GREEN BAY, Wis. — Donald Driver went out in style, retiring from the Green Bay Packers in a way that no one else in the franchise’s illustrious history ever had.
The Packers’ all-time leading receiver in yards and catches held a public ceremony Wednesday morning inside the Lambeau Field Atrium. Driver was joined by 1,000 of his most die-hard fans, most of whom waited outside in sub-zero temperatures five days earlier to get tickets to the event.
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It was already a day dedicated entirely to Driver, but that was made official when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker handed him a plaque that stated Feb. 6, 2013 was now Donald Driver Day throughout the state.
That was one of many distinct honors Driver received. He also was given a key to the city of Green Bay, a refurbished statue that will be turned from a generic Packers wide receiver statue into a Driver statue and his own street in Green Bay — Donald Driver Way.
“To be honored like that is truly something special,” Driver said during the question-and-answer session after his speech.
Several people spoke on behalf of Driver at the event, both in-person as well as in a video package. Driver’s popularity through “Dancing with the Stars” was evident as multiple entertainment stars sent him well-wishes in the video, including his dance partner Peta Murgatroyd and contestants from the show such as Jaleel White and Maria Menounos. Packers legends such as James Lofton (who wore Driver’s No. 80 many years earlier) and Bart Starr also were part of the video package.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and team president Mark Murphy all spoke at the event, each sharing their own unique memories of Driver as a player and as a person.
McCarthy, who rarely shows his emotions publicly, tried his best not to cry. It didn’t work. McCarthy was Green Bay’s quarterbacks coach in 1999 when Driver was drafted by the Packers in the seventh round. McCarthy returned in 2006 as Green Bay’s head coach.
McCarthy kept himself emotionally in check throughout his speech until he began talking about what it was like to see Driver interact with everyone at a post-“Dancing with the Stars” dinner in Los Angeles. That’s when the tears started to fall down McCarthy’s face.
McCarthy added that Driver’s appearances on the popular dancing television program split Wisconsin men into two categories: those who wouldn’t admit they watched the show but did and those who were comfortable enough in their own skin to not lie about watching it.
Thompson, whose public persona makes McCarthy look downright emotional, kept his words mostly to football. He remembered back to 1999 when working under then-general manager Ron Wolf, what the team saw in Driver as a draft prospect.
“A skinny, skinny player; a good player, but skinny,” Thompson said. “He wasn’t like he was this summer when he was half naked on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ “
Driver, who sat on stage with his wife, Betina, had a few teammates in attendance, including fellow receiver Jordy Nelson. But, once all the speeches were concluded, it was time for Driver to speak to the gathered crowd, many of whom shed tears during certain moments of the ceremony.
As tissues were distributed around on the balcony of the Lambeau Field Atrium, Driver opened with a very sincere: “I love you all so much.” Like McCarthy, Driver promised himself he wouldn’t cry, but the 14-year Packer didn’t have any better luck with that than his former coach.
Driver stated specifically that he was going to retire rather than pursuing free-agent opportunities with other NFL teams.
“I feel I can still play the game,” Driver, 38, said. “But, I have to retire as a Green Bay Packer. I always said I never wanted to wear another uniform. I’m walking away from the game having given it all I can. I owe it to the fans and to this fine organization not to tarnish the legacy that they have established in me and my family.”
Driver spoke about the promise he made more than a decade ago when signing his first big contract with the Packers, that he would never wear another jersey.
“Today, we make that official; I keep my promise to you,” Driver said. “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.”
Driver then thanked a list of people, including McCarthy, Thompson, Murphy, Wolf, his mother, his wife and kids, as well as his father, who wasn’t in attendance while battling lung cancer. Those were the moments when Driver really began to get choked up.
When all was said and done, Driver had one last message for the fans who supported him throughout his career in Green Bay: “I love you guys. It’s been an awesome, awesome ride. Now, it’s time for the next chapter.”