GREEN BAY, Wis. — Donald Driver is a four-time Pro Bowl selection, the Green Bay Packers’ all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, a Super Bowl champion and a “Dancing with the Stars” winner.
But even though Driver’s DWTS success last spring did wonders for his celebrity status, the 37-year-old is having a challenging 14th season with the Packers. Driver, who has had seven seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving, has just eight catches for 77 yards in 2012 as younger receivers have moved ahead of him on the depth chart.
If this is Driver’s final season in Green Bay, he’ll have plenty of reasons to reflect on how much he accomplished since his career began in 1999.
With the season winding down – and perhaps winding up with another trip to the Super Bowl — Driver sat down after practice for a one-on-one conversation with FOXSportsWisconsin.com to discuss his future both on the field and off it.
FSW: You’re the Packers all-time leading receiver now but came into the NFL as a seventh-round pick in 1999, so how drastically has life changed for you over the past 13 years?
DRIVER: Everything has changed. I don’t think anything has stayed the same. For me, in 1999, I was able to walk around Green Bay with no one knowing who I was for the first couple years. Now I can’t walk around Green Bay without people going crazy or saying hello. That’s the biggest thing that’s changed for me.
FSW:That social aspect of not being able to go out and about, did that change significantly more over the past year since winning “Dancing with the Stars”?
DRIVER: Now it’s become ridiculous. Now when I go places, no one cares about me playing football. Everyone talks about me being the “Dancing with the Stars” champion because there’s so many people that’s out there who aren’t Packers fans that are “Dancing with the Stars” fans, and that’s kind of how they see me now. They don’t see me as a football player. They see me as the “Dancing with the Stars” guy. And it’s more women than it is men. Men see me as the football player, women see me as the “Dancing with the Stars” champion.
FSW:Are you OK with that transition to be recognized now in that way?
DRIVER: Yeah, I’m fine with it. I think for me, you think about how things unfold throughout your life, you think about especially football, it’s probably 300,000 people who watch you on a Sunday because millions of people can’t watch the game because wherever they are, it’s a different market. But on Monday and Tuesday for three and a half months, there were 35 million people watching “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s totally different now. It’s kind of like, you have to embrace the different sides of life, you know? At first I was just this football player that only people who knew sports knew who I was. But now, people that know reality TV and sports know who I am. It’s a bigger market for me. It makes my life a little bit hectic, but I can deal with it.
FSW: Do you like the celebrity part of it?
DRIVER: I love it. I think I love it more than I did before because of the attention that you get. Because now I kind of see how all the actors and actresses, I see how the entertainment life feels. At first I didn’t understand it, and until I moved to L.A. and was there for three and a half months, that’s when I realized, this is truly Hollywood. Now I know.
FSW: Has that at all changed your post-football plans? At any point did you think you’d be coaching and now you’re thinking more along the lines of being the next Michael Strahan?
DRIVER: Well, I was never thinking about coaching. Not at all. I just didn’t know what the next step was. I think this has opened up other opportunities for me. I have gotten a lot of offers here and there, and I just have to wait until I’m done playing and see where I go from there.
FSW: Is Strahan the best example of where that could go for you, though?
DRIVER: I think Strahan did it the smart way. He went into the (FOX) thing, and then it just worked out that he was able to transition straight from that to who he really is, and showing his character. I think that’s what he loves about being on the “Kelly and Mike” show now. It’s pretty good. You think about that show with Kelly and Regis that was going on for years, and for somebody to take Regis’ spot, that’s pretty big, and I think they picked a great person to fill the shoes.
FSW: Football-wise, when you think back to 1999, could you have thought in your wildest dreams that your career could have become this accomplished?
DRIVER: No. I would have never. I think you always hope and dream that you’d be able to have these accomplishments, but you never know if you’ll ever get there. I’m just blessed to be able to say throughout my whole career I was able to stay healthy and be able to get all the accolades I’ve received and I think there’s more and more to come. I think it doesn’t just stop there. I think the football side of it, it has to end sooner or later, but I think my life, as far as continuing to move on, I think there’s bigger and better things out there.
FSW: Is there a favorite football moment you have, favorite accomplishment?
DRIVER: I think, for me, the greatest moment I always say is when I became the all-time Packers leading receiver. I think that was when you know you have reached the greatest milestone in this franchise. And to be mentioned in the same breath with all the great players that played before me, it’s truly an honor. Now when people talk about this franchise, I’ll be mentioned in that same breath, and that makes you feel good about yourself.
FSW: Records are meant to be broken, but how long do you think yours will stand?
DRIVER: That one probably stands forever. I don’t think it will ever get broken. In today’s society, you don’t have too many receivers that will play for an organization as long as I played for one. I think it will stick forever, and if it sticks forever, maybe better things come after that. So we’ll see.
FSW: What has this season been like for you?
