At 40, Aaron Rodgers is the oldest player in the NFL

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Thursday, June 13, 2024

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Driving to practice one day in 2007, Aaron Rodgers, John Kuhn and Corey Hall -- teammates on the Green Bay Packers -- got into a discussion about their football mortality. Rodgers, at the wheel of his Ford pickup, surprised them with his response to the question, "How long do you want to play?"

Even then, Rodgers -- 24 and Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre's understudy -- was fascinated by thought-provoking subjects. Those carpool conversations were deep and open, especially this particular one.

"I'll never forget it," Kuhn told ESPN. "He said, 'I'm just going to do this for a little while. It's not going to be my life. I'm going to go back to Chico [in California] and coach high school football because I love kids.'"

Kuhn was shocked. Even though his buddy still hadn't started an NFL game, he knew -- everyone knew -- that Rodgers possessed "extreme talent," as Kuhn described it. So, no, he didn't buy that whole thing about sticking around for only a "little while" so he could return home to shepherd teenagers on the gridiron.

"I don't know if I truly believed him in that moment," said Kuhn, whose skepticism was well-founded.

FOUR MVP AWARDS, one Super Bowl and nearly 60,000 passing yards later, Rodgers is still driving to practice while making his living as a quarterback. The Ford pickup is long gone. These days, he's leading the New York Jets, trying to take them to a destination they haven't seen in 55 years -- the Super Bowl.

He's the oldest active player in the NFL -- he turns 41 on Dec. 2 -- impressing teammates and coaches with his longevity and youthful passion. He's the OG whose body of work prompts reactions from teammates. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams was incredulous upon learning recently that Rodgers is preparing for his 20th season.

"I didn't know that," Williams said. "Aaron [has] 20 years in the NFL? Man!"

Doing quick math, Williams noted that rookie running back Braelon Allen, 20, has been alive almost as long as Rodgers has played in the NFL. In fact, Allen was 15 months old when Rodgers was drafted by the Packers in 2005.

And now here they are, practicing together, with Rodgers handing off and throwing passes to the youngest player in the league. Talk about bridging the generation gap. Allen doesn't turn 21 until Jan. 20, which means Rodgers will have to wait until the postseason (the Jets hope) before taking him out for a legal cocktail.

Allen grew up in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, 75 miles south of Green Bay, meaning his earliest sports memories are of Rodgers on the TV set in the family living room. He wasn't a Packers fan, but he was captivated by "greatness," as he called it.

"Just seeing him every week, growing up in Wisconsin, to be on the same field as him eventually will be a surreal feeling," Allen said. "But, you know, I've heard some stories. You better do your job or he's going to let you know."

The rookie's presence merely highlights what the rest of the team already knows: Rodgers is pushing back against Father Time, trying to produce his own "Very Brady Sequel."

When he starts in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, Rodgers will become the seventh quarterback since 1960 to start at least one game in his 40s. The others are Tom Brady (98 starts), Vinny Testaverde (25), Drew Brees (23), Favre (13), Doug Flutie (six) and Warren Moon (one).

Testaverde, who played with the Jets from 1998 to 2003 and again in 2005, knows what's ahead for Rodgers.

"It's inevitable that they're going to talk about [his age]," Testaverde said. "If he's playing great, it'll be, 'He's playing great at 40, but how long can it last?' If he's not, it'll be, 'What's going on? He's showing his age.' It's always something. He can't let it affect him, and I don't think he'll let it be a distraction. That's going to be the biggest thing to fight."

Recalling when he was 40, Testaverde said Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells made him run extra gassers in training camp. He reported in excellent shape, but still was ordered to run with the players who had failed their conditioning test. In Parcells' mind, older players needed to do more to keep up with the rest.

Suffice it to say, Rodgers won't be running extra laps in camp. Times have changed. Two-a-days went by the wayside in 2011. Less is more in the safety-conscious NFL, which has clamped down on practice time and the number of padded practices. This, Testaverde believes, is one of the main reasons Rodgers and others have played into their 40s.

RODGERS HAS ADJUSTED his diet and fitness regimen over the years, becoming more health-conscious. In his early days with the Packers, his daily lunch often consisted of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Sun Chips and a handful of gummy bears, according to Kuhn, who sat with him in the team cafeteria.

"It was wild to see that from a guy who was so supremely gifted," Kuhn said. "But he has changed that over the years, and he has gone through different diets and different workouts."

About a decade ago, Rodgers cut out dairy and gluten to solve some joint issues, resulting in more energy. He started hot yoga. He slept more. He focused on recovery. Just a few months ago, he was spotted at the famous steps in Santa Monica, California, working out with members of the USC football team.

Rodgers has talked about emulating Brady, who was obsessed with health and wellness and played until he was 45. No word on whether Rodgers snacks on avocado ice cream.

In a way, Rodgers has come full circle. During a pre-draft workout in 2005, he threw passes to Jerry Rice, an age-defying marvel who had just finished his career at 42. The private session was conducted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who invited his former wide receiver to participate.

The idea was to see how he'd react in the presence of a legend. Naturally, Rodgers was stunned when Rice showed up at Cal's Memorial Stadium to catch passes from a 21-year-old kid. (The Bucs passed on him with the fifth pick, opting for running back Cadillac Williams.)

Two decades later, Rodgers is Rice-like, impressing the younger guys with his longevity and accomplishments.

"To see how hard he's worked, to see how much he loves football, to see how smart he is, how much he pours into our team and pours into football, is unbelievable," Williams said. "It just trickles [down] to everybody else and makes everybody else better."

RODGERS SAID HE tries to be "intentional" every day, which often means coaching up the younger players.

Rodgers was present at the team's offseason activities, but he didn't attend this week's mandatory minicamp because of a previous commitment, according to the team, which termed it an "unexcused absence."

Second-year center Joe Tippmann, who never got a chance to play with Rodgers last season, is trying to learn the quarterback's sophisticated cadence. It's challenging.

"He doesn't just tell me, he teaches me something that maybe I messed up on or didn't understand," Tippmann said. "He's going to run it back and explain to me how he sees it. And that's something that has really helped me."

Rodgers' relationship with No. 1 wide receiver Garrett Wilson has evolved over the past 14 months. There's more give-and-take than before, with Wilson showing no reservations about expressing his opinion.

"We're able to have some conversations that we wouldn't have had initially at this time last year, those tougher conversations, those ones where we might disagree, where we do agree, where he's got his two cents on it, which is always the best two cents I've heard," Wilson said.

Rodgers is extremely demanding, creating a level of accountability. The coaches feel his presence, too.

It's not easy coaching a future Hall of Famer, someone who started playing in the league before most of the Jets' staff was coaching in it. The only coach who predates Rodgers is cornerbacks coach Tony Oden, who started in 2004. Head coach Robert Saleh began the same year as Rodgers: 2005.

"With a guy like Aaron, trying to impress him with a special PowerPoint or some magic coaching point, that's not going to happen," passing game coordinator Todd Downing said. "But what I can do is help prepare him and serve him in a way that makes him feel like he's prepared to go out there and win. So that's all I try to do, and I think that's enough for him."

Receivers coach Shawn Jefferson, whose 13-year playing career ended two years before Rodgers was drafted, said it's "unbelievable" to watch the veteran on a daily basis. For Jefferson, hired in January, this is his first exposure to Rodgers.

Jefferson was so moved that he shared some thoughts with his players.

"Hey, guys, you can play in this league for 10 to 12 years and not play with a quarterback like this," Jefferson said. "Let's take advantage of him while he's here. I mean, this quarterback can literally make your career."

RODGERS LONGS FOR a Brady-like finish to his career, but it won't be easy. There are a few factors working against him. There's his age. There's the injury; no quarterback has ever returned from an Achilles tear at 40. (Testaverde was 37 when he came back from the same injury in 2000.) Reminded by a reporter that he's attempting something unprecedented, Rodgers smiled.

"Good," he said.

How much does it add to his motivation?

"More, now that you mentioned that," Rodgers said. "So thank you for that."

Kuhn would love to see his old teammate pull a Brady or a Peyton Manning, winning a Super Bowl with his second team. The naysayers, Kuhn believes, will supply Rodgers with plenty of motivation.

He wouldn't be surprised if he plays a few more years. "Significant slippage" in production is the only thing that Kuhn believes would stop him because Rodgers would consider that too much of a "burden" to keep playing.

"To the day I die, I'll say he was the best thrower of the football I've ever seen," Kuhn said. "Pair that up with some smarts, which he obviously has, and it makes him very dangerous. And that's what has allowed him to play for a very long time."

Built for the long haul. Like a Ford truck.

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