For 14 seasons, Donald Driver brought countless smiles to the Green Bay Packers’ legion of fans.
When he announced his retirement to a jam-packed crowd in Lambeau Field Atrium on Wednesday, he brought more smiles — and some tears.
“I told myself that I wasn’t going to cry today so I’m going to try to hold all the emotions back as much as possible,” Driver told the crowd.
No chance of that happening.
During a one hour walk down memory lane, Packers general manager Ted Thompson, a scout before the 1999 draft, talked about the scouts playing and rewinding, playing and rewinding, playing and rewinding the black-and-white highlights of some no-name receiver from Alcorn State. Coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers’ quarterbacks coach in 1999, remembered that skinny receiver catching a Brett Favre bullet during a red-zone drill as a rookie, then got choked up recalling having dinner with Driver and his family this spring.
There was a lengthy video tribute. James Lofton, who as No. 80 started his Hall of Fame career 21 years before Driver arrived, called Driver the best receiver in Packers history. Driver’s first touchdown catch, his milestone receptions and his defining 61-yard touchdown against San Francisco in 2010, reminded one and all that Driver was one of the game’s dominant player during a six-season streak of at least 70 receptions and 1,000 yards.
With a career boiled down to one short hour, Driver had no luck keeping his emotions in check.
“Jesus Christ has given me the wisdom,” Driver said, pausing to fight back tears, “to understand when things must come to an end. Sometimes, I ask myself, ‘Why now?’ But God says he will make a way out of no way to make you understand the reason why. So today is the day that I have decided to retire from the National Football League.”
Driver retires with franchise records of 743 receptions, 10,137 receiving yards, seven 1,000-yard seasons and 133 consecutive games with a catch. Six six consecutive seasons of 1,000 yards and his four consecutive seasons of 80-plus catches also are team records. From 2004 through 2009, Driver and Reggie Wayne were the only receivers with at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of those six seasons. He ranked sixth in the league with 6,845 receiving yards during that span. Among receivers drafted in the seventh round or later or to go undrafted, Driver ranks fifth in receptions.
It was an incredible rags-to-riches story for a seventh-round pick who was the 25th of 30 receivers selected in the 1999 draft.
“Ron Wolf was the general manager and we were watching tape of a skinny wide receiver from Alcorn A&M,” Thompson said. “There’s signs in scout meeting rooms, when you see something special, (scouts will) say, ‘Can you run that back?’ Well, when we were doing Donald, we did that all the time. We kept saying, ‘Can you run that back? Can we see that again?’ What we were seeing wasn’t something you could define so much, it was just a special quality a player had. You could see not only his athletic ability, his ability to play the game, but through that grainy, black-and-white tape we had, you could see the enjoyment Donald had in playing the game. I think you could see the enjoyment Donald had playing the game throughout his entire career with the Packers.”
After catching 37 passes and scoring four touchdowns in his first three seasons, Driver burst onto the national scene with 70 catches, 1,064 yards and nine touchdowns in 2002. In November 2002, Driver was rewarded with the first of three contract extensions.
Driver seemed to defy Father Time. In 2005, when he was 30, Driver caught 86 passes. He followed that with 92 catches when he was 31, 82 when he was 32, 74 when he was 33 and 70 when he was 34.
In 2010, Driver caught 51 passes — including running through half of the defense against the 49ers for a remarkable touchdown.
“When you’re looking for a picture of what Donald Driver means to your football team, what he means as a player, that’s the picture. That’s the one I’ll always remember,” McCarthy said.
With his great off-the-field story, community contributions and megawatt smile, Driver started to gain national attention. This spring, he won “Dancing with the Stars,” with his personality and charisma sure to open more doors in the future.
Finally, Driver’s numbers started to drop. This season, he caught just eight passes for 77 yards. He probably could play elsewhere — his hometown of Houston and his adopted hometown of Dallas could use receiver depth. However, in an era in which so many professional athletes take the fans for granted, Driver had a promise to keep.
“I want to thank you all for the love, the joy, the cheers,” Driver said. “This day is not just for me, this day is for you. Twelve years ago, I signed my first big contract for the Green Bay Packers and I promised you all that I would never wear another uniform. So today, we make that official. I keep my promise to you. The loyalty you all have instilled in me and my family, I have to keep my loyalty to you to not play for another team and to retire in the green and gold. I love you all, take care and God bless.”
And with that, with one more standing ovation, Driver basked in the fans’ roar one more time.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.