Driver most beloved Packer since Lombardi era

Donald Driver's retirement ceremony is evidence he holds a unique place in the hearts of Packers fans.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If there were any further evidence needed to demonstrate just how wildly popular Donald Driver is among Packers fans, the retirement ceremony held in honor of the franchise's all-time leading receiver was it.

Driver shouldn't be considered just another popular former Green Bay player. The excitement and emotion inside the Lambeau Field Atrium on Wednesday morning was the final bit of proof that Driver is the most beloved player to put on a Packers uniform since the Vince Lombardi era.

Over the past 40 or so years, many great players have worn the green and gold. None of them, though, has been as cherished in the hearts and minds of Packers fans as Driver.

Given the extensive 94-year history of the Green Bay franchise, there aren't many opportunities left to be the first to do something. However, no Packers player has ever ended his career like Driver did. Thousands of players have come and gone, but none of them has ever officially announced his retirement in a public setting as Driver did.

But it wasn't just the public setting that made Wednesday's ceremony unique. When Driver and the Packers decided to make tickets to the event free, a frenzy ensued. The morning tickets were distributed, fans waited outside in subzero temperatures to get the 1,000 available, snapping every last ticket up in 18 minutes. Some fans arrived seven hours in advance, wearing multiple layers of clothing and braving the cold just for the chance to be a part of the final goodbye to Driver.

Five days after the ticket distribution was completed and it was time for the actual event, the fanatical response had not lessened one bit. Inside the Lambeau Field Atrium, 1,500 people stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind a barricade as Driver gave his tearful speech.

"I love you all so much," Driver said.

Many fans shouted their love back, but they didn't have to. It was clearly a mutual feeling.

Every time Driver began to get choked up, several people in the crowd had to grab for their tissues. Even as the video package played and showed Driver's best moments with the Packers, people cried. These were sincere reactions. Fans couldn't seem to believe that this was it for Driver.

And they weren't alone. Coach Mike McCarthy, who almost never shows any signs of emotion, couldn't get through his speech without shedding tears and having to stop himself mid-sentence.

"I almost made it," McCarthy said as the crowd cheered him on.

Driver isn't regarded in this way by Packers fans and coaches just because he was a great football player. No, his connection to the world around him extended well beyond what was accomplished on the field. Driver came from very humble beginnings in his childhood and got into some trouble. He played college football at Alcorn State, a program that isn't exactly an NFL factory.

Driver wasn't drafted until the seventh round by Green Bay in 1999. When he entered training camp, he was last on the depth chart at wide receiver. The chances of him making the roster and having an impact were small. The chances of him becoming the Packers' all-time leading receiver were the against-all-odds stuff that only the best Hollywood script writer could pull off with any believability.

That's part of what has endeared Driver to Packers fans. Playing in the smallest city of any professional sports team in the country, Driver authored a success story borne of hard work and dedication. He was talented and athletic, yes, but nothing was handed to him.

His place in Packers history – the bridge from the Lombardi years to the future – could have been occupied by the guy who used to throw him the ball, but Brett Favre and Driver took very different paths late in their careers. Favre changed his mind on retirement for a third time and was eventually traded. Driver could have signed elsewhere this offseason and played a couple more years, but he chose to retire a Packer for life.

"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," Driver said. "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 and not play for another team and to retire in the green and gold."

It certainly helps that Driver became a national celebrity through his "Dancing with the Stars" title. Driver's success on the dance floor turned him from football icon to national icon, boosting his public profile to another level inside and outside the state.

Now, as Driver enters his post-playing days, he leaves the Packers as the most popular player to walk through the doors at Lambeau Field in a long, long time. 

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