A prayer for Donald Driver answered
HOUSTON -- For as long as Cristian Driver has been able to speak, he's ended each day by saying good night to God. It is in that moment, when his eyes are closed and his hands are folded together, when he's saying his thank yous and blessings, that the 7-year-old shares some insight into the dreams of his famous father.
"Every night," his mom Betina said, "in this very sincere little voice, he'll say, 'Lord, I hope that you can help my Daddy get to the Super Bowl. I want to see his dream come true.'"
Donald Driver doesn't want to talk about the past. The story has been told; the videotapes and newspaper clips tossed in the trash long ago. But if you want to know what playing in the Super Bowl means to the longest-tenured Green Bay Packer, if you want to understand why Cristian and his 5-year-old sister Christina ask God to make Dad's dream come true, the past is where you have to go.
It is there, in Driver's hometown of Houston, where you will hear the stories about a kid nicknamed Quickie, who spent part of his childhood homeless and sold drugs to help put food on the table. Houston is where you'll learn about a teenager who one day chose a different path, vowing to his brother that he would "make it." It's where you'll learn about a man who has dedicated the rest of his life being a role model on and off the field.
Just 265 miles separate the Houston home where Driver spent his high school years and Cowboys Stadium, where the wide receiver will run onto the field for Super Bowl XLV next Sunday. But it might have been easier had Driver tried to walk to the moon. That's how unlikely a trip it was. And yet here he stands, prayers answered.
Thus, it shouldn't be a surprise that when the words "Super Bowl" and "Donald Driver" are mentioned in the same sentence around here, tears start to fall.
"If good things are supposed to happen to good people, then great things are supposed to happen to Quickie," said Jim Duffer, one of Driver's high school basketball coaches. "Nobody deserves any of this more than he does."
On the day that Donald Driver decided to change his life, he was in trouble. He and his older brother, Marvin III, had done something to irritate their grandmother, and she had sent them both to bed.
Donald was 14 at the time. Life wasn't easy. His parents divorced when he was young. His dad, Marvin Jr., spent time in prison. And his mom, Faye Gray, had struggled to support her five children. A collection agency had taken most of the family's possessions, leaving them homeless. They slept in hotel rooms, U-Haul trailers and on the worst nights, the streets.
Even then, though, Faye would remind her children to never give up on their dreams. "And I promised them," she said, "that everything we were going through together would someday make us stronger."
Donald and his brother tried to help out, but not the way their mother wanted. When she went to work at night, they dabbled in dealing drugs and stealing cars. They were heading down a path that had two destinations: jail or a morgue. After Marvin Jr. was released from prison, he suggested that Donald and Marvin III move in with his parents, so Faye could focus on digging out of debt. It was the right decision. But also the hardest one to make.
"There's no greater love than a mother who loves her children so much that she lets them go because that's what's best for them," Marvin III said. "That's one of the reasons she's our role model. She did everything she could to better our lives."
With a new home came new rules, and Donald's grandmother had plenty of them. Fix this, clean that, hang up your jacket, iron your shirt. When the streetlights came on at night, the boys had to be home. Visitors were rarely allowed. If you made a mess you cleaned it up. And if you didn't like it, that was fine. Leave.
It was with all this emotion swirling around inside of his head and a dark cloud of uncertainty circling over his future that 14-year-old Donald laid in his bed one night and told Marvin III that he had had enough.
"He just looked at me and said, 'Man, I'm going to make it,'" Marvin III recalled. "'I'm going to do something that nobody in this family has done. I'm going to make something out of me.'"
Soon after, Donald told his friend Lee Hardy something similar.
"We were walking home from school and he goes, 'When I make it, I'm going to get all my homeboys Isuzu Rodeos,'" Hardy said. "And we're all going to have Rodeos and drive next to one another."
From that point on, Hardy said, "make it" became a staple in Driver's vocabulary.
"It was all the time," Hardy said. "'Make it.' And nobody ever said, 'Why don't you be more realistic?' Nobody told him to set his goals a little lower. You just kept quiet and supported him."
