From Unwanted Recruits to NFL Stars

AP Photo/Morry Gash

In Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back and fired a perfect strike to Jordy Nelson for a 29-yard touchdown to open the scoring.

It was just six points in what turned out to be a 31-25 Packers victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the Rodgers-to-Nelson hookup had a much deeper meaning, considering where each of them came from.

Coming out of high school, the big colleges didn't want either of them.

Nelson ended up playing college football as a walk-on. Rodgers started out at a junior college. Refusing to accept what coaches initially thought of them, both are now inspiring success stories.

"When you see it done," said Steve Wagner, Nelson's high school coach, "it gives you the insight that it is possible."

Though many football players with great potential are found by college coaches thoroughly searching the nation, there are cases every year of players unfairly getting passed over.

Green Bay Packers defensive star Clay Matthews had no Division I-A offers out of high school and walked on at USC. Kansas had an All-Big 12 linebacker on its 2008 Orange Bowl team named Joe Mortensen, who had no offers on signing day. Several NFL greats--Michael Strahan, Terrell Owens, Tony Romo--didn't get Division I-A looks out of high school.

The list goes on. But few stories are as dramatic as the tales of Rodgers and Nelson, NFL teammates who ignored the Division I coaches' unanimous disinterest to make a nice living playing the game they love.

"I am a firm believer," Rodgers told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "that everything happens for a reason."

Rodgers grew up in Chico, off the beaten path in talent-rich California. As he would later say, three players from his team went on to receive football scholarships--all from the local community college.

That included Rodgers, who had no Division I interest outside of a mild look by Illinois (arranged through a family connection). As Rodgers was reconsidering his life plan, Butte College coach Craig Rigsbee convinced him that junior college was the best step for someone still dreaming of Division-I glory.

After one successful season at Butte, Rodgers was noticed by California coach Jeff Tedford as he was scouting one of Rodgers' teammates. Cal signed the gunslinger and Rodgers went on to break several records in his two seasons in Berkeley. He then left school early and was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Rodgers spent three seasons as Brett Favre's backup before finally grabbing the reins.

"It's just been a really cool thing to see him getting up there and doing the things that he can do," Rigsbee said. "It hasn't surprised me at all. I knew that he could do that."

Rodgers' journey is remarkably similar to that of his new receiving target.


Growing up in tiny Riley, Kan., Jordy Nelson showed impressive athletic ability as a football player and track athlete at Riley County High School. But it wasn't enough to convince Division I coaches of his worth. Despite the state of Kansas having two Big 12 universities and being thin on local high school talent, Nelson was not offered a scholarship by any Division I school. Kansas and Kansas State both invited him to be a walk-on.

"I think they were thinking," Wagner said, "'If we can get him for free, let's do that first.'"

Nelson elected Kansas State, closer to his western Kansas home. Entering school as a free safety, Nelson red-shirted his first year of college, then failed to get any playing time his second season with the program. That's when head coach Bill Snyder called Nelson into his office and asked about a possible switch to wide receiver.

The light came on.

Nelson, in three seasons, caught 206 passes for 2,822 yards for K-State and forced his way into the minds of NFL scouts. He was drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft by Green Bay.

He caught no passes in his professional debut, but slowly became a vital part of the Packers' receiving unit. In his third season, he caught 9 passes for 140 yards in Super Bowl XLV, including that 29-yard strike in the first quarter.

It was a run-of-the-mill NFL touchdown, but it came with a much stronger message: it's never, ever too hopeless to run after your dreams.

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