The Leap

It was Week 6 last year when I earned the trust of Aaron Rodgers.

We were playing the Dolphins in Miami. We had the ball on their 16-yard line. Fourteen seconds left, no timeouts, and the clock was running. Down 24-20. Aaron walked up to the line and everyone thought he would spike the ball to stop the clock.

If you go back and look at 50 different plays where QBs are spiking the ball, I guarantee in 49 out of 50 cases, the receivers aren’t looking at the quarterback. They’re all just lining up, kind of relaxed, waiting for the ball to be spiked.

But this time I never stopped looking at Aaron. I had made that mistake early in the year against Detroit and I wasn’t going to make it again. That time, I didn’t make eye contact with Aaron at the line of scrimmage and it resulted in a miscue. The thing about Aaron is that he’s always thinking two steps ahead, so you can’t ever lose focus.

So Aaron walked up to the line, all nonchalant, and made a little fake. Then he started sprinting my way with the ball, and I was like, Just catch the ball and then you’ll figure it out.

It wasn’t just the trust to throw me the ball. It was his trust in me that I would be ready to respond — and respond quickly. I had to know what to do once I got the ball.

I made the catch, and I looked really quickly up at the clock. My mind was racing: If I tried to go inside and got tackled, I’d pick up extra yards but there’d be no way to get back on the ball that quick. Time would run out. If I could find the end zone, I’d be the hero. But what if my knee went down at the half-yard line, and they reviewed it? We couldn’t challenge inside the two-minute mark. Then what?

So I took a little stutter step, trying to lull Cortland Finnegan, who had lined up against me, to sleep. I got outside of him, got the first down, then got out of bounds.

This wasn’t something we had practiced before. I was just going on instinct at that point.

The next play, Aaron threw a touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless. We won 27-24. It all happened in less than a minute of actual time — without any words ever exchanged between Aaron and the rest of the offense. It all felt like Aaron drew up the final two plays a week before.

The level of trust Aaron showed in me — a rookie — didn’t even hit me right then and there. It was one of many moments that all started to make sense as the season went along. This must mean that I’m doing something right, I was thinking.

Last year was a constant learning process. Can I be real for a second? Before getting drafted by the Packers, I had never visited the Midwest before. So having to move across the country to a small town in Wisconsin was definitely a culture shock.

I loved living in Green Bay this past year, but the weather was definitely an adjustment. To be honest, I never really adjusted to it — I just learned to deal with it. I’m a California kid and, actually, Green Bay was my first time seeing snow. The first thing I thought when I got there was, This is what snow is like? It always looked so soft in movies. Like fluff. But it’s nothing like that. It’s windy and icy and the snow gets dirty and piles up everywhere. The crazy thing is that people told me that last winter was mild. People said that the year before they had 10 days of below-50 (with wind chill). So “zero” is mild, apparently.

This is how much of a California kid I am: I did an appearance in Milwaukee, and afterwards, I tweeted something like, “Thanks to everybody who came out and stood in the cold to get an autograph. I appreciate all the love.” It was about 20 degrees at the time and I thought I was being nice. I really meant it. Suddenly everybody’s tweeting me back, “Oh, if you think this is cold, this isn’t anything! This is warm!”

I was joking back like, “You don’t have to try to act tough. This is not warm.” But I love how Green Bay fans take pride in it. That’s part of the toughness of the city.

The Packers have all kinds of traditions and rules that you only learn about when you get here. One of the rules is that receivers can’t wear sleeves. If I could I would, but our receivers coach, Edgar Bennett (who is now our OC), said he doesn’t want us fumbling. He thinks the ball doesn’t stick as well on sleeves. (Of course, when I look back and I see his old game film, he’s wearing sleeves. Really, coach?) But the cool thing is, we all follow the rules and we buy into it. No one complains. That’s the Packer style.

And I will say, there’s something old school about those big cloaks we have on the sidelines. The first time I put one on, I really did it just so I could be in a picture wearing it. I was thinking about those old pictures of guys in the ‘60s wearing them, seeing their breath in the cold air.

There were learning experiences every day. Even getting the Lambeau Leap right was a learning experience. The wall is a lot higher than people think. You have to jump as high as you can. You gotta really get up there. Here are my four pieces of advice for getting it right:

1) Get a running start. No one can get up high enough from a standing jump.

2) Do not — I repeat, do not — attempt to do the Leap after a touchdown over 50 yards, especially if it’s cold. You’re gonna be gassed and you might not make it. No one wants to see a failed Lambeau Leap.

3) Once you’re up there, enjoy it for a second. The fans will all be yelling, patting you on the helmet, spilling beer. I’m a little claustrophobic, so I usually only try to stay in the stands for three or four seconds. But you’ve gotta enjoy it. It’s a special moment.

4) Let security help pull you out. (For real. If security didn’t pull you back over onto the field, you’d never get out.)

Overall, I’d grade my rookie season a B. I had a pretty good year on the field, but I also feel like I could have done a lot more — and will do more in the future. We also fell short of our team goal. You can’t give yourself an A unless your team achieves its ultimate goal. For us, that was no less than a Super Bowl.

I didn’t come into the season with a specific number of targets in mind. The last thing I wanted to do was worry too much about stats. In college at Fresno, I didn’t ever think about it — and at the end of the year, I had accumulated 1,700 yards and 24 touchdowns. When you stop worrying about “me,” the rest takes care of itself. I can’t throw myself the ball. All I can control is running my routes and making my catches.

And with Aaron Rodgers, I know that if I don’t get the ball on a certain play, there’s a reason. That’s the trust I have in him. I never take it personally, even if I don’t get the ball a lot of plays in a row. There’s a larger plan and he’s in charge.

Aaron knows me as a player, I know him as a player, and we kind of feed off each other. I think the whole wideout team feels that way.

Maybe the best thing about my rookie season is that it’s over. I’m way more comfortable now, going into my second year. Now I can just play, and not have to worry about all the new stuff. Now it’s just about football. I’m used to seeing and reading a new defense each week. That’s one thing you learn about the NFL as a rookie: the real learning happens in the classroom between Sundays. The game slows down.

My goal for this upcoming season is simple: Just catch every ball thrown to me. All year. Everything. It sounds like a joke, but as a receiver, you have to have the mentality that nothing is uncatchable. That builds trust with your QB, too, I hope.

Oh, and one last thing I learned last year. I’ve been asked this question maybe 200,000 times: No, everyone in Green Bay isn’t eating cheese all the time.

Yeah, of course they like cheese — but you see way more cheeseheads than anything else.

See you in the end zone.