Donald Driver was "immortalized in bronze" by the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016 during the organization's first induction ceremony in nine years. On April 29, the beloved and charismatic former Packers player will be back to emcee the 2017 event at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.
This year, the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame will induct ex-Packers cornerback and Super Bowl champ Charles Woodson, former Badgers running back and Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and LPGA legend Sherri Steinhauer into the 66th Anniversary Class. In addition, Bud Selig will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award and Marquette's 1977 national championship basketball team will be honored. More information on the event and the organization can be found here.
Driver, a Super Bowl champion and Green Bay's all-time leading wide receiver, has kept himself plenty busy since retiring in 2013. He's continued to be heavily involved with charity and community work in Wisconsin and expanded the Donald Driver Foundation; he won the hit television competition "Dancing with the Stars" and has written three books, including his official memoir, "Driven," which was a New York Times bestseller; he created the Driven To Achieve Awards, which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and celebrate their fourth annual event next month; and he still manages to keep up with his old team, including a couple of teammates named Aaron and Jordy.
On Friday, Driver somehow carved half an hour out of his busy schedule to talk to OnMilwaukee about all of those things and more, as well as humoring a hobbled writer about his sports injury.
OnMilwaukee: First off, I wanted to tell you that I hurt my hamstring in a soccer game last night, but I’m playing through the pain to interview you today.
Donald Driver: That’s what I’m talking about, dawg, whatever you gotta do!
How would you say that compares to when you sprained your ankle in the Super Bowl but played through it?
(laughs) Oh my God. Well, I think the thing is I realized that I didn’t have a choice, you know; and I think for you, right now, you realize this is the only way you’re going to get this interview done – gutting through it and getting on this call with me. So I’d say it’s about the same thing.
Which of these accomplishments was the most important: Super Bowl champion, "Dancing with the Stars" champion or New York Times bestseller? You have to pick one.
I gotta pick one? I would have to say it’s the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl for every single player, that’s the pinnacle – that’s what they want, that’s what they drive toward and it’s what they have that hunger for. Once you get