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A Legend is Born: Donald Driver and the 2002 Season

From his humbled beginnings living in a U-Haul trailer, his adolescent dalliance with drug dealing, and the transformation which turned him into the Green Bay Packers all-time leading receiver, Donald Driver’s life story has been well chronicled. His incredible tale has been woven into the fabric of Packers’ history. Even the most casual fans know Driver’s narrative much as they do the pledge of allegiance. Yet somehow the full account of Driver’s rise to prominence manages to be even more remarkable still.

In commemoration of Donald Driver’s illustrious career, let us return to 2002; the year a legend was born.

The 2002 offseason began with a mandate: revamp the receiving corps. The previous year had ended with the debacle in St. Louis, a game which saw Brett Favre throw 6 interceptions while regular season leading receiver Bill Schroeder managed only 2 catches and 39 yards. Mike Sherman, in his first year as general manager, let Schroeder leave along with longtime Packer and fan favorite Antonio Freeman. Sherman also left Corey Bradford unprotected in the Houston Texans expansion draft, and he was promptly scooped up. With running back Ahman Green’s 594 yards the highest remaining receiving total, the Packers’ offense was set to feature a very different look in 2002.

Sherman’s first move was the high profile acquisition of disgruntled wide receiver Terry Glenn. Glenn brought with him the pedigree of a decorated collegiate career, rookie of the year honors, and an All-Pro season just a few years prior. Sherman felt Glenn provided the vertical threat that the Packers lacked. To further bolster the group, Sherman used a first round draft pick on receiver Javon Walker.

Everyone expected that these two moves, coupled with anticipated development from second year wide-out Robert Ferguson and red zone specialist Bubba Franks, would return the Packers’ offense to its mid-90s dominance.

In his Chicago Sun-Times feature “Helping Hands for Favre,” reporter Dan Pompei chronicled how strongly the Packers coaching staff felt about the new look receiving corps. Photos of Glenn were prominently displayed, as well as quotes and scouting reports for Franks, Ferguson, and the new additions. Not until the very last paragraph did Pompei include a word about fourth year receiver Donald Driver.

And why should he have? Driver had only 13 receptions the previous year and just 37 in his three years in the league and appeared mostly on special teams. The coaches viewed Driver as a backup kick returner who might, if  they were lucky, develop into a fourth or fifth receiver. With Glenn, Walker, Ferguson and Franks ahead of him, no one expected that by the end of the season Driver would become the Packers number one target.

Driver spent training camp and the preseason outworking and outsmarting the inexperienced Walker and Ferguson. Driver, now famous for his offseason workout regimen, had put on 10 pounds of muscle. His newfound strength along with having the most exposure to Sherman’s offense gave Driver a head start over the other wideouts.

While he remained below the others on the depth chart, the coaches took notice. By the start of the regular season, Driver had gone from a possible roster cutdown casualty to being guaranteed some snaps in games. Now all Driver needed was an opportunity in the regular season.

As fate would have it, that opportunity came right away. Ferguson was hurt before the season opener. With the rookie Walker still learning the playbook, Driver was thrust into the starter’s role. He responded, leading all receivers that day with 7 catches for 78 yards.

Driver scored his first touchdown of the season the next week while catching 4 passes for 51 yards. The now healthy Ferguson had officially been displaced on the depth chart. While most observers were impressed with Driver’s early season production, he was still thought of as merely an overachieving role player. That perception changed over the next three weeks.

In a must-have game in Detroit, Driver wasted little time in demonstrating his abilities. His first quarter consisted of receptions of 25, 8, 19, and 21 yards, the last of which was for a touchdown. He would have another 21-yard catch later on, establishing himself as the missing vertical threat in the Packers’ offense.

The following week brought Driver’s first multi-touchdown performance, along with the first Lambeau Field chant of “Double-D.” Finally, as if to leave no doubt that he had arrived, Driver produced one of the all-time great performances in the Packers-Bears rivalry. In the much chronicled Monday Night Football matchup, Driver burned the Chicago secondary for the now infamous 85-yard touchdown. Driver’s score gave the Packers a lead they would never relinquish. From that point on, no one questioned if the Packers’ offense could stretch the field. Neither did anyone question who their go-to receiver was.

By the end of the year, Donald Driver had accumulated 70 receptions for 1,064 yards and 9 touchdowns, all team bests. The tumultuous offseason which led to the much-ballyhooed additions of Terry Glenn and Javon Walker had culminated in the first of Driver’s many Pro-Bowl selections. The vertical element missing from the Packers’ passing game had been there all along, waiting for his opportunity.

In a mere season, Driver had straddled both ends of the roster. He had gone from the outhouse to the penthouse. Through his hard work and persistence, Driver had made himself into a team leader and star performer. Most importantly, he had set himself on the path to becoming one of the all-time greats in Green Bay Packers’ history.

Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardiave.com. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.

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Tags: Antonio Freeman Bill Schroeder Brett Favre Corey Bradford Donald Driver Javon Walker Mike Sherman Robert Ferguson Terry Glenn

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