DRIVER: For me, I think it’s been frustrating. In the respect of things, it’s a business and you have to be able to understand the business side of it, and I do. Even though I know I can still play, I’m OK with the situation that’s been presented to me.
FSW: You didn’t think it would be this way before the season started though, did you?
DRIVER: No, I don’t think you ever do. You come off having great years and you don’t think this is how it’s going to be. But it does and sometimes it hits you from the blind side, and that’s what happened.
FSW: After the playoff game last year, the loss to the Giants, you weren’t really sure about where you were going to be. You had mentioned playing until age 40 a couple times, but where are you now as far as that?
DRIVER: I’m still there. It hasn’t changed for me. I will have to sit back and see. I’ll be a free agent after this season is over, and I have to make the choice with my family, see what they want to do. If they want me to go and play, I’ll play. If they say, “Hang it up,” I’ll hang it up. It’s going to be a decision that me and the wife and the kids are going to have to make together.
FSW: If the opportunity is with another team, is that OK? What are the pros and cons to playing a little bit longer but that not happening in Green Bay?
DRIVER: That all depends. It all depends on what happens. No one has a crystal ball. I don’t know if I’ll sign back here. I don’t know if they’re going to offer me a contract. I’m just not sure. Now I’m just going to have as much fun as I’m having this year and hope we can get back to the Super Bowl and I contribute as much as possible to make sure that we get there.
FSW: What value is there to you if you do retire as a lifelong Packer?
DRIVER: Oh, my God. That’s great. I’ve always, it’s crazy because so many people have compared me to Bart Starr. They talked about how he played here and he never went to another team and he’s been blessed to be the face of this franchise for many, many years. Now they’re looking for that next person to be the face of this franchise. Maybe that is me. If I don’t play for another team, then most likely I will follow and take over what Bart Starr had done for this organization for many, many years.
FSW: Is there some type of position within the Packers organization where you could stay involved with the franchise in some capacity?
DRIVER: I don’t know. I’m not upstairs. I’m in this little cocoon, well this is a big cocoon, in this locker room. I’m not upstairs. I don’t know what … Right now, I don’t know what holds for me. All I have to do now is continue to play this season out and then we’ll see where we go from there.
FSW: Another remarkable part about your run in Green Bay is that you played for only two quarterbacks. What was that transition like for you when you went from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers?
DRIVER: It was easy. I had known Aaron during that whole process, and it’s kind of like, we had a relationship and our relationship got closer and closer as time went on. I got to know him, I got to know his family, he got to know my family, and that’s what you have to have. You always say, sometimes you have to look at it, it’s not all about business. It’s a friendship. If you have a friendship, then the business side of it goes completely out the window. And that’s what we had. That’s what I had with Brett, a friendship relationship, and the business was just playing football together. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter who threw the ball to me because my job is to catch it; my job is not to throw it.
FSW: From the football side of it, what were the differences like in the huddle for you between those two? For many of those years with Brett you were the man and when Aaron came in you were still a 1,000-yard receiver, so how did they handle things differently with you?
DRIVER: I think for Brett, because I was the young guy, it was more for him to coach me than for him to just let me play. For Aaron, it wasn’t about coaching me anymore. It was just about letting me play. But then it was me and Aaron getting on the same page, knowing each other, and we did. That made it easy. I was able to grow while Brett was playing, but I was already grown when Aaron came in. So it was already, I knew exactly what I had to do, and it just transitioned to now where we just have to get on the same page where we can read each other and we did.
FSW: Where do you plan to live permanently after football? Will you always maintain a residence in Green Bay? Will you go to L.A.?
DRIVER: My permanent home will be in Dallas because that’s exactly where I’m from. We’re either going to keep our house here or we’re just going to sell our house here and have something in Milwaukee, something closer to an airport, a bigger airport. All my appearances are either in Green Bay or Milwaukee, and if I’m flying in, I always fly into Milwaukee and just drive up to Green Bay. So I’ll probably end up buying a nice little loft somewhere downtown Milwaukee. That’s kind of been my plan. I’ve been looking around for a nice little spot just in case, just in case things don’t go the way they’re supposed to go.
FSW: Recently, I know you went to WWE Smackdown and the Carrie Underwood concert, and you seem to be at all the events around Green Bay. Is there a reason, other than perhaps the publicity aspect of it, to attend so many shows like that in the Green Bay area?
