Jessie McDonald and her prize-winning drawing of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Jessie McDonald has several drawings of football players hanging up around her bedroom that she admits "aren't the greatest."
This one, though, is a different story.
Jessie is a 13-year-old artist from Sobieski, Wis., a small community just 20 minutes north of Green Bay. This past football season, she decided to enter an online sports art contest sponsored by SIKids.com, and after perusing various photos on Packers.com, settled on a shot of quarterback Aaron Rodgers from the 2008 season opener against Minnesota as her subject.
"The Packers are my favorite sports team, so I thought I'd just draw them," Jessie said. "I don't really remember why I picked Aaron Rodgers, but I do know I liked that picture better than all the other ones, because it zoomed up on his face and there was only one football player in the picture. I didn't want to have to draw two."
That turned out to be a prudent choice, allowing her to focus on every last detail of Rodgers, from the angle of his facemask bars to the folds in his jersey sleeves. After more than two weeks of dedicated work -- sometimes disappearing into her room for hours, according to her mom, Ellie -- Jessie submitted the piece, and to her surprise and delight, it ended up taking first place nationally, earning her a $5,000 prize.
She considers it the best drawing she's ever done, but she had no idea where it would rank in a national contest of submissions from kids ranging anywhere from 8 to 15 years old.
"When I was just working on the helmet, because that's what I started on, I thought it looked pretty good," Jessie said. "I kept asking my brother, 'Does this look like $5,000?' I didn't think it would win, but I thought it was pretty good so I might as well send it in.
"It was hard sending it in. Because I knew if I was looking at the copy and I saw an error, I wouldn't be able to fix it, so I knew that would bother me. But I just decided to send it in."
Another wise move. The work is truly impressive, and it had to survive a lengthy competitive process. Pieces were submitted in November, and through December SIKids.com posted 45 semifinalist works each week for three successive weeks, a total of 135 semifinalists in all. The top 15 vote-getters each week advanced to the finals for another round of online voting, followed by judging by an off-line panel.
The wait was somewhat agonizing for Jessie. Her drawing didn't show up on the website until the last week of the semifinals, and then the home computer was on the fritz during the week of the finals, so family members weren't able to stuff the ballot box. Jessie had even told her art teacher, John Gordon of the local Gordon School of Art, that she hadn't won, because she didn't know her drawing had advanced to the finals.
Then, a few weeks ago, a phone call came from a New York area code. Ellie answered, and older sister Andi, 15, and younger brother Alex, 12, immediately hollered to Jessie that it was SIKids calling. Toddler Jacob, 22 months, and the family dog soon joined the mayhem, and the house was up for grabs.
"Our youngest got so excited he was just running up and down the hallway screaming at the top of his lungs," Ellie said. "And we have a big black lab, and the lab was barking. So I had to go up to my room and shut the door because I couldn't even hear this guy on the other end, other than he had told us she had won."
Jessie's $5,000 check arrived last week, and she's already planned how to spend some of it. She's buying everyone in her family Rodgers jerseys and she wants to buy tickets for a game next season, perhaps the Minnesota game, which would be appropriate. Jessie has attended just one Packers game in her life, last season's home game against Houston, so a return trip to Lambeau with her entire family wearing Rodgers jerseys would make for a memorable day.
She also plans to give some of the money to charity, and then maybe buy a laptop computer.
But there's more. The drawing already had won her a pretty neat prize before the contest results were in.
Before submitting the drawing, Jessie had stopped by a local print shop to make some copies to keep. The employee there took a liking to the piece and asked if she could have a copy to show Rodgers, who would drop in from time to time.
A few weeks later, during the December semifinalist stage of the contest, the employee called the house to tell Jessie that she showed Rodgers the drawing and he had autographed it for her. Jessie's dad, Tom, picked it up on the way home from work one day, and Jessie got to see the personal message Rodgers included: "Jessica – Love the drawing! Have a very Merry Christmas!"
"That was before we knew it was the winning picture," Ellie said. "I remember telling Jess, it doesn't matter if you don't win. Now you have Aaron Rodgers' autograph!"
But it did win, so the story just kept getting better. That continued this week when Jessica received a congratulatory phone call from Rodgers.
"I was just so excited," Jessie said. "He said that he really liked the picture and he was honored that I picked him to draw. It has been so amazing. Sometimes I just have to stop and make sure I'm not dreaming or anything."
A member of the Packers' public relations staff had contacted Jessica to let her know that Rodgers would be calling in a few minutes, and she admitted to having to calm her nerves in anticipation of the call.
"We're just really proud of her, because she obviously has talent," Ellie said. "God has blessed her with talent. But she works on it. It's not like she just sat down and whipped this out. She puts a lot of time and effort into her art classes. She put a lot of time and effort into this picture.
"It's just amazing to see how she really does get lost in the drawing and does great."
Jessie has been getting lost in her artwork since she was a little kid, and she began taking it more seriously in recent years, particularly after taking an art class when she felt she was really improving.
"I'm probably going to keep going with art," she said. "I don't know how long, but I definitely want to keep doing it because I like doing it. I like the satisfaction you get when you finish the picture and it looks like the picture you're trying to draw."
Her success this time was undeniable, making all those attempts that weren't "the greatest" worthwhile after all.