Flashbacks started not long after the clock expired last week in Detroit. Richard Rodgers Sr., watching from 500 miles away, saw his son extend a game everyone thought was over. One generation later, another miracle was coming to life.
Out of time and options, Green Bay Packers tight end Richard Rodgers Jr. lateraled the football to his quarterback. In his living room, Rodgers Sr. sat up. His mind traced back 33 years. Most observers saw the lateral and thought nothing of it. Rodgers Sr. knew better.
“That’s a unique thing in my eyes,” he said.
Rodgers Sr. could tell you all about miracles on the gridiron.
He was a key player in the rugby-style kickoff returned for a touchdown that tilted the 1982 rivalry game between California and Stanford. Rodgers Sr. executed two of the five laterals that kept “The Play” alive. Three decades later, it remains among the most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finishes in college football history.
Each fall, Rodgers Sr. said, there’s always another reporter calling to ask about The Play. Not this year. The 2015 college football season ended, and his phone stayed silent. Finally, he thought, the memories were fading.
“Then,” Rodgers Sr. said, “all the sudden this happens, and it blows up all over again.”
Across the country, in an otherwise forgettable Thursday night game, Rodgers Sr. saw his son keep the play alive. Rodgers Jr.’s lateral led to a facemask penalty, which led to a no-chance prayer 61 yards from the end zone, which led to chaos Rodgers Sr. found all too familiar.
He watched Aaron Rodgers’ pass lift out of the TV screen, so high it almost scraped Ford Field’s ceiling. If it dropped in the end zone, Rodgers Sr. remembered thinking, his son would be there to catch it.
“He’s probably been making that catch since he was about 12,” Rodgers Sr. said. “He’s dreamed about it. He’s done it in his mind. He thinks he can make every catch like that. So I wasn’t surprised. I was probably more surprised that the ball got all the way to the end zone. I mean, the throw was a heck of a throw. Just the fact that the throw got there, I knew that he would have a chance.
“In his mind, he’s done that over and over playing with his brother in the backyard or wherever. He’s made that catch a million times.”
Make it a million and one.
Rodgers Jr. reached for a miracle falling from the sky. He corralled a piece of football history. It was the NFL’s longest game-winning Hail Mary, one of the league’s most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending, exciting, thrilling finishes ever. And Rodgers Sr.’s son was a key player.
It sounds like a movie script, something concocted in a Hollywood trailer. There have been father-son tandems in college football, even in the NFL. Rodgers Sr., a defensive assistant with the Carolina Panthers, and his son are now central figures in two of the game’s most unlikely plays.
“It’s just a special thing,” Rodgers Sr. told Press-Gazette Media from the Panthers’ football facilities this week. “I think he’ll learn to appreciate it more as he gets older, and it’s something he can share with his kids and his grandkids, and all those things. Certainly, for our family, it’s a big deal for both of us to be a part of football history.”
Richard Rodgers never tried to follow in his dad’s footsteps. It’s hard to believe now. Twice this week, he draped himself in a Cal football shirt inside the Packers’ locker room. Rodgers loves his alma mater every bit as much as his father does.
For a long time, he figured his path would wind differently. He knew the legacy, understood the history, but that’s only because The Play would be shown on every countdown list through the years. In the Rodgers household, it was rarely discussed.
“When me and my brother knew it was big,” Rodgers Jr. said, “was when it got on the video game, NCAA. They tried to re-enact plays and stuff, and had that. So when it was on there, we kind of knew it was a big deal.”
By the time he was in high school, Rodgers Jr. was living on the opposite coast. Dad was a secondary coach at Holy Cross for one season in 2005 before being promoted to defensive coordinator. Rodgers Jr. was a two-sport star 40 miles east of Boston. In his first varsity football game at St. John’s High, Rodgers Jr. caught a game-winning touchdown. It was a fade route, not a Hail Mary, but he flashed his father’s late-game mettle.
Until last week, that was his only other game-winning catch.
“Those things,” Rodgers Sr. said, “he’s prone to do because he thinks he can.”
