General manager Ted Thompson cracked a joke. Coach Mike McCarthy shed a tear. Governor Scott Walker issued a proclamation. Mayor Jim Schmitt renamed a street. And Donald Driver flashed that wide, signature smile again and again and again.
During an amazing 14-year NFL career – every day of it spent with the Green bay Packers – Driver rewrote the franchise’s record books. On Wednesday morning, the wildly popular wide receiver might’ve rewritten the book on how a player should call it a career, too.
Officially retiring as the team’s all-time leading receiver, Driver celebrated his career during an unprecedented event at Lambeau Field with family, friends, a handful of teammates and 1,500 fans who filled the atrium and lined balconies to get a glimpse of arguably the most beloved player in the team’s storied history.
"I told myself I wasn't going to cry today, so I'm going to hold the emotion back as much as possible. I love you all so much,” said Driver, who retires after catching 743 passes for 10,137 yards after making the team as a long-shot seventh-round draft pick out of Alcorn State in 1999. “It was a tough decision, but my family and I felt it was time for the next chapter in our life.
“Even though I feel that I can still play the game, God has made the answer clear to me. Retirement is now. I have to retire as a Green Bay Packer.”
Driver praised the fans who stood in line in subzero temperatures last week for a chance to get tickets to the event, which drew more than 10,000 viewers to the Packers.com online stream and was also carried live on television stations across the state. Team president Mark Murphy said it was the first time in franchise history that a player had held a public retirement press conference. If there is another, that player will have a hard time topping Driver.
“To the fans, I want to thank you all for the love, the joy, the cheers, the ups and though we haven’t given you too many downs,” Driver said as he closed his prepared remarks. “This day is not just for me, this day is for you. Twelve years ago, I signed my first big contract for the Green Bay Packers and I promised you all that I would never wear another uniform. So today, we make that official. I keep my promise to you. The loyalty you all have instilled in me and my family, I have to keep my loyalty to you and not play for another team and to retire in the green and gold. I love you all, take care and God bless.”
Joking that the first item on the post-football to-do list was to remove squirrels from the attic of the family’s offseason home in Dallas, Driver figures to parlay the Dancing with the Stars title he won last offseason into a myriad of non-football opportunities. He said Wednesday that he’ll be guest-hosting Katie Couric’s talk show and appearing on ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition with Chris Powell, among other off-the-field endeavors.
But he will always be known for what he did as a football player – and how he used his football success to become an ambassador for the franchise and vital part of the community. That much was clear when Walker pronounced Wednesday “Donald Driver Day” in the state of Wisconsin, and Schmitt announced that a downtown Green Bay street will be renamed Donald Driver Way. In addition, the iconic statue, “The Receiver,” will be repainted to represent Driver, replacing the generic, nameless player wearing No. 88 it currently depicts.
“I was the same guy who walked in 1999 and I’m the same guy who walks out in 2013,” Driver said. “Sometimes people say that sometimes success changes who you are – success has not changed me. I’m the same skinny little kid who walked in 1999. I’ll be the same skinny kid – well, grown man – who walked out in 2013. Nothing changes for me. I’m the same person and never will change.”
Before tearing up at the end of his brief remarks, McCarthy said Driver’s 61-yard not-to-be-denied touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during the 2010 season embodied the player he was. Driver caught the ball at the San Francisco 39-yard line and broke numerous tackles en route to the end zone.
“My picture of Donald, the memory I’ll have is the touchdown against the 49ers – with the throwback jersey and (where he) breaks Lord knows how many tackles,” McCarthy recalled. “If you’re looking for a picture of what Donald Driver means to your football team, what he means as a player, that’s the picture. That’s the one I’ll always remember.”
McCarthy, whose “Pittsburgh Macho” persona was one of the things that led Thompson to hire him as coach in 2006, then got choked up as he recalled having dinner with Driver and his family – along with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and others – after the Dancing with the Stars semifinals in Los Angeles. After catching himself – “Almost made it,” McCarthy said once he gathered his emotions – the coach turned to Driver and said, “I’m talking about the husband. I’m talking about the father. I’m talking about the friend. He’s given a tremendous amount to our organization and will continue. Thank you Donald.”
Thompson, meanwhile, spoke of re-watching tape of Driver in advance of the 1999 NFL Draft, taken aback as a scout by the skinny, unknown receiver who’d been unearthed by scout Alonzo Highsmith.
“Ron Wolf was the general manager, and we were watching tape of a skinny wide receiver from Alcorn A&M,” Thompson recalled. “You go through and you watch tape, and when you see something special and when you see something different (a scout will) say, ‘Can you run that back?’ Well, when we were doing Donald, we did that all the time. We kept saying, ‘Can you run that back? Can we see that again?
“What we were seeing wasn’t something you could define so much, it was just a special quality a player had. You could see not only his athletic ability, his ability to play the game, but through that grainy, black-and-white tape we had from Alcorn A&M, you could see the enjoyment Donald had in playing the game. I think you could see the enjoyment Donald had playing the game throughout his entire career with the Packers.”
“A lot of people made note that he was a seventh-round pick. First of all, that’s not the end of the world. Secondly, us as scouts make mistakes all the time. Thirdly, it doesn’t matter when you have character and you have quality and you have confidence in your ability.”
In the end, it all worked out, as Driver finished his career in the conversation as the organization’s most beloved player, alongside Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr, who was among those who appeared in a video tribute to Driver.
“When I walked in here in 1999, I felt like I could do anything if I believed that anything was possible,” Driver said. “All the great guys who played before me, it was truly an honor to stand up there and play with those guys. I had the work ethic and I wasn’t going to let it slip away. Look at me now, I’m the all-time Packers’ receiver in history.”
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.