The fire within
In the halls of Houston's Milby High School, there are no posters congratulating Driver on reaching the Super Bowl, no trophy cases filled with photos of the school's most famous alumnus. Even in the 1993 Milby High School yearbook, there is no mention of Driver as anything but an ordinary high school athlete.
Most of the students and teachers in the predominantly Hispanic school don't even know who Driver is. But in a clutter-filled office around the corner from the basketball gym sits the exception, Jim Duffer.
Duffer coached Driver's freshman basketball team and built a bond with him throughout high school, giving him advice on everything from colleges to girls. He still considers Driver "family." And how could he not, considering it was Driver who started the tradition of giving Duffer's handicapped mom a kiss on the cheek before every Milby basketball game? Duffer's most prized possession is an autographed replica No. 80 Green Bay Packers jersey that Driver gave him. He refuses to have it framed out of fear that it will somehow jinx his favorite former student.
"It's so precious," Duffer said. "Nothing tops that. And it's because he's come so far. When I watched that NFC Championship Game, I cried like a baby. When the Super Bowl starts, I'm going to be a wreck. They're all tears of joy. I just couldn't be any happier for Quickie."
From the moment Driver made up his mind that he was going to make it, he was all in. He watched as upperclassmen earned college scholarships through sports and set his sights on creating his own escape. He stopped missing classes. Started doing his homework. And he took on every challenge his coaches gave him, be it guarding a 7-foot-2, 400-pound center on the basketball court -- "He shut the kid down," Duffer said -- or moving from running back to wide receiver on the football field.
Hardy remembers the friend who lifted weights every single day. While he and others would chase girls, Driver pushed his body to its physical limit.
"We all wondered, 'What's with this guy? What fuels him?'" Hardy said. "We didn't know the stories about the U-Haul and all that. He kept that away from us. He didn't want anyone feeling sorry for him. He just bottled that up and kept working as hard as he could."
Driver made sure the hard work didn't go to waste. He made the right decisions, like the night during his senior year when he declined an invitation to join a pair of friends for a night of carousing. They ended up carjacking and assaulting a woman. One of them served nine years in prison, Duffer said. The other is still locked up today.
"He easily could have been involved in that," Duffer said. "But he had made the decision that he wasn't going to be a bad guy. He had too much on the line. He'd always tell people: 'That's on you.' And I can just see him standing there that night and telling those guys, 'That's on you.'"
Said Hardy: "He knew his family was counting on him. And if he failed, if he made one mistake, there goes everything. It was a lot of pressure."
Driver accepted a scholarship offer to play football at Alcorn State just outside Lorman, Miss. There, he won the Southwestern Athletic Conference's Athlete of the Year award three times after starring as a receiver and an Olympic-caliber high jumper. The Packers selected him in the final round of the 1999 NFL draft -- pick No. 213. Nobody, Driver included, could have predicted what would happen during the next 12 years: Nearly 700 catches, 10,000 yards and 53 touchdowns, not to mention three Pro Bowls, a Packers MVP award in 2002 and the franchise record for receptions.
"Because he was such a great athlete and worked so hard, I thought he had a chance" Duffer said. "But I'm talking a chance. Best case scenario, if everything fell into place and he stayed healthy and went to the right team, maybe he'd be on a practice squad for a couple years. Maybe."
Someone you can cheer for
Two days after the NFC Championship Game, Faye Gray wore a Packers T-shirt and sat on the couch in the Houston home her son bought for her. She texted Driver congratulations the moment the Packers beat the Chicago Bears. He replied, "We're going to the Super Bowl. Get your bags packed."
Like her son, Gray doesn't like talking much about the past, but she will beam with pride while discussing the present or the future.
"My dream was for my children to get a good job, finish school and have a good life," she said. "I wanted them to survive. Quickie has done that and then some."
What makes her happiest is the way her son has used his success to help others. That's why she takes so much pride in serving as the president of the Donald Driver Foundation. The organization works with Houston's Star of Hope Mission to help homeless people find places to live and to give them tools and resources they need to build a sustainable life.
