Donald Driver turns celebrity into action

Richard Ryman
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Former Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver will be inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in April.

GREEN BAY – Donald Driver defines his life as being on the bubble, and taking advantage of opportunities when they arise.

The former Green Bay Packers receiver, along with former cornerback Mark Lee, were chosen this week for induction into the Packers Hall of Fame in July.

Driver, who played from 1999-2012, is the Packers’ all-time receptions leader with 743. His 205 games played for the Packers over 14 seasons is second-most in franchise history behind Brett Favre’s 255. Driver compiled a franchise-best 10,137 receiving yards and scored 62 touchdowns. The four-time Pro Bowl selection caught a pass in 133 consecutive games and had nine straight seasons with 50 or more receptions.

Gaudy numbers for a seventh-round draft choice who in his youth could have gone in a very different direction. Growing up in Houston, Driver was homeless for a time in his early teens and admits to stealing cars and selling drugs to support his family. Moving in with his grandmother and athletics allowed him to take a better path. He was a four-sport star in high school and excelled at track and football at Alcorn State in Mississippi, where the Packers found him.

"It's very exciting," Driver said of his Packers Hall of Fame selection. "It tells the journey of what I've accomplished to this day. That's the thing I can never take for granted, for all the hard work and time and effort I put into being successful on and off the field."

Driver used his on-field accomplishments to advantage off the field. In 2001, Driver and his wife, Betina, created the Donald Driver Foundation, which offers assistance to ill children with unmanageable hospital bills, provides housing for the homeless and donates to local charities. In 2014 he created the Donald Driver Driven to Achieve Awards. And, in his spare time, he became a "Dancing with the Stars" champion in 2012.

Driver's career was relatively rare in that he spent all 14 years in Green Bay, where it could be argued that off-field opportunities, both good and bad, aren't as great as in Chicago, New York or Dallas, and the ability to blend in is definitely less. He didn't want to be treated like a celebrity, but that's hard for a successful Packers player to avoid in Green Bay, so he used it.

"That's the thing, as celebrities, or whatever you want to be labeled as, you have to embrace every single moment," he said. "It makes you a better man, a better husband, a better father."

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Among his strongest off-field experiences was time spent with children who had cancer. One who stood out was Bo Johnson of Sister Bay, who died of leukemia in 2012 at age 13.

Driver said he was driving from Milwaukee to training camp in Green Bay when Cathy Dworak, Packers director of community outreach, called to say another player who was scheduled to visit Johnson at Children's Hospital wasn't available.

"At first I said I'm not going back, but something came across me and said 'what if that was my son?'" Driver said. 

He turned around and his planned 30-minute visit stretched to two and a half hours with Johnson, who was a huge Packers fans.

"For those 2½ hours I was able to take that pain and suffering away," Driver said. "Those are the things that make you the person you are."

Driver caught only three passes his first year with the Packers, but one of them was a touchdown from Favre, the beginning of a prolific career that included a Super Bowl victory and many other achievements, all of which he says are second place to his favorite moment.

"My favorite memory is running out of the tunnel and hearing thousands and thousands cheer you on," he said. "Being around those fans, that's what makes your heart beat."

Driver is in Milwaukee often, but his only time back in Green Bay since his retirement was for Favre's Packers Hall of Fame induction in 2015. He looks forward to coming back again in July.

"They will say you have to move on and the organization will have to move on, but the fans will never leave you," he said. "In any sport, it's a business, but the fans don't look at it as a business. You hope those relationships continue."

Driver and Lee will boost Hall of Fame membership to 159. For Lee, a good player on mediocre teams, the honor was longer coming than for Driver, who was chosen in his first year of eligibility.

"Mark Lee played his 10 years here (1980-90) and he had an amazing career," Driver said. "This something he's been waiting on for a very long time.This is what we are going to cherish."

Driver said seasons like the one the Packers are experiencing this year — they are 4-5 and have not played well — happen.

"They'll get it together. They have to realize you do go through bumps," he said. "The year we went 4-12, that was the worst season. We came back the next year and we did well."

He said injuries, which have bedeviled the Packers this season, mean opportunity for the guys on the bench. An injury led to him getting that first touchdown pass from Favre.

"You have to make the best of them," he said of opportunities. "You are always on the bubble. I never thought I was on the team. From 1999 to 2013, I always thought I was on the bubble."

Come July, he'll finally be off the bubble.

Contact and follow him on Twitter @RichRymanPG, onInstagram at rrymanpgor on Facebook at Richard Ryman-Press-Gazette. Or call him at (920) 431-8342.

Green Bay Packers cornerback Mark Lee (22) stands on the sideline during a game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Nov. 3, 1985. Lee will be inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in July.
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