As he stayed away from Lambeau Field throughout training camp in 1999, Antonio Freeman kept hearing about this rookie seventh-round draft pick. He’d get the occasional phone call from a teammate – these were the days before text messages and social media – about the kid, and wasn’t entirely sure if guys were pulling his leg about the new guy.
After all, Freeman was the Green Bay Packers’ No. 1 receiver at the time, was coming off a huge 1998 season, and as he sat out while saddled with the franchise tag, waiting for a long-term deal, his buddies going through training camp in Green Bay would joke that the kid was on his way to replacing him. When he finally reported to camp in mid-August, he saw that his teammates weren’t entirely kidding about Donald Driver.
“When he came in in 1999, I was still waiting for a contract. So I would only get bits and pieces of Donald Driver,” Freeman recalled on Green & Gold Today on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com on Thursday morning, after news broke that Driver had decided to retire after 14 NFL seasons – all with the Packers.
“I came back to the team, and that’s when I had heard so much about this young kid, late-round draft pick who had a really good chance of making this football team. And I just couldn’t wait to meet him.
“You just saw something in him. He had that drive, that push. You could see he had goals. He saw my successes, he said, ‘I’m going to do it. But you’ll see, Free, I’m going to do it better. I’m going to do it bigger.’”
As it turned out, Driver was exactly right. When he announced Thursday morning on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike that he planned to retire – formally at an open-to-the-fans event inside the Lambeau Field atrium next Wednesday – he did so as the storied franchise’s all-time leader in receptions (743), receiving yards (10,137), 1,000-yard receiving seasons (seven, including six straight from 2004 through 2009), and most consecutive games with at least one reception (133). He ends his career third on the franchise list for touchdown receptions with 61 (behind only Don Hutson’s 99 and Sterling Sharpe’s 65).
“I’m going to officially put the cleats on the shelf. I’m going to walk away from the game,” Driver told Mike & Mike in an in-person interview from Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. “I’m calling it a career.
“It’s always difficult, especially when you feel you can still play the game. You just kind of let it go and say, ‘There’s other things out there.’ It’s the next chapter in (my) career, and I’m ready for it.”
Driver played only 153 snaps in 2012, catching just eight passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns. He was inactive for the regular-season finale at Minnesota on Dec. 30, then was inactive for his final game at Lambeau Field as well, an NFC Wild Card playoff victory over the Vikings on Jan. 5. He played just three snaps, all on special teams, in the Packers’ season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss at San Francisco on Jan. 12.
“After I talked to the wife and kids, I just felt like it was time to walk away,” Driver told Mike & Mike. “My wife said something truly special to me, that she didn’t want to go anywhere else. That made it easy for me as well. And then my kids made it point-blank. Sometimes you just have got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Driver’s retirement will become official at that ceremony next Wednesday, which begins at 11 a.m. and will be open to fans. Driver, Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy, general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will speak at the event. A limited number of tickets, free of charge, will be available on a first-come, first-served basis in person at the Packers’ ticket office, beginning at 9 a.m. Friday. Distribution will be limited to four tickets per person.
“I played my entire career in Green Bay and have always enjoyed a special bond with the fans,” Driver said in a news release sent by the team. “I can think of no better way to retire than to celebrate with them and the Packers organization.”
Talking with Mike & Mike, Driver said, “I want to do something special. I want to do it in front of the fans – something no other player has done. I’m going to open up my retirement to the fans – give them everything they deserve.” He also said he would not reconsider his decision, saying, “I’m not coming back. You don’t want to jump back and forth. I think you have to say what you’re going to say and you have to mean it and stay true to who you are.”
Driver’s personal story is the stuff of Hollywood movie scripts. Because before becoming the team’s all-time leading receiver, he first had to be a homeless child, a juvenile delinquent, a small-college longshot and a little-used special teams player.
His father nicknamed him "Quickie" when he was a fast-moving 3-year-old, and Driver grew up as one of five children born to Faye Gray and Marvin Driver Jr. After his parents divorced, his father went to jail, his mother into debt. Living in a U-Haul after losing their home and most of their possessions to a collection agency, the family bounced around the South, from Houston to Baton Rouge, La.
By the time he was 12, Driver was living a life those who know him today simply cannot believe, stealing cars and selling drugs with his older brother, Marvin III, on Houston street corners. At one point, Donald narrowly escaped being arrested after stealing a car; at age 14, he was robbed of his drugs by another teen, who held a gun to Donald's head.
“I was a little thug,” he once said in an interview.
When Marvin, who had been in prison for possession of a controlled substance and accessory to robbery, was paroled, he hired a private investigator to track down Faye and the kids. When they reconnected, they decided that Donald would go to live with his paternal grandmother, Betty Lofton, in Houston, while Marvin III would live with an aunt.
It was while living with his grandmother that Donald discovered his athletic gifts, becoming a star football player and track athlete at Houston's Milby High School. He also turned his life around with the help of the congregation at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church - where Marvin III would become a minister - and Betty's strict household rules. Driver earned a scholarship to Alcorn State, where he got his undergraduate degree in accounting (he later earned a master's degree in computer science).
“You go through all the trials and tribulations in your life and you just feel like God has placed you where you need to be. I had the ups and I had the downs,” Driver said Thursday. He and wife Betina now have three children – son Cristian and daughters Christina and Charity.
“I’m blessed to play 14 years in the National Football League and have a great family and have great kids. Someone will always be able to tell my kids that their dad was a great football player. But no one will be able to tell them that their dad was a great dad and a great husband. I have to be able to show them that, and that’s what the next chapter of my career is going to be.”
A world-class high-jumper – he was invited to the U.S. Olympic Trials – Driver was taken with the 213th overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft by the Packers, who gave him jersey No. 13 upon his arrival. He ended up making the roster coming out of training camp – ahead of sixth-round pick Dee Miller from Ohio State – and spent two years as a little-used No. 4 or 5 receiver while playing on special teams despite his slight build (6-feet, 194 pounds).
He finally broke through in 2002 with the first of his seven 1,000-yard seasons, and his legend and popularity grew exponentially from there.
"Here's a guy that's gone through a lot, but he's always worked hard. From the first day I met him (in 2000), you could see in his eyes that he was going to do whatever it took to be a great player,” said Ray Sherman, Driver’s position coach when he blossomed. “This guy's given so much and put in so much time. He deserves the success he's had. It's an amazing story."
Even as his role in the offense decreased, Driver remained as popular as ever, reaching a new audience with his mirror ball trophy-winning performance on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars last offseason. In June, he held his annual charity softball game – which he took over after quarterback Brett Favre’s departure – and spoke after the sold-out event of what the fans mean to him.
“I would’ve never expected this in a million years. When I walked in here in 1999, I would’ve never expected to have the fan base that I have now,” Driver said at the time. “I think you treat people like you want to be treated. I don’t put myself on a pedestal – they do. And when they put me on that pedestal, I bring myself back down to earth, knowing I’m just a normal human being. I think now they see that. I think not just the Packers fans see that and Packer Nation sees that, but the world sees that now: That I am a good guy, a great father, a great Christian man, and a great husband. And to me, that’s what I wanted to show the world.
“I want to stay in the community. When I leave here, I want to continue to have my stamp here. I think some players, they leave and they never come back. I’ve always wanted to come back and I’m going to continue to come back. My wife already said we’re keeping our house in Green Bay, so we’re not getting rid of that. We may rent it out to one of the players, but we’re going to keep it and we’re going to continue to support the community just like the community has supported me.
“For whatever reason here, the fans love their team and they’ve been behind them for many years – before I was born. I’m just glad I’m a part of it.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.