- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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DALLAS -- For the first time all season, Aaron Rodgers was nervous. He surveyed the crowd, and gulped. He was not prepared for this.
On the football field, the Green Bay Packers' quarterback is equipped to handle anything. His thorough preparation helped the Packers stomp Atlanta last month in a shocking playoff rout; his calm, everyman demeanor might have helped salvage this injury-ravaged season. But this was different. This was somewhat embarrassing.
"I thought," Rodgers said, "we were trying to keep that kind of quiet."
It was a couple of months ago, open-mike night at a new coffee shop in Green Bay. Rodgers was doing a favor for a buddy, who promised that the place would be dimly lit and mostly empty. Of course it was bright and crowded. Who wouldn't race out to see this? A Pro Bowl quarterback and a long-snapper, Brett Goode, brought their guitars and were about to go on.
The reviews were mixed. Goode said they did OK; Rodgers described it as 10 minutes of awkwardness and a few salvageable moments at the end. A microphone malfunctioned. Words and verses were forgotten. But they'll no doubt try it again sometime in the offseason. Rodgers has to try it again.
"You have to have some kind of escape," he said. "You have to have something to take your mind off the enormity of the next game. That's one thing I've learned to do to: Make yourself unwind when it's appropriate.
"Be as prepared as possible, be as sane as possible."
How to prepare
Truth is, there is no way to prepare for this week. There are 5,082 credentialed media members descending upon North Texas, an NFL record. And everybody is watching Rodgers, the 54th quarterback to start in a Super Bowl.
It's a rare club, and Rodgers knows it. He drove through the frigid northeastern Wisconsin landscape Sunday night, talking on the phone about pressure, expectations and what he'd pack. His story has been well-documented: In 2008, in a bold and heavily scrutinized move, the Packers cut ties with a waffling Brett Favre to go with Rodgers, a youngster from Cal. And just about every day since, Rodgers has been reminded about the legend he replaced.
But back to the packing. He planned to bring a couple of books, including "The Paleo Diet." Last week, he pondered packing his guitar, but didn't know if he'd have time to play. So Rodgers and Goode decided they'd play it by ear, maybe hit a pawnshop somewhere to pick up a couple of guitars, which they'd eventually ship home.
NFL quarterbacks, past and present, exist in a fraternity of sorts. For years, Rodgers turned to three mentors -- Steve Young, Kurt Warner and Trent Dilfer -- to help guide him through the highs and lows of being an NFL quarterback. All three of them have won Super Bowl rings. All three of them say the same thing: Enjoy the week, because you never know if you'll make it here again.
Dilfer planned to meet up with Rodgers on Tuesday. Ten years ago, Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst, was in this spot, starting in his first Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. He said he would never tell Rodgers what to do, but does give him a few tips on what not to do.
"I was arrogant when I was young," Dilfer said. "I just wasn't a good listener."
But Rodgers, he said, does listen. He'll tell the kid how he almost completely shut the world out when he arrived back in Baltimore after winning the AFC championship in 2001, how he didn't turn on the TV or listen to what anyone said or thought about him. How he'd turn out the lights in his hotel room and just lie in bed and visualize.
"I wanted to make sure my mind was free so my body would react," Dilfer said. "It was the biggest moment of my professional career, and I wanted to be prepared."
Dilfer said it's crucial for quarterbacks to have some kind of hobby, a release, to turn to during the season. "You put such a tremendous burden on your mind, your body, and your soul," he said, "that you have to have something away from it." Dilfer played golf, and liked to unwind with his family. Rodgers also likes to occasionally play 18 holes, but can't play much in Green Bay once the calendar turns to November.
That's why the guitar is a perfect outlet. Rodgers practices on Tuesdays, which is the Packers' day off, and plays Saturdays when his game-day preparation is over and he wants to clear his head. He watches "Jeopardy!," answering roughly 90 percent of the questions correctly according to one teammate, then strums his guitar during commercial breaks.
Rodgers has a diverse playlist -- he does everything from country to Pearl Jam to Ben Harper -- and recently learned the song "Tears in Heaven" by Eric Clapton.
