BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. — The first golf cart wouldn’t start, so the old coach found another to pilot down the jagged asphalt toward the practice field.
Craig Rigsbee spoke as he drove, past the crumbling tennis courts and the giant banner of Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback. Rigsbee slowed the cart to wave at passing students. “Everybody here has a story,” he said, and so does Butte College itself.
Rigsbee is the athletic director at this commuter junior college of about 14,000 students in north-central California, but for 23 years, he didn’t so much coach football as he brought together outcasts, drifters and optimists — each of them in search of a last chance. One student quit his job driving a semi to play offensive line. Another time, the Roadrunners needed a defensive lineman more than they needed an equipment manager, so a young man stopped washing jerseys and began wearing one.
But Rodgers is the subject of Rigsbee’s favorite story, the one he told as he stopped the cart near the end zone: Over in that corner, he said, is where a skinny kid — taking advantage of raw talent, a nurturing environment and, perhaps most important, a few favors — nailed his Division I audition and became Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback whose fearlessness would make him a future Super Bowl champion and NFL most valuable player.
Before his single season at Butte, this imperfect campus near nothing in particular, Rodgers figured his football career was finished. He was too thin, too reckless on the field; after his senior season at Pleasant Valley High in nearby Chico, no Division I program offered Rodgers a scholarship. Illinois wanted him to walk on, and California — where Rodgers would go on to become a star before the Packers made him their first-round draft pick in 2005 — never so much as scouted him.
Rodgers, intelligent and skilled but undersized for college football at 5 feet 10 and 165 pounds, considered playing baseball or maybe attending law school. But then Rigsbee, a Butte lifer always looking for ways to improve his program and campus, walked through his neighborhood to the Rodgers home and sold Aaron and his family on one last season under the — well, there are no lights at Butte’s football stadium. But anyway, it was a chance nonetheless to play with teammates who, like the school itself, need a little fixing up. And who knows what will come next? At Butte they have a saying: “Start here, go anywhere.”
“When he looks back on his life,” Rigsbee said, “it’ll seem like total chaos. But it came together perfectly.”
Before deciding, Rodgers had a question for Rigsbee: Would the coach allow him to play the way he likes to play?
Rigsbee gritted his teeth and said yes. Rodgers and Rigsbee took a leap of faith on each other that, in one year, would change the course of Rodgers’s life, the reputation of Butte College and, in some ways, NFL history.
“The most important year of my football career,” Rodgers said recently of his one season at Butte, “and probably right up there with the most enjoyable.”
Perhaps fittingly, the start was imperfect. On the fourth day of practice, Rodgers sprinted to his right, planted his foot and salvaged a busted play with a 50-yard throw for a touchdown. “Did you see that?” Rigsbee asked an assistant coach who had lobbied for a more experienced, cautious quarterback to start for the Roadrunners.
Rodgers won the starting job anyway, and on his first series as a college quarterback, he dropped back, scanned the field and threw an interception. The assistant glared at Rigsbee: Did he see that?
Butte’s players spent those earliest days of the 2002 season sizing each other up and, as best they could, learning about their new teammates.
The center was 25 years old, an ex-truck driver trying to reinvent himself, and the left tackle was pursuing a degree after being discharged from the Army. Two players were from Canada; the place kicker was from Hawaii; the free safety, from juvenile hall.
“We have a lot of kids who have dreams,” said Jeff Jordan, who 13 years ago was the Roadrunners’ quarterbacks coach.
The freshman quarterback, though, was perhaps the most mysterious. His path to Butte had been “traditional,” meaning he had enrolled in college immediately after high school. But Rodgers’s teammates knew almost nothing else about him, other than that he was quiet, hung out mostly with his high school friends and commuted each day from his family’s home in Chico, about 15 miles northwest of Butte. He was involved in activities rooted in his family’s Christian faith and interested in listening to nothing but Counting Crows.
“You didn’t know what he was doing or who he was,” said Bobby Bernal-Wood, a Butte wide receiver in ’02. “He was all business, and then he was gone.”
Players found themselves here from all manner of background, a campus accessible because of its $200-per-semester tuition and, for the same reason, devoid of luxuries. Players met with coaches not in offices, exactly, but in single-wide trailers parked outside the gymnasium. They played on patchy turf encircled by a track whose pits suggest its best days were long ago.
Before each season, Rigsbee went on a fundraising tour to raise money for uniforms and bus fuel, year after year selling donors on the same premise. His young men had ended up in Butte because of some asterisk — grades too low, body too small, priorities temporarily placed elsewhere — but they could play; they just needed a chance.
Rigsbee, a well-marbled former offensive lineman, scraped together enough money for another football season in 2002 and had to fit the roster together like a puzzle. Back then the pieces looked increasingly like a pro-style offense that depended, for better or worse, on Rodgers’s ability to improvise.
Rigsbee spent extra practice time on conditioning, including each Monday’s 20-minute run — sprint the length of the field, walk the end zone — and the “scramble drill,” a lesson on what linemen and receivers should do when a play breaks down. More and more, coaches found, Rodgers couldn’t be contained within a designed play; they had to train his teammates to keep moving until Rodgers made something happen.
