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Driver showed something special: 'The determination to succeed'

Jan. 31, 2013
 

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Mike, Wes and Pete talk about Donald Driver's deci...: Mike, Wes and Pete talk about Donald Driver's decision to retire from the Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver. File/Press-Gazette Media

Donald Driver, by the numbers

♦ 10,354 — all-time yards from scrimmage, trailing only running back Ahman Green (11,048).
♦ 10,137 — career receiving yards, which ranks No. 1 on the team’s all-time list.
♦ 5,000 — receiving yards at Lambeau Field on 363 receptions, both records.
♦ 743 — career receptions, which also ranks first in team history.
♦ 205 — games played, second-most in team history behind Brett Favre (255).
♦ 133 — consecutive games with a reception before not catching a pass in Week 7 of 2011 against Minnesota.
♦ 62 — overall touchdowns, tied for No. 5 in team history with Paul Hornung.
♦ 61 — career touchdown receptions, ranking third in team history behind Don Hutson (99) and Sterling Sharpe (65).
♦ 27 — receiving touchdowns at Lambeau, trailing only Antonio Freeman (36) in the stadium’s history.
♦ 22 — career 100-yard receiving yards, fifth in team history.
♦ 9 — seasons with 50 or more receptions, a team record.
♦ 7 — 1,000-yard receiving seasons, including six consecutive from 2004 to 2009, both team records.

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Alonzo Highsmith was only a few weeks into his career as an area college scout for the Green Bay Packers when he visited a small campus in southwestern Mississippi to look at the NFL prospects from little Alcorn State.

While there, he looked at videotape of and then interviewed an under-the-radar receiver named Donald Driver, who’d caught 88 passes in his three seasons at Alcorn.

After he finished his work, Highsmith presented Driver as a draft-worthy prospect to his boss, former general manager Ron Wolf. Highsmith thought Driver had the same mental makeup as one of his former teammates at the University of Miami, receiver Michael Irvin, who by 1999 was going into the final season of a career that would land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Their physical makeup and pedigree couldn’t have been more different. Irvin was 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, and a highly regarded prospect coming out of a premier college program. He was the No. 11 pick overall in the 1988 draft.

Driver played a much lower level of Division I college football and was a wiry 5-foot-11¼ and 170 pounds. His standout physical trait was his jumping — he was a national-caliber high and long jumper.

But Irvin was one of the most driven players Highsmith had been around, and after interviewing Driver and the coaching staff at Alcorn, he saw similar characteristics in Driver.

“The toughness, the determination to succeed,” Highsmith said. “(Driver) was not going to not succeed.”

Wolf selected Driver with the seventh pick of the seventh round, No. 213 of 247 players drafted that year. Almost 14 years later, Driver on Thursday announced he’s retiring from the NFL.

He leaves the game as the Packers’ all-time leader in receptions (743) and receiving yards (10,137) and No. 2 in games played (205).

He also leaves as one of the most popular players among Packers fans in at least the last 20 years because of his longevity, charismatic smile and winning performance last year on the TV show “Dancing With the Stars.”

“Not too bad for a high jumper, triple jumper, wanna-be football player,” said Reggie McKenzie, the former Packers personnel executive who now is the Oakland Raiders’ general manager. “Not all bad. Or should I say for a skinny high jumper. He was barely pushing 170 (pounds) when we first got him.”

Driver on Thursday was in New Orleans for a pre-Super Bowl promotional appearance and told reporters there he knew he probably was going to retire during his exit interview with coach Mike McCarthy after the season. He said it became clear he wasn’t in the Packers’ plans, though McCarthy was having a hard time saying it.

“I feel like I can still play,” Driver said, “but if I can’t play for my organization, then I can’t play for anyone else.”

Driver’s longevity and popularity are remarkable in part because his even making the Packers’ roster as a rookie wasn’t a given as a seventh-round pick. He was available in the draft’s final round in 1999 because he came from a lower level of college football, lacked key physical attributes NFL teams emphasize and was unpolished as a receiver.

For starters, even though Driver was an accomplished jumper in track, he wasn’t straight-line fast for a small and skinny receiver. At his Pro Day workout, he ran the 40-yard dash in the mid-4.5-second range.

Also, because he was a track athlete — he’d qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials with a high jump of 7 feet, 6½ inches and in 1997 qualified for the NCAA championships in the long jump with a leap of 25-5 — he missed spring football, where many players refine their skills.

“The one thing he had was quickness,” McKenzie said. “He always had a knack even in practice to make those acrobatic-type plays. He may drop a simple slant or curl or comeback, but you get him to jump over a DB, he’d catch the ball and you go, ‘Where did that come from?’ He was more for flair than steady Eddy.”

The Packers were hardly loaded at receiver in Driver’s rookie year but had drafted one ahead of him, Dee Miller of Ohio State, in the sixth round. They brought 11 receivers to training camp, including Antonio Freeman, Robert Brooks, Derrick Mayes, Corey Bradford and Bill Schroeder.

However, after one day of camp Brooks retired because of a back injury, and by the end of camp Wolf had traded Mayes to the Seattle Seahawks for a seventh-round pick. Driver made the roster ahead of Miller, among others, as the No. 4 or 5 receiver.

Driver didn’t play much early in his career. He had only three catches in six games as a rookie and 34 total in the following two seasons combined. But early on, he showed toughness and desire that caught the team’s attention. He was an all-out special teams player, not as a return man but covering punts and kickoffs.

“The bottom line is Donald right off the bat was a football player,” McKenzie said. “He was competitive, he was a worker.”

Former Pro Bowl safety LeRoy Butler said that as early as 2000 he’d noticed Driver playing well on the scout team during the regular season. So Butler looked up the detailed statistics the coaches chart after each practice and found that Driver was making 70 percent of his catches for the scout team over the middle.

“I’m like, ‘Why do you (coaches) keep sending this kid over the middle?’” Butler said. “And they go, ‘We draw up these plays for you (defensive guys), and we have to find somebody who will go in there.’ Out of all the receivers, he’s the only guy, maybe two or three guys in the league, that catch the majority of their balls between the numbers. Defenses value that. We said he’s a tough son of gun.”

In his fourth season, 2002, Driver broke through with 70 receptions for a 15.2-yard average, nine touchdowns and an appearance in the Pro Bowl. That started a run in which he caught at least 70 passes in seven of eight years, and by 2010 he’d played in three more Pro Bowls.

“He was just a football player that made himself better,” McKenzie said. “Some guys that are B players continue to always be a B player until they start descending to a C and D player. Donald is one of those guys that kept ascending.”

What stands out about Driver more than any play, game or season is his football longevity and remarkable bounce in his legs, even late in his career.

By last season Driver was listed at 194 pounds, but his physique was as sleek as when he was rookie — he said his body fat dropped below 4 percent last offseason, when he was training for football plus participating and eventually winning “Dancing With the Stars.”

Throughout Driver's career, the Packers regarded him as a compulsive trainer, which combined with his natural makeup helped him last to an age, 37, when most players at his position had been retired for four or five years.

“He’s kind of a genetic freak,” Highsmith said. “I think he’s got some of that Adrian Peterson, no body fat.”

McKenzie said: “This is the way he should go out, on his own terms, when he knows it’s time. He can look back and say, ‘I did that.’ He’s done a lot for a seventh-round pick.”

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

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