He became training camp roommates with Goode so they could play guitar together at night. Fullback John Kuhn calls Rodgers a "talented guitar player." Rodgers isn't quite ready to brag about his skills. But in the offseason, he does occasionally surprise the locals by showing up at a bar with Goode and their guitars.
The appearance at La Java was different. Rodgers said he's been nervous only twice in the past year: on a golf course in Lake Tahoe and at that coffee shop that night. In both of those spots, he wanted to do well in front of an audience but was afraid of making a mistake.
It's not like that in football. Rodgers, in his third year as a starter, is now considered one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks. He lost one of his top targets and his running back to injuries by mid-October, but has thrown for 4,712 yards and 33 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions.
"I think he's very comfortable in his own skin," Kuhn said. "He's grown in his role not just as a quarterback, but as a leader of this team."
'Don't let anything distract you'
When somebody new joins the team, from first-round draft picks to scout-team fodder, they can usually count on one thing: that Rodgers will humbly shake his hand and introduce himself, because he believes it's important to know everybody. When Kuhn arrived, Rodgers asked for his birthday so he could store it in his phone.
He is easily the most visible offensive player in the locker room, and is the most-teased man on the team. Kuhn says it's because Rodgers is so popular and insists on being friends with everybody. Those gestures paid dividends during the 2010 season, when the Packers had 15 players on injured reserve and struggled to fill in holes each week. In a league that swallows up battered teams, the Packers survived because of their chemistry, Kuhn said. They survived because of Rodgers.
His team bonding sessions will be simple this week, like they have been all season. He'll play cards with his teammates and enjoy a few good meals. He'll lock himself away in intense preparation. That's what he did against the Falcons. In an earlier meeting this year, a game the Packers lost, Atlanta stymied the offense with its third-down packages. So Rodgers pored over third-down tape, and was unstoppable in a 48-21 victory.
But there have been plenty of lows, too. Like the back-to-back overtime losses, and the two concussions. Two months ago, when the Packers lost at Detroit, they were all but counted out of the playoff picture.
Rodgers led the team to five straight wins in what were considered elimination games for Green Bay, so Dilfer, Warner and Young's advice has been simple for this week: Don't change a thing.
"They all kind of said the same stuff," Rodgers said. "Don't let anything distract you from your main focus. Don't let anything distract you from your formal preparation habits. I know it's going to be crazy, but I'm going to try to stay on my schedule as much as possible."
Buddies with a long-snapper
The fact that a long-snapper is one of Rodgers' best friends might be the best way to describe, Kuhn said, how grounded their quarterback is. On the surface, Goode and Rodgers would appear to be polar opposites. Rodgers is from Northern California; Goode lives in Arkansas and has a thick Southern accent. When Goode plays guitar, he likes to belt out a Red Dirt tune. And many times, Rodgers will join in.
Goode and Rodgers have an offseason agreement. The long-snapper will go to his house in California if Rodgers goes to see him in Arkansas. Rodgers is a little hesitant, not because of the venue but because Goode wants them to play a gig at a bar when they get there.
They have fun with everything they do, Goode says. They play Go Fish and UNO. Goode gets mad when Rodgers gets all the answers right on "Jeopardy!" He hopes this week doesn't turn into a hundred questions about who Rodgers replaced, but suspects it will.
"I would love to see everybody just take him in as he is," Goode said, "and quit trying to compare him. Everybody's still asking about Favre instead of getting to know our team and realizing the kind of team that we've put together this year. With all the adversity we've gone through, it shows a lot about the character of this team.
"Everybody still talks about Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi and Brett Favre. You're never going to replace those guys; those guys are legends of the game. Aaron is just trying to put his stamp on the Green Bay Packers and trying to get to that level."
And have a little fun. Rodgers said his set at the coffee shop -- if that's what you want to call it -- included a Hootie and the Blowfish song, along with a final tune from Ben Harper. By the end, Rodgers got into it and felt more comfortable on stage. He felt like he belonged.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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