Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver often had time for fans, especially at Lambeau Field. File/Press-Gazette Media
Donald Driver won’t go down as the greatest wide receiver in Green Bay Packers history, but he very well could be the most popular.
In 14 seasons with the Packers, Driver captured the hearts of fans with his fearless playing style, unprecedented production, infectious smile and humble roots.
Only Brett Favre played more games for the Packers, and only Bart Starr and Ray Nitschke played more seasons. That’s some pretty good company.
Driver announced his retirement Thursday — two days shy of his 38th birthday — as the Packers’ record holder for catches and receiving yards.
No one would have predicted that a lowly 1999 seventh-round draft choice taken with the 213th overall pick would become the most prolific receiver in the franchise’s nearly 100-year history.
Driver was a classic overachiever who scratched and clawed his way up the depth chart as a rookie, became a starter by his fourth season and went on to earn four Pro Bowl berths.
Driver shattered the NFL myth that youth and success are synonomous. The best years of his career came after he turned 30, when he produced five 1,000-yard seasons.
About the only goal Driver didn’t achieve was playing until age 40, but he didn’t miss by much.
Driver kept his classy reputation intact until the end. During his final season in 2012 he caught only eight passes and barely played, yet he never publicly complained.
When the Packers gave indications they didn’t want to bring him back for another season, Driver determined he would rather retire than try to catch on with another team.
“I’ve always said I never want to wear another uniform. I’ve always said that I owe it to the fans to retire as a Packer,” Driver told The Associated Press on Wednesday from New Orleans, where he was doing promotional work during Super Bowl week.
Driver believes he still possesses the skills to play in the NFL, but if he can’t do it in Green Bay, his adopted second home, what’s the use?
“I owe it to the fans to put the cleats up,” he said. “I promised them years ago that I would never wear nothing but green and gold, so I owe it to them to walk away.”
Driver seemingly didn’t want a repeat of the messy divorce between Favre and the Packers organization.
“I just wanted to make it easy on the organization, not put any pressure on them,” Driver said. “Just be able to walk away on my own terms and not have them say, ‘We’re not going to bring you back.’”
So Driver will receive a grand retirement send-off next week in the Lambeau Field Atrium. It’s only fitting that Packers fans will be in attendance for the event.
In terms of the best receivers in Packers history, Driver ranks behind Pro Football Hall of Famers Don Hutson and James Lofton, and perhaps Sterling Sharpe.
There were other Packers receivers arguably as talented as Driver, such as Billy Howton, Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks, but their time in Green Bay didn’t last nearly as long. Greg Jennings also falls into that group but is expected to leave this offseason in free agency after seven seasons, only half of Driver’s time here.
The average career in the NFL lasts less than four years, so Driver is a rarity. To play for that length of time with the same team is even more unique.
“Not too many guys get to play for one organization,” Driver said. “What I feel like I’ve done on and off the field has truly been a blessing.”
Packers fans wholeheartedly agree.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.