We continue our “Packers 100” countdown looking at the best wide receivers in franchise history. Packers football is just 94 days away. You can find the full countdown here.
4. Donald Driver
Donald Driver’s rise from a life of poverty and crime to becoming the Packers’ all-time leading receiver has all the makings of a Disney fairy tale when you consider the odds he overcame to become one of Packers News’s most beloved athletes who helped pave the way for several other long-shot receivers who would go to wear the green and gold.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Driver didn’t know anything about being raised in a serene provincial setting lined with white picket fences. He and his five siblings had to resort to living out of a U-Haul truck during his formative teen years.
Worse yet, the skinny kid with blazing speed had to hustle to make any kind of money that would help his family get by to the next day…and that often meant stealing cars and selling illegal drugs.
Driver’s ticket out of his hard-knocks life were his legs that led him to becoming a stand-out performer in football as well as track and field at Houston’s Milby High School.
The multi-sport student athlete would go on to become a five-time Athlete of the Year in the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC). But when it came time to enter the NFL draft in 1999, Driver was way down the list of draftable wide receivers.
Draft guru Joel Buchsbaum noted Driver’s route-running deficiencies in his Pro Football Weekly Draft Preview and, as expected, the rail-thin six-foot, 180-pound prospect would fall all the way down to the seventh round.
The fact that Driver wasn’t well versed in running sharp patterns along with his small-school pedigree and slight frame all worked against his chances of being taken earlier in the draft process.
GM Ron Wolf took Driver with one of his three seventh-round picks thanks in large part to the good word put in by area scout Alonzo Highsmith, who previously served as an NFL fullback for the Houston Oilers among other teams.
The spring-loaded rookie wasn’t an immediate impact player; he worked hard and stayed patient until his big opportunity presented itself after Antonio Freeman’s departure in 2002.
Unlike Freeman, who was more of a physical possession receiver, Driver could easily run past defenders with his 4.42 speed, but the trait that separated him from other speedsters that often crash and burn in the pros was his ability to get off the line of scrimmage.
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The sinewy pass catcher was stronger than he appeared in that he could handle the jam off his release along with possessing the elusive qualities to simply go around his defender without making physical contact.
All the young weapon needed was a step on his adversaries to get him in the clear and he’d be off to the races. Opposing players seldom caught up to No. 80 once they saw the back of his jersey.
In seven of his eight seasons from 2002 through 2009, Driver eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark seven times, a feat no other Packer had ever accomplished.
The one-time seventh-round pick hung around for 14 seasons and currently ranks second to only Brett Favre in total games played in a Packers uniform with 205.
Guys who break into cars aren’t supposed to make it to the NFL. Seventh-round after-thoughts from tiny southern schools don’t get to play in the NFL for 14 seasons. Yet Driver defied the odds and his efforts weren’t lost on his teammates.
Jordy Nelson took note of the secret sauce behind the grizzled veteran’s longevity by offering, “He could just make plays. He would be practicing every single day, wouldn’t take a day off no matter how many years he had been here.”
Even more revealing was a quote from another contemporary, James Jones, who stated, “A lot of guys, when they get to stardom, they tend to relax and not care as much about their craft and getting better. Every year I played with Donald Driver, he was striving to get better every season. He was at every practice. Mike McCarthy would tell him, ‘You can go ahead and relax at this practice,’ and he would not miss one. As a young guy, watching that truly helped me become a better professional and a better player.”
If one had to single out one play that displayed the very essence of Driver it would be hard to argue with his 61-yard touchdown connection with Aaron Rodgers against San Francisco in 2010 in which No. 80 made great use his heart, speed and elusiveness to force his way past a gaggle of defenders and launch himself into the end zone.
In his later years, Driver saw his role diminish, though, that didn’t stop him from serving as a valuable mentor to younger players, such as Randall Cobb, who credited the way “Drive” taught him how to be a better human at his retirement ceremony. Cobb related how his former teammate made a world of difference in his life and the lives of others.
The final chapter of his legacy took place on February 6, 2011 as Driver finally earned himself a Super Bowl ring when the Packers defeated the Steelers by a 31-25 score. The offense’s elder statesman was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury, but still managed to have a major impact by giving an impassioned locker room speech at halftime.
When it was time to hang up the cleats, this improbable success story walked away from the gridiron with zero regrets and his trademark million-dollar smile.
Four Pro Bowl appearances, team reception and receiving-yard records, 14 NFL seasons with one franchise, a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and (oh yeah) a Lombardi Trophy to boot. Neither Stanley Kubrik nor Francis Ford Coppola could have scripted it any better.