Rodgers Jr.’s college football interest was Oregon, because that’s where his cousin played. Jairus Byrd is a safety with the New Orleans Saints now, but he played for the Ducks when Rodgers Jr. was in high school.
He had scholarship offers from Oregon and Notre Dame, but a trip to Berkeley before his senior high school season changed his mind. Walking the same campus sidewalks his dad once traveled, it was a natural fit.
“I wasn’t really looking at Cal as one of my top schools or anything,” Rodgers Jr. said. “I didn’t really like Cal growing up. I wasn’t a Cal fan or anything like that. It was just weird that it turned out that I went there. I never really had any plans to follow in my dad’s footsteps.”
Rodgers Sr. was never an overbearing parent, his son said. He was too busy being a professional coach to volunteer time with his son’s teams. On Friday nights, Rodgers Sr. would be in the stands to watch his kid play. He provided “tips” back at home, but he wasn’t one to overcoach.
Rodgers Jr. tried to soak up all the knowledge he could. Hand usage. Footwork. Playing with urgency. He wanted to know all the secrets.
“That’s really valuable,” Rodgers Jr. said. “A lot of people’s parents can’t really relate to what they do. If you play a sport and your parents didn't play sports, or football in particular, you don’t know whether to listen to them or not. But I knew that I should listen to my dad because he’s obviously a football coach, and he’s at a higher level than I’m at.
“So I knew he wasn’t telling me anything crazy, or anything off the wall, and he was always looking out for my best interests.”
Beyond the Hail Mary
The text was sent before his son returned to the locker room. In a father’s excitement, there were so many things Rodgers Sr. wanted to say. But it was late, and he knew his son would be busy. So he trimmed his thoughts to a few words.
“That was a big-time play,” Rodgers Sr. texted.
They didn’t talk until the next day, Rodgers Jr. said. They discussed the win, how well he played, how he pulled off the Hail Mary. Rodgers Sr. never mentioned their connection in football history.
“I don’t think I had to,” Rodgers Sr. said.
There was plenty to discuss outside the final play.
While Rodgers Jr. has quickly seized the bulk of the Packers' tight end snaps, starting 11 of the 12 games this season, something was lacking. Entering the Detroit game, Rodgers Jr. was averaging only 7.5 yards per catch.
He unlocked the secret to making plays downfield last week, even before the 61-yard touchdown. Twice, he had 26-yard receptions. At the time, they stood as his longest plays of the year. Before the Hail Mary, Rodgers Jr.’s seven catches for 85 yards already were season highs.
This was a different player. A more dynamic tight end.
“Before the Hail Mary,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “Richard had a heck of a football game. I think he caught every ball that was thrown to him, if my memory is right. So he needed that, and we needed that.”
Someday, Rodgers Jr. knows, he’ll be able to share details of the Hail Mary with his kids. Maybe they’ll put it on a video game, try to reenact the miracle. But he isn’t thinking about that now.
There’s another game this week. The Packers need a win when they host the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field. Rodgers Jr. needs to use last week as a springboard, continue the momentum.
“I probably won’t get a chance to think about the history of it until I’m done playing,” Rodgers Jr. said, “because I’m focused on the Cowboys this week, and we obviously have a lot of work to do. But it’s fun to have my dad be involved in something like that. I think his was a little bit more hectic because that was one of the first plays that people had seen like that, and the band was on the field, and everyone was running around, and no one knows what actually happened, and stuff like that.
“You see a lot of Hail Marys caught. Maybe not a lot, but there’s a good amount caught. It does happen.”
This wasn’t just any Hail Mary. It won a game. It came with no time on the clock. And it wouldn’t have happened if not for the laterals.
Rodgers Jr. said he was never previously on a team that executed a Hail Mary, much less in that situation. His father looked at the combination laterals and a 61-yard no-chance prayer, and there was a certain appreciation in his voice. Rodgers Sr. can tell you all about miracles on the gridiron, and this was one of them.
“It was Rodgers the tight end throwing across to Rodgers the quarterback,” Rodgers Sr. said. “Then you get the facemask. So he got an opportunity to be a part of the laterals, and then he caught the Hail Mary. He kind of did it all at once.”
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