GREEN BAY – During his remarkable 14-year Green Bay Packers career, Donald Driver caught a franchise-record 743 passes in regular-season play. He caught 49 more in the playoffs. He caught 84 more in exhibition games. And he must’ve caught thousands in practice over the years, especially given how seldom he missed a day of work.
Along the way, there were plenty of unforgettable ones. The 90-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the 2007 NFC Championship Game. The 8-yard touchdown catch against Carolina on Dec. 12, 1999, his first NFL regular-season reception. The 27-yard tip-toe tap-dance down the sideline for a touchdown at Indianapolis in 2004. And many, many others.
But as the iconic wide receiver’s incredible accomplishments were celebrated with a public retirement ceremony at Lambeau Field Wednesday, two catches stood out to those who witnessed them. One, caught on Clarke Hinkle Field early on in the team’s 1999 training camp before only a handful of folks who even knew who No. 13 was at the time, foreshadowed some of the incredible plays that would come later. The other, caught in front of 70,000 people at Lambeau Field and millions watching on television, was the play that embodied everything that Driver’s unlikely rise to NFL stardom was all about.
Any Driver fan remembers the latter play, which came on Dec. 5, 2010. The Packers, dressed in their navy blue throwback uniforms, were leading the 49ers, 14-13, early in the third quarter.
On second-and-16 from the Packers’ 39-yard line, Driver was wide open downfield and caught Aaron Rodgers’ pass at the San Francisco 39. Then, he broke safety Reggie Smith’s tackle at the 29, bounced off safety Dashon Goldson at the 23, eluded cornerback Nate Clements at the 11 and bulled his way across the goal line with four 49ers defenders trying to stop him. The determination he showed was breathtaking.
“My picture of Donald, the memory I’ll have, is the touchdown against the 49ers – with the throwback jersey and (where he) breaks Lord knows how many tackles,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said during Wednesday’s ceremony. “If you’re looking for a picture of what Donald Driver means to your football team, what he means as a player, that’s the picture. That’s the one I’ll always remember.”
Driver, too, pointed to that play, recalling how the 49ers defense essentially ignored him on the play.
“What I remember about the play is the defense didn’t care about me because I was old,” Driver said with a laugh. “It kind of worked out in my favor because they jumped Greg Jennings and they left me wide open. After that, I just said I wasn’t going to be not denied. I wanted to get to the end zone. To shake off all those tackles and for Drew (Andrew Quarless) to make a block after that, and then it was just me trying to carry the rest to the end zone. I have to say, if I look at one play of my career that stands alone, that’s the best one of my career.”
Perhaps, but the play that served notice to all who saw it that Driver had something special came a dozen years earlier, on the first day of padded practices in training camp. McCarthy, the Packers quarterbacks coach at the time under first-year coach Ray Rhodes, will never forget it.
“We were in a red-zone drill and Donald was wearing No. 13 at the time,” McCarthy recalled of the skinny seventh-round rookie from Alcorn State. “Brett Favre was our quarterback and he threw this ball with such velocity that it looked like it was going to go over the fence down there at Hinkle Field.
“Out of nowhere, here comes Donald Driver, makes a big catch. You could see right away this young man definitely belonged regardless of the seventh-round pick (or) where he came from. You could see the smile, the athletic ability. It was a tremendous first impression I’ll never forget.”
The defender on the play, safety Darren Sharper, never forgot it, either.
“We didn’t know who he was,” Sharper recalled in a quote distributed by the team’s public relations department at Wednesday’s event. “He was a rookie and I was already a starter and I was covering him in the slot. I wasn’t worried about him at all, and so when Brett threw the ball it looked like it was thrown too far and I thought for sure it’d be an incompletion.
“Out of nowhere, Driver makes this flying, one-handed catch against me. It was incredible. In that training camp, he just made play after play after play and you could just tell that with how hard he worked and the skills that he had, he was just special. The thing about Driver is that he was a complete receiver; he was stronger than he looked, a guy that could go across the middle, take some hits and still have enough balance that he would be able to shed defenders and make plays. When I got to Minnesota and he made some plays against us, I could tell that he had matured into a complete, premier receiver for that team and that he was a guy that was going to do that for a long time.”
Remembered Driver: “Brett kind of just took me under his wing. He threw his first ball to me and I ran it back to him. I was so excited, I was like, ‘You’re Brett Favre.’ He was like, ‘Don’t worry, there’s many more to come.’”
It’s instructive to go back into the archives and read what was said about Driver at the time. Then-offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, for instance, wasn’t sure what to make of the kid.
"I think we've got something there," Lewis said a few days into camp that year. “But how long it's going to take before we really feel comfortable (with him on the field), I don't know. The plays he's made have been tough plays. The defense is playing hard, and they have pretty good position. But he seems to be making the plays.
“'I like what I see, but I'm not that excited until I start seeing it every day.”
Then-general manager Ron Wolf, who’d drafted Driver, was a bit more cautiously optimistic.
“I’m very encouraged,” Wolf said on Aug. 5, 1999. “I’m not sure surprised would be the right word. I'm encouraged by the way he's competing and how competitive he is and how hard he works. . . . So far it's been a heck of a pick.”
It was only the beginning. Driver would go on to prove that southwest area scout Alonzo Highsmith, whom Wolf credits for finding Driver, was much better at talent evaluation than he was at geography.
“Ron (Wolf) told me to go to Alcorn State, and I had no clue where Alcorn State was,” Highsmith said of the Division I-AA school in Lorman, Miss. “From the immediate start, Donald Driver jumped out. He was enthusiastic, he was eager to go and I was impressed with his workout. I started talking to him more and I found out about some of his situations in life growing up and after that, I said, ‘This kid is going to make it somewhere.’ I didn’t know how or where or what team he’d do it with, but I knew he was going to make it.
“I remember he came over to my car and said, ‘Hey, I’m telling you, if you pick me, you won’t be sorry.’ Then when I came back to Green Bay for the April meetings, I said to Ron, ‘I think we need to really look at this kid.’ So I put a tape in and the first play, he caught a bomb right off the bat and it caught Ron’s attention. So based on what I’d recommended to Ron and what the Packers were looking for in receivers, Ron decided we were going to take a chance and draft this kid in the seventh round.
“The evolution of where he has come in his career has been fascinating, because I don’t think anybody gave him a chance to be a real guy.”
Driver, of course, ended up becoming more than just a “real guy.” He became, arguably, the greatest receiver in franchise history – according to one of those great receivers, Pro Football Hall of Famer James Lofton.
“You come into the league 14 years ago as a seventh-round pick out of Alcorn State, and the people in Green Bay are probably scratching their head, going, ‘Where is Alcorn State?’” Lofton said in a prerecorded tribute video shown at Wednesday’s event. “Now, 14 years later, I think a lot of people have looked up, found out where Alcorn State was, and they found that that’s where the finest receiver in Packers history had come from.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.