Each year, the foundation also gives 10 $10,000 scholarships to students in Mississippi, Texas and Wisconsin. It has helped purchase computers at numerous inner city schools. And most recently it started a backpack program to ensure that 400 underprivileged children have snacks to eat when they are away from home on the weekends.
"It's a wonderful feeling to know he has such a heart for other people," Gray said. "As his mom, I'm so incredibly proud. We were homeless at one time and God gave us something. The least we can do is give someone else the break they need."
The Packers estimate that Driver has made more than 500 charitable appearances during his 12-year NFL career. When Brett Favre left for the New York Jets in 2008, it was Driver who took over the role of running the Packers' annual offense vs. defense charity softball game. For the Super Bowl, the foundation is raffling off an all-expenses paid trip to the game, including two game tickets and the opportunity to meet Driver before the game.
He also hosts a charity golf outing and pool tournament. And each summer, he hosts free football camps in Mississippi, Texas and Wisconsin. At one such camp in Texas, Mike Truelove, Driver's varsity high school basketball coach, was amazed at the amount of work his former student had put in.
"He's there at 7 in the morning in shorts and tennis shoes setting up grill stations and the equipment," Truelove said. "He's there afterwards helping me clean up. It's real easy to be a star and not do a darn thing for anyone else. But he gives back 10 fold. You want to cheer for someone like that."
A new prayer
When the Packers' charter finally landed in Green Bay last Sunday night, Betina Driver was nervous. Somehow little Cristian got lost in the crowd. Within a few minutes, mother and son were reunited and shortly after that, Daddy was walking off the plane. After shaking hands and giving high-fives to fans, Driver gave his wife, son and daughter a hug. When he held Betina close to him, he whispered, "Babe, we did it. We're going to the Super Bowl."
The two met back in the weight room at Alcorn State, where Driver offered training tips. He thought she was smart and beautiful. She thought he was cute and sweet. Donald didn't have much money at the time, so their dates were often a trip to McDonald's where they would share an order of fries.
"He was really into me," she said. "And he would always let me know how much he enjoyed being with me and what he saw for our future. He was just really, really sweet."
For their 10-year anniversary last March, Driver secretly planned a surprise renewing of their vows, including flying Betina's family and friends to Dallas for the occasion. She thought they were just going out for a celebratory dinner. Then she opened a hotel ballroom door and found everyone she knew waiting for her, including the family pastor standing at the front of room.
"It was so nice. Amazing," she said. "I was absolutely shocked. And then I told him, I was a little bit nervous that he planned all this without me even knowing. I might have to watch him a little closer."
Betina has pestered her husband about wanting to go to the Super Bowl for years. But Donald has refused to take her unless he was playing. Now the game is being played in Dallas, the family's off-season home. Wednesday is also Driver's 36th birthday, and Betina hopes they might be able to have a few friends and teammates out to the house.
She describes her husband's mood the past week in one word: giddy. And in part, she believes, he has those difficult childhood days to thank.
"I don't know if I'd use the word glad, but I guess yeah, kind of glad this all happened," she said. "He's told me -- if he would have had everything handed to him, if he would have gone in the first round, he probably wouldn't be playing now. He probably never would have made the Super Bowl."
Big brother Marvin III says it even simpler: "Since that day he made that promise to himself that he was going to make it, he's spent every day living up to those words. He hasn't taken a day off."
Betina, Faye and Marvin III know they will feel an avalanche of emotions come Super Sunday. Betina isn't sure when it will hit her. Faye may cry from the moment No. 80 steps onto the field until the moment she goes to sleep that night. And Marvin III is already thinking about the moment he and his brother will embrace when it's all over.
"Win or lose, when the game is over, I see myself hugging my brother and never letting go," Marvin III said. "That hug will last an eternity. And the tears he sheds I will shed right there with him."
Cristian and Christina are excited, too. Their enthusiasm has even spread to the prayers, where one night this week, Cristian interrupted his little sister when he heard her again ask God to help Daddy make the Super Bowl.
Recalled Betina: "He told her, 'Daddy's already in the Super Bowl. We don't have to pray for that anymore. Now we need to pray for a win.'"
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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