DRIVER: I’m just one of those guys, I feel like I’m no bigger than the person that works at the gas station. Just because I play for the Green Bay Packers doesn’t make me no better than anyone. For me to be at the Carrie Underwood concert or Smackdown, that’s just something that me and my kids love. My son is a big Carrie Underwood fan and he wanted to meet her, and I’m loving her music, I love country music, so it was just great to go there and get the opportunity to listen to the concert. And then, after it was over, go backstage and meet her. I met her on “Dancing with the Stars,” she performed, and it was just an opportunity for my kids to get an opportunity to meet her. I’m one of those guys, I don’t think I’m better than no one. I don’t try to put myself on a pedestal because I’ve always said, “The fans put you there. The community puts you there. When you think you’re better than the community and you’re bigger than the fans, that’s when everything starts crumbling for you.” I tell people all the time, I’m like, “If you’re having a barbecue, invite me over. I’m going to come. But if I tell you I’m coming, don’t turn it into an event where people are coming for me to sign autographs.” I just want to be a normal human being, and that’s how people treat me. I went to the “Batman Live” show, and people were like, “Why are you here?” And I’m like, “Because of my kids.” I can’t go anywhere, but I’m OK with that. I promised my kids when I leave the house that Daddy is Daddy now. Daddy is not the Green Bay Packer. I take the shield off and I’m just Dad. That’s kind of who I am. And people see that, the community sees that, and I think that’s the great relationship you have to have with the community that they can always feel like they can come up to you and talk to you without you shoving them away. People are afraid sometimes to walk up and speak, but I’m always going to be the first person to interact with them, like “How are you doing?” And they’re like, “I’m good, Mr. Driver.” And then it just goes on and they’re like, “He is so nice.” My mom taught me better than that, not to think I’m better than anyone. I think that’s what makes it better.
FSW: How important do you think that relatability has been for you and how much could it benefit you after football?
DRIVER: A lot of people aren’t approachable, but I am. I’ve had people call and say, “I’m a big fan of Donald Driver’s.” Other celebrities. And I’m like, “For real?” I’m going, “Yeah, right.” And then you’re surprised that they’re like, “Hey, give me a call. Hey, I want to hook up with you.” And that’s what’s crazy, because by me being on “Dancing with the Stars,” so many people came up to me, celebrity-wise, that I would have never had a chance in a million years to meet. It’s like, “I’m a big fan of yours. I’ve been loving the Packers for a long time,” and then you find out they’re true Packers fans and you become close. Then they’re able to approach you at different events and people go, “Hey, do you know Donald Driver?” and someone will say, “Yeah, that’s my buddy.” Then people call and say, “Donald, would you like to walk the red carpet at the ESPYs? Would you like to walk the red carpet at Disney?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll be in L.A.,” you know? Those are the things that I probably would have never had in a million years if I had never gotten on the show. But I think people knew on the show that I’m very approachable. So now people are always calling out saying, “What is Donald doing? I know he’s playing for them, but what else is he doing?” That’s like “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” everybody wants to know what is Donald doing. At first, I could have been playing football and “E.T.” and “Extra” never would’ve called, People Magazine never would’ve said, “We want to know what Donald Driver is doing.” No, but since I won that, I became now the entertainment celebrity, now people are saying, ‘What’s the next step for him?’ Who knows what that step is? I’m just going to go down the road God leads me down, I’m willing to follow that road. And I told my wife, just pack the bags up and grab the kids and we’re going to travel. She has that show “The Better Half,” maybe she’s on the next “View.” Maybe she’s over there with Sherri Shepherd, that’s a good friend of hers now. Maybe we’re all looking around and we’re moving to New York and moving to L.A. just because maybe my wife has branched on becoming a new celebrity. I have a lot more shows that I want to do. I’m a big reality guy, so I’m going to be on “Extreme Makeover” for a local kid here who lost his arm, and I’m going to be on the show with him, rehabbing him, getting him back in shape and ready to go. So that’s going to be my next little cameo in February and then whatever’s next. I’ve been begging to be on “The Amazing Race.” All you have to do is tell them you want to be on it and most likely you’ll be on it. So I’m just trying to keep myself out there and have as much fun as possible.
FSW: So, has anyone taken you up on that barbecue offer?
DRIVER: No. I haven’t had anyone do it yet. It’d be pretty good, though. I hate when people say, “You can come over,” but I think sometimes people are just playing. They’re not really serious about, “We can really get him to a barbecue.”
FSW: They don’t think you’d come.
DRIVER: My neighborhood, everybody’s surprised because they’re asked and they say, “Yeah, Donald is always at our house.” And they’re like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.” They’re like, “I’ve been knowing Donald since I was a baby. He’s carried me.” For my little neighbor, I did a little appearance for her, came to her school, had lunch with her, and I told people there, “I’ve been knowing her since she was a baby. Now she’s in high school.” You have those relationships and those relationships will never end. I think that’s what you have to have. You can’t ever think you’re better than the next person. You have to be true to who you are. I guess that’s what makes me the most popular guy in the state of Wisconsin. People say that now. It was something I read on Twitter, “Donald is the most fascinating person in the state of Wisconsin.” I’m like, “Wow,” you know? The most marketable guy in Wisconsin. That says a good thing about you, when you have an Aaron Rodgers, you have a Ryan Braun, you have a (Brandon) Jennings from the Bucks, when you have all these great players in the state, what makes you special? And I go, “I think it’s because I don’t deny myself from the community at all.”