Rodgers' Agonizing Wait Comes To Happy End

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It wasn't long before the wait turned from frustrating to excruciating.

Aaron Rodgers' cellular phone told the tale of agony. It would flash text messages and calls of encouragement from friends, but it seemingly refused to deliver the words he was hoping and praying to receive: "You're our first-round draft pick."

That is, until the Green Bay Packers finally dialed up Rodgers at No. 24.

Their selection ended the suspense. More than that, it ended the emotional drama that captivated anyone who was watching, even if you weren't a fan of Rodgers, his alma mater (the University of California) or the Packers.

Granted, Rodgers was destined to make a considerable amount of money regardless of where he was taken. But you couldn't help but feel for him. You couldn't help but urge some team, any team, to choose the former Cal quarterback ... just to get him out of that room.

This would have been hard enough had Rodgers been watching the draft on television from the West Coast. The fact he was sitting backstage at the Javits Center, in a room that had long been vacated by other top college prospects projected to be early picks, made it almost unbearable. The other quarterback in the group, Alex Smith, was the first one out the door, to San Francisco. Next was Ronnie Brown (Miami). Then Braylon Edwards (Michigan). And Cedric Benson (Chicago). And Antrel Rolle (Arizona).

At one point, Rodgers figured to make the earliest exit. But when the 49ers shifted their focus to Smith, Rodgers began a free fall the likes of which hadn't been seen for a highly rated quarterback since 1983, when a future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer named Dan Marino plummeted all the way to the 27th spot. Rodgers began wondering if he were going to sit in that lonely room into second round.

"When things kept falling and falling," he said, "I was a little worried that that might happen."

When the Oakland Raiders traded with Seattle to move into the No. 23 slot, there was rampant speculation that they had done so to grab Rodgers, a local star who figured to be just as popular in the Silver and Black as he would be in red and gold.

"Al Davis has a history of doing some different things in the draft," Rodgers said. "When he traded up, I looked at my agent and said, 'Is this going to be it? Am I going to stay in the Bay Area?' It's only about 15 minutes from my house. He said, 'Well, you never know.'"

The Raiders never called. The first and only call from an NFL team didn't come until the next pick, when the Packers were on the clock. And even then, the voice at the other end asked to speak with Rodgers' agent, saying nothing to him about the team's intentions.

"I was like, 'Oh, they're not even going to pick me,'" Rodgers said with a laugh.

But the Packers did pick him. And the crowd, which included a section packed by Rodgers' family, roared its approval. You could feel the sense of relief for his sake. No one wanted to see him travel all that way only to find that he wouldn't even be drafted soon enough for Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to present him with the ceremonial jersey of his new team. Tagliabue only does that for the half-dozen or so projected first-rounders in town.

"It was a phenomenal feeling walking up those steps (to the stage) and hearing the crowd," Rodgers said. "I had a lot of my friends and family here in the stands, but also everybody else (was cheering). I really appreciated it. It was one of the top moments of my career in sports. I think they understood kind of what I was going through and I just really appreciated it."

He also appreciated going to the Packers. Not only because of their rich tradition. Not only because their current quarterback, Brett Favre, is nearing the end of a legendary career that began as a second-round pick and saw him go from Atlanta Falcons washout to Green Bay superstar.

It also is because the Packers had the 24th pick ... because Rodgers didn't take the easy way into the first round.

It is a familiar path.

"I'm a big believer that everything happens for a reason," Rodgers said. "You look at my career. Not being recruited out of high school. Going to Butte (Calif.) Junior College. Getting lucky that (Cal) coach (Jeff) Tedford saw me when they were looking at a tight end.

"I just kind of have a great feeling that this is where I'm supposed to me and I'm going to make the most out of it. I'm totally excited about it. I think we're going to have a great future together, whenever that might start."

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