Donald Driver signed my girlfriend's hat. I am reminded in no uncertain terms of this fact every football Sunday. She wasn't even a Packer fan at the time. Neither of us even knew him by recognition as he etched his name.
As Driver's 14th and most likely final year in Green Bay draws to a close, his departure should remind us all of so many lessons beyond the scope of professional football.
Drafted in the 7th and final round (213th overall) in 1999, Donald showed every indication that he was a special teamer likely to have a short career at the NFL level. For three long years he toiled on the kick and punt teams, and the occasional appearance on offense in blowout games. But he never stopped working hard, and he never gave up.
Hope was something Driver possessed the hard way. He grew up in poverty in Houston, Texas. He watched his single mother struggle to make ends meet and raise her five children right. He lived out of a U-Haul truck, slept on cold streets, and even sold drugs to get by on the streets. But he also found the football field.
He excelled at football and track and field at tiny Alcorn State, enough to gain the attention of former running back turned scout Alonzo Highsmith, who cajoled GM Ron Wolf to take a flier on the young wide receiver.
Driver came to Green Bay with grand expectations, knowing full well the hard work it would take to achieve them. The Packers were in a period of transition during his early years. Brett Favre on Sunday afternoon was throwing the ball to the likes of Antonio Freeman and Bill Schroeder. Driver in his first three seasons caught a total of 37 passes. But what he lacked in on-field production during this time, he more than made up for with his work ethic and his endearing persona. Driver was willing to prove himself to get where he wanted to go, and left that imprint upon everyone who crossed his path.
Driver cracked the starting lineup for Mike Sherman's Packers in 2003, and has never looked back, except to give back. Fourteen seasons and 743 receptions after coming to Green Bay as little more than an afterthought, he was left an indelible mark on all Packer fans. The patented first down shimmy, the big never ending smile, the Lambeau leaps, and let's not forget the dazzling highlight reel of plays. No Packer wideout has caught more passes, and he caught them from one great, Favre, and then another aspiring great, Aaron Rodgers. Through it all, Driver has not only made good on his promise to himself to make something more of his life out of poverty, but also generously donated his time and money to countless charities. The hope he counted on to make it through is the same hope he wants to give to others, in particular young children.
On Saturday evening, in the playoff game against the Vikings at Lambeau, tv viewers were given a glimpse of an inactive Driver, in regular clothes rather than his trademark #80 jersey. It was a sobering sight to see him on the sidelines as he watched the proceedings. There is a slight chance he could suit up again at home, but if it was his last time on that sideline for the Green and Gold, it was not without its share of great great affection from the fans.
Donald Driver IS Packer people. He has exemplified the whole idea that a good guy can have the last laugh. His mark on Lambeau Field is cemented right up there with all the other great who have come previous- Starr, Lombardi, Davis, Reggie White, Brett Favre....Donald Driver. It is the memories, however, of Donald the person, and how much he truly enjoyed every single aspect, every single moment he spent on the football field, that will live forever. He should trademark that smile.
As I look back to that hot summer July day at training camp in Green Bay, I could never have guessed the impression a complete unknown could make to two unwitting recipients of an autograph. Back at the hotel, I looked up #80 in the camp program. "It says here Donald Driver, don't know him, probably just a scrub". Never have I been happier to eat words than I am today. For everything, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you Donald!