“If you’re training a high school quarterback or a college quarterback,” former Cal coach Jeff Tedford said, “you wouldn’t even try to attempt to teach some of the things Aaron does.”
After that interception in the season opener, Rigsbee stuck with Rodgers as his starter, and coaches — despite their instincts and temptations — allowed the quarterback the freedom to keep playing without rules or fear.
“You know how many people told him he couldn’t do this stuff?” Rigsbee said, adding that he had, after all, made a promise while recruiting Rodgers. “We said: ‘Hey, you can do this.’ ”
He finished the first half with three touchdown passes and another touchdown reception in a blowout win against West Hills Community College. By halftime of that game, Rodgers’s teammates knew all they needed to know: With Rodgers under center, no play could be left for dead.
Against Shasta College, Rodgers sprinted to his right and, throwing against his body, found Bernal-Wood for a deep touchdown. Against Fresno City College, he passed for 465 yards and rushed for 165 more, rolling out at one point to loft an off-balance throw to tight end Garrett Cross for an improbable touchdown. Against the College of the Siskiyous, Rodgers made another off-balance throw to wide receiver Mark Onibokun for yet another acrobatic score.
“It was always like: How did that turn into that?” Bernal-Wood said. “It just happened. But it happened so frequently, you could count on it.”
The Roadrunners went 10-1 that season, and Rodgers would be named the team’s offensive MVP after passing for 26 touchdowns, 2,156 yards and throwing four interceptions.
Years later, Rodgers said, “That year in general gave me a ton of confidence.”
He grew an inch or two, but when college scouts made their way up from the Bay Area, past Sacramento and onto the modest campus, they weren’t interested in the quarterback.
Onibokun would go on to Boise State, and Bernal-Wood would be offered a scholarship to Idaho. Already passed over once, Rodgers seemed to be getting overlooked again. This, Rigsbee believes, is the source of Rodgers’s relentless drive — further stoked when he slipped to 24th overall in the 2005 draft and subsequently waited his turn in Green Bay behind Brett Favre — to prove himself, season after season, no matter his triumphs.
“That chip on his shoulder,” Rigsbee said, “that, ‘Hey, nobody wanted me.’ ”
By the middle of the 2002 season, Cross was hearing from Cal recruiters, and as another “traditional” player who had attended Rodgers’s rival high school in Chico, Cross was aware of the young quarterback’s ambition. He also believed Rodgers’s skills had been partly responsible for the attention he was receiving.
“I knew Aaron’s story, and I knew how that felt,” Cross said. “I knew how it felt to have the ability and talent to play at that level but just not having the exposure you need — that you absolutely need — to get there.”
When Cal’s recruiting staff asked Cross to send footage of his games to Berkeley, he took a risk. He sent his best performances at Butte but also included video from two games in which he had been decent — but in which Rodgers had been great. Cross told his quarterback nothing about his plot.
As the season went on, Rodgers and the Roadrunners continued to excel. Then one day, Cross’s phone rang. More than a dozen years later, Cross remembered how the conversation began.
“I was waiting for the day,” Cross said. “I knew it would come.”
Then Cal tight ends coach Dave Ungerer opened with, “Hey, your quarterback. Rodgers, right?”
Tedford called on the Sunday of Cal’s open date, asking Rigsbee whether he could scout a few players the next afternoon.
Rigsbee said of course, but all he told Rodgers was that he and a few teammates would be spared the day’s 20-minute run. As Cross hoped, Rodgers’s performances at Butte had reached Tedford; the coach couldn’t help but notice the velocity on the throws, the torque he generated from his hips and shoulders, the way Rodgers didn’t need to set his feet to make an accurate pass.
“Not too many people can do some of the things he does,” Tedford said, acknowledging that Rodgers’s instincts and habits might have been trained out of him if he had wound up someplace besides Butte.
Tedford traveled toward the practice field on that Monday, along the jagged asphalt and past the tennis courts that would, much later, be covered by the banner of Rodgers — whose autographed jerseys are now auctioned at fundraisers, Rigsbee said, to pay for Butte’s football uniforms. Standing on the patchy grass, Tedford watched as Rodgers and a few of his teammates lined up. By then Rodgers had realized what was happening, recognizing Tedford as he stood there and spoke with Rigsbee.
“It seemed like he was about eight feet tall,” Rodgers recalled recently.
Looking back, Cross said he ran faster than he had ever run; Rodgers, understanding the importance of the occasion, threw perfect passes and showcased the chemistry they had developed over the past few months.
“Aaron knew what the stakes were; I knew what the stakes were,” said Cross, who would later accept a scholarship to Cal.
After 20 minutes or so, the audition ended, and Tedford went on his way. He drove the three hours toward Berkeley, thinking about the kid who had been passed over again and again, and what might lie ahead for such a young quarterback. What if someone else discovered him at that faraway outpost?
Tedford couldn’t risk it. Before he made it back to campus, he reached for his phone. Rodgers answered and heard the coach’s voice. Tedford was calling to offer him a scholarship.