In 2002, when the idea of a Rick Reilly profile did not automatically produce groans of displeasure, Reilly profiled Donald Driver for SI. It’s not a bad story, actually, if only because Driver’s story is the way it is.
In many ways, all of them fairly saddening, his story was familiar: Driver overcame a harrowing childhood and all sorts of bad fortune to get to where he was in 2002, and where he is today, which is maybe a quarter-step shy of football greatness. Driver grew up poor, as in living-in-the-back-of-a-U-Haul-with-his-mother-and-four-siblings-for-an-entire-month poor. He started stealing cars when he was in seventh grade. After successfully lifting 20 or 30 of them, he ended up on a police chase, during which he crashed into an old woman’s car as she was leaving her house. He got out and ran, and got away, but his conscience made him turn back to check on her.
As it turned out, she was fine. The cops had been by, but were temporarily out of sight. When they came back, with Driver still on her porch, she covered for him, telling the police that he was her grandson. They left to continue their pursuit.
“You could be doing so much more with your life!” the old woman admonished him. The words resonated with Driver, and have power in their own right and in the context of Driver’s near-great, recently concluded NFL career: as with all others whose triumphs over adversity we have read about over the years, if each facet of that story does not play out exactly as it did, we almost certainly do not get to watch Driver play football for 14 seasons.
If this style of sportswriterly mythmaking—this story, or one that’s very similar—is creaking, clanking and old, it’s mostly because of when we hear the story and who tells it. That is, after everything has been overcome: millions made, jerseys sold, legend and new life more or less secure, and that is from an emotion-inducement specialist who spends a day or two filling in the subject’s blanks. So it was with Donald Driver and Rick Reilly, even over a decade ago. But nothing in Driver’s career was ever so forgone a conclusion.
Coming out of Division 1-AA Alcorn State, Driver was picked by the Packers in the seventh round, 213th overall. He’s smallish for a NFL receiver, and barely made the team in each of his first three seasons; during that stretch, he caught just 37 balls for 520 yards and three touchdowns. Driver would finish his career as Green Bay’s all-time leader with 743 catches and 10,137 receiving yards. His 61 touchdown receptions are third-best in franchise history, trailing only Don Hutson (99) and Sterling Sharpe (65). In the NFL as in his personal life, Driver came from nowhere.
Anyway, all this lily-gilding is not just unnecessary, but contradictory. Driver was tough, but his game was prosaic: he’d get a quarter-step on his man, not much more, and would contort his body to do the rest. Whereas Randy Moss glided past defenders and Steve Smith blazed past them, Driver’s routes and success relied on deliberate, precise movement--when he beat his defender on a deep route, it was almost always due to some guile-ful stutter step or misdirection. Once he did get behind his defender, he wasn’t getting caught.
Driver made his living and his career running heedlessly and fearlessly over the middle, which meant that he’d get hit. Once every few weeks, he’d really catch one. This was not so long ago, but these hits still happened in an era when killshots earned chuckling YOU GOT JACKED!!! UP!!! whoops from Stuart Scott and ESPN’s highlight crew, as opposed to the queasy awe that greets them now. From that period, there is much footage of Driver lying motionless on the ground; knowing what we know now, and probably knew then, this is disturbing. But from 2002-2011, in which he aged from 27 to 36, he missed just two games. He just kept going.
Of course time would catch up with him. His skills began to erode, and he was passed on the Packers depth chart by one receiver after another. After catching 70 or more passes for over 1000 yards for six straight years, he caught 51 for 565 in 2010. In 2011, it was 37 for 445. He’d show flashes of his former self -- you’ve likely seen that unbelievable touchdown catch from 2010 where he shakes off 49ers defenders for 30 yards on his way into the end zone a few dozen times; he was one of the only Packers to show up in the team’s gut-wrenching playoff loss to the Giants in the 2011-12 campaign. But, those few fleeting moments notwithstanding, Driver had largely lost the quarter-step that was always the only real edge he had. He caught just eight balls for 77 yards in all of 2012, and was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. He’ll announce his retirement on Wednesday, at Lambeau Field.
The broader non-negotiable human life cycle is embedded in football, but it is accelerated and more violent, and ends not with actual death but with decline and retirement and whatever indignities or twilight triumphs await in that obscurity; for a great many players, especially those who played for a long time, the struggles that await there are merciless. It’s painful to think about what might be in store for Donald Driver after all those hits. Whatever awaits, Driver seems content to meet it. He could have caught on with another NFL team this offseason; the Vikings, for instance, were reportedly interested in signing him. But Driver seems ready to move on. Whatever melancholy fans (like me) might feel about this, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t time.
If it’s difficult to resist the mythmaking impulse with Donald Driver, it’s mostly because of how well he did at making his own myth. He stayed with the same team throughout his career; he flourished despite comparatively unexceptional natural talent; he was knocked down viciously and got up, tenaciously and repeatedly; he didn’t hang on longer than he should’ve, or sulk as younger players passed him; he is truly and sincerely active in the community. These are all admirable things, even if they’re also items on the Football Hero Profile checklist.
“I would never play for a rival team. I never would,” Driver told Cheesehead TV reporter Brian Carriveau. “There’s always going to be interest, that’s part of the game. There’s going to be teams out there that want to be part of your career, and you want to be part of theirs. But the only part of a career of somebody I wanted to be with was the green and gold.”
There’s one image—or, more specifically, a time-lapse slideshow with the same pose—that keeps coming back to me: Donald Driver’s smile, which was huge and bright and constant even beyond his peak years. It was visible from within the anonymity of his helmet, and through the facemask. That smile makes for a tidy symbol in a reverent profile, admittedly; seeing it again at Lambeau Field, when Driver officially announces his retirement, offers a nice, warm ending. But Donald Driver’s smile was more than a symbol. It was real. If you watched him play, you couldn’t miss it.