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Driver danced into Packer fans' hearts with winning smile, joy for the game

Feb. 5, 2013
 
ES_Packers vs. Bears_1.23.11
Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver (80) celebrates with Matt Klein, football administration coordinator, after the Packers defeated the Chicago Bears 21-14 in the NFC championship game on Jan. 23, 2011, at Soldier Field in Chicago. / File/Press-Gazette Media

For the past several summers, the scene played out routinely at Green Bay Packers training camp.

Early in practice, the players conduct drills by position group. The receivers run routes with no one covering them and catch passes thrown by quarterbacks not facing a rush, all in front of the bleachers on the east side of the Ray Nitschke practice field.

Each catch — and rarely was a throw without a catch — draws, at most, a polite applause from the 2,000 or so fans who attend practice most days. But then Donald Driver takes his turn, and when he catches the ball, the fans explode into cheers like he’d just converted a third down in a regular-season game. This while running, as NFL teams call it, routes on air.

“He’s a popular player, and he should be,” said Ron Wolf, the former Packers general manager who selected Driver in the seventh round of the 1999 draft. “To me, he epitomized what it’s all about to be a Green Bay Packers player. Took advantage of his ability, and he was fearless as a receiver. ”

Yes, Driver’s underdog story helped make him one of the most popular Packers players in the past 25 years, a skinny seventh-round draft pick from little Alcorn State who made it, and then thrived, in the NFL.

Yes, Driver’s longevity was another reason he was revered among the all-time Packers greats. His 14 seasons ties for fourth-most in franchise history, behind only Bart Starr and Brett Favre (16 seasons each), and Ray Nitschke (15 seasons).

And yes, winning the TV competition “Dancing With the Stars” last year raised his already-high popularity to another level.

But the starting point for his adoration from many Packers fans might be something more basic, his on-field charisma. In a game in which helmets turn players into mostly faceless performers, Driver regularly flashed a huge smile that reflected a joy for the game and appealed to fans of all stripes on a gut level. In the past 20 years, the only players arguably more popular among Packers fans were Favre, Reggie White and Aaron Rodgers.

“By the way he played, by the way he reacted to the fans,” former Packers receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said in trying to explain Driver’s appeal. “There’s probably never been a guy that’s had as big and bright a smile as Donald Driver.”

Driver’s story is well known to Packers followers, including that he joined the team as a skinny (5-feet-111/4 and 175 pounds), little-known receiver with the springy legs of the high jumper he was.

Wolf added a detail to that story early this week: During Driver’s first preseason, the young receiver did something a rookie rarely and perhaps never had done in Wolf’s career when he dropped by the GM’s office to ask about his chances of making the team.

Wolf also had selected another receiver, Ohio State’s Dee Miller, in the sixth round of that draft, one round ahead of Driver. Interestingly, Wolf, who’s always had a sharp memory for prospects from the top to bottom of drafts over the years, couldn’t remember Miller, who was cut in camp.

But Wolf recalled his conversation with Driver. The talk was short, and about all he told the rookie was that his odds were “pretty good.”

“I knew when he came in there his chances were more than pretty good,” Wolf said. “I knew somehow he’d end up on the team.”

Early on, Driver made an impression on teammates by being friendly and inquisitive. Safety LeRoy Butler, the Packers’ three-time All-Pro safety, said rookies on offense rarely talked to him but that Driver often asked about the coverage on particular plays.

“He had a very likable persona about him, everybody liked him,” Butler said. “He knew how to mingle with the veterans and the young guys. He always felt like if he could learn from the veterans that he could be here. He also was one of the guys that knew, ‘I better stay close to No. 4 (i.e., Favre) if I want to get the ball.’ The next thing, Brett started trusting him over the middle — not just on the perimeter but over the middle — that makes a big difference.”

Driver caught only 37 passes in his first three seasons combined, so even then he didn’t appear headed for one of the longest careers in Packers history. But from 2002 through 2009 he produced, with at least 70 receptions in seven of those eight seasons.

And with each passing year, his popularity grew.

“I love the guy,” Robinson said. “I’ve got the greatest respect and admiration and love for him as anybody I’ve coached.”

pdougher@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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