Poised Aaron Rodgers steadies Packers
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Now we'd seen it all. Forget Dallas freezing over. Hell was about to do the same around 10 o'clock Sunday night, when a white-haired man walked down a long corridor and high-fived fans.
Ted Thompson was smiling and chatty. That alone was breaking news. He was downright animated -- well, at least by Ted Thompson standards.
"You did the right thing, Ted!" a middle-aged fan in a Packers jacket yelled.
Thompson slapped hands with the man and kept going. He didn't need to say a thing. Aaron Rodgers said everything for him. For five years, they stuck together, their futures wound tightly. The Packers' general manager was one of the most vilified men in Green Bay for cutting ties with Brett Favre; Rodgers was the young quarterback getting defeated by Favre last season.
It all seemed so long ago Sunday night, when Rodgers made the rounds from one end of the locker room to the other after the Packers' 31-25 Super Bowl XLV victory, grabbing every player, assistant coach and equipment worker in a tight clench, telling them all he loved them.
Favre's name wasn't even uttered, mainly because so much has happened since then. There were the 15 guys who wound up on injured reserve this season, and the village it took to replace them. There were the losses of veterans Donald Driver and Charles Woodson on Sunday, and the main constant through it all was the Packers' quarterback, who never changed a thing.
"He's the focal point of our team," Thompson said.
"I think people are going to write stories about him 10 years from now that he's pretty special. Even though he's done so much, he's sort of just getting started."
The composure Rodgers showed in those early post-Favre days was on full display Sunday night. His receivers dropped six perfectly thrown strikes; Driver was gone; and just about every ounce of momentum seemed to have been sapped from the Packers' sideline in the second half after the Steelers rallied from a 21-3 first-half deficit and brought the score to within a field goal with 7:34 to play.
Not long after Rodgers was sacked by Ziggy Hood and LaMarr Woodley on the first play of the next drive, Green Bay faced third-and-10 on the 25-yard line. But the QB uncorked a 31-yarder to Greg Jennings, setting up Mason Crosby's 23-yard field goal.
Rodgers exuded confidence all night. It started Sunday afternoon, when he sat in the corner of the locker room listening to his iPod. At halftime, while the Black Eyed Peas played outside, Rodgers took off his pads and joked around with his teammates about the lengthy Super Bowl intermission.
It was Rodgers' first Super Bowl, against a team so postseason savvy, but Rodgers was the one who gave off the vibe that he'd been here before. Maybe it's because every game since December has been an elimination game, and the Packers very well might not have even been here if the New York Giants hadn't squandered a three-touchdown lead to Philadelphia in one of the final games of the regular season.
Rodgers was determined not to let the Packers squander their lead, or their chance.
"We just felt confident we were going to be able to move the football," Rodgers said, "as long as we blocked them up front."
Driver said he found Rodgers on the sideline in the third quarter, sometime after James Jones dropped an open-field pass that might've gone for a touchdown. (Jones later redeemed himself with a clutch catch on the Packers' fourth-quarter touchdown drive.)
Driver, 36, an old friend of Favre's, just looked at Rodgers and smiled after the drop. Then Rodgers smiled too.
"I don't think he ever got down on himself," Driver said. "I looked at him, and I just told him, 'Go ahead, do what you do.'
"Nothing changed for Aaron [this season]. I've been knowing Aaron since '05. And he's the same guy. Day in and day out. Now he just has a little more swagger about him. That's what I told him earlier, 'You've always had this cockiness and confidence. Now it's even bigger.' I take my hat off to him. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the game."
When it was over, and Rodgers had thrown for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, he was the Super Bowl MVP. It's an award Favre never got.
But no one was thinking about ghosts late Sunday. Rodgers was scurried from interview to interview until he started to cramp. He spotted his grandparents in the melee of confetti and people and stopped to take a picture with them.
He joked around with his older brother, Luke, who teammates say is a dead ringer for Aaron. At one point, Luke doubled for his brother and did an interview with backup quarterback Graham Harrell. They joked about that, how Luke fooled some reporter. And the Packers' three quarterbacks -- Rodgers, Matt Flynn and Harrell -- stood in the corner of the locker room and laughed late into the night.
Thanks for the ride, Rodgers told his backups. Then Rodgers sat on the wooden bench alone, his feet propped up, and just stared at the scene with a sly grin that never went away. All of the Packers' quarterbacks are under the age of 28, and they're brother-close. After Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the season in December, he flew to New England and threw on a headset, trying to help Flynn knock off the Patriots.
"He's on cloud nine right now," Harrell said. "You can just tell by looking at him."
So was Thompson, in his own private way. He has always been the quiet type, so reserved that a few local media types have called him hermitlike. He builds teams through the draft instead of going for quick fixes, which hasn't always been a popular philosophy for fans in Green Bay. But not anymore.
Thompson was a role player at best in his playing days in the NFL, but the former linebacker has said this is what he loves best about his job, the camaraderie in the locker room. He was asked whether he felt vindicated and said he doesn't think about stuff like that.
He said he felt relieved.
"I've said this over and over," Thompson said. "A team is something very, very special. A championship team that goes through all the things this one went through is remarkably special."
And Rodgers didn't want it to end Sunday night. He was one of the last to linger in the locker room, so late the Packers' five buses were nearly full and had their engines running. He walked to the last bus just after 11 p.m. as the drivers tried to warm themselves and ate sliders.
He hugged his agent, David Dunn. He hugged the bus driver. Then Rodgers, sharply dressed in a gray suit and a blue shirt, walked up the steps and took a seat near the back of the bus.
He stood in the aisle and danced for his teammates, swaying back and forth. He was no longer another legend's replacement. There was never any doubt.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.