I know what I signed up for; I know that it is a collision sport. The league has done a lot to try to limit that. 

But I’m always keeping my mind sharp. I love watching Jeopardy. I do crossword puzzles. I switch which hand I brush my teeth with. I change up which shoe I tie first. I read a lot about brain stimulation and how age and various things can affect your motor skills. So I’m just incorporating some of that stuff into my life. And I write a lot, journal, work on my memory.

But it’s a real thing. It definitely is a real thing that is worrisome to a lot of our players. I think the advancements in technology are going to continue to help us not only with the spotting of concussions and the diagnosis of concussions but also with the prevention of concussions. And companies like Vicis are making helmets that are really changing some of those impacts. 

The league is trying to do its part by eliminating some of these hits from the game. But hopefully it doesn’t go so far that we take away the allure, which is gladiatorial athletes who are the best at what they do. The biggest and strongest and fastest. And they’re still going to get back in the game.

I don’t mean to suggest that you’re anywhere near the end of your career, because you are in an amazing position. But when you envision life after football, what do you see? What do you want to do? 

It’s exciting to me. I have basically grown up and started to figure out life in Green Bay, and I love this city. And I’m fortunate to have done it here. I’m very appreciative of what this city and this team have given me. 

When I’m done playing, I’m going to have hopefully many, many, many decades of life left, and I’m going to keep doing the things that I enjoy now but have more time for them: traveling, philanthropic trips, supporting incredible organizations, seeing the world with people I love, spending time with the people who are important to me, continuing to do the business stuff. Quality of life is so important while I’m playing and for post-career as well. I’m trying to figure out what that looks like within my career. It will probably be a little easier as far as time management once I’m done playing.

Photography provided by NBC Sports

The magnitude of your stardom seems to get bigger all the time; maybe it doubles with this relationship you’re in. I just took a trip to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon, and you’re out among all these people. How would you ever be able to do that? 

You just do it. I think you just do it, and you enjoy and understand that some of this comes with the territory. You try to have normal interactions with folks and treat them how you would want to be treated. But you don’t let any of that stop you. 

I’ve seen what true celebrity looks like with some friends and people I know, whether it’s Justin Timberlake, LeBron, Kobe. There are different levels of celebrity. Some Hollywood actors and actresses have a way different level of celebrity; it’s hard for them to do anything. I think it’s going to be a little easier than maybe you’re making it out to be. 

But at the same time, I know that when I go to the grocery store or FedEx or anywhere, I’m going to see people who recognize me. That’s just part of it. And a lot of the time, they are really fun, nice, sweet interactions. And when it’s a little awkward, it’s alright. You don’t worry about it. Because people are just trying to live their best lives along the way, and I’m not going to worry about any of that stuff. You hope that people have the tact in those situations to let you enjoy Zion National Park or hiking in Hawaii or whatever it might be. But you can’t control other people’s actions; you can only control your reactions.

What do you have to say to people who want to know about something really intimate in your life, who ask, “Do you get along with your brother? Do you get along with your parents?” What do you say to someone who wants to dig in? 

Mind your own business. Anybody who knows me… Anybody in my inner circle knows there aren’t any topics that are off-limits. But there are some things better left unsaid with people who don’t need to know. 

What side of you do you think is misunderstood that you want people to understand? 

I think that mystery is part of the allure. I’ve been working the past couple years with this stuff — just caring less about being reserved and private, and not worrying about the repercussions of something I say. I realize when I stand up in the locker room, something will probably make some sort of headline. And that’s just part of it, because people are interested in the things I’m saying. 

When you tell the truth, it’s always easy to have your story straight. You don’t need to use unnamed sources or try to plant stories or anything weird like that. I just answer questions as honestly and as appropriately as possible, and I’m not holding onto anything that I feel needs to be said. I let my teammates talk about my leadership style and how I am as a teammate. 

And other people who aren’t here — their opinions don’t matter. I don’t need to respond to every comment that’s made about me on TV, on radio shows, on podcasts. There was a time when a lot of people were taking shots at me. And I remember thinking, “Do I need to defend myself, get somebody to write an article about me?” But I just had a peace that none of that really matters.

Because when you’re consistent, you don’t have to try hard to let your personality show. I just stood up there and said, “We’re going to run the table,” and we won eight games in a row. 

That, if anything, depicts what I’m all about from a personality standpoint and a leadership standpoint and a confidence standpoint. Not that interview when there was a shit storm of ridiculousness being put out there by people whose opinions don’t even matter. If my life isn’t connected to them, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t have to respond to any of them. But I did with my play and my leadership and my consistency in the locker room. That is all you need to know about me. 

Photography by Randall Slavin

How much do you think about legacy? 

A lot. And anybody who tells you they don’t is lying. But when you play in Green Bay, legacy means something different. Because you look around the stadium and you see Bart Starr, Reggie White, Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo, Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, Willie Davis, Jim Taylor and all these legends who’ve played here, and you realize you have the opportunity to be part of a very elite group. 

The Super Bowl trophy is the Vince Lombardi Trophy. We go to work on Lombardi Avenue every single day. Mike McCarthy has Mike McCarthy Way over here. Mike Holmgren has Holmgren Way, which is one of most important streets in Ashwaubenon other than Oneida Street. 

You have the opportunity to go down in history in Green Bay and in this league if you do things the right way. To me, that’s what legacy is all about. It’s how will you be remembered as a player, as a teammate and as a member of this community. 

That’s amazing. You have a home in San Diego and you sometimes rent in Los Angeles. If I were to ask you where home is, what would you say?

Green Bay. 

Award-winning sportscaster Michele Tafoya is the sideline reporter for NBC Sunday Night Football and a cohost of the KQ Morning Show. A California native, she now calls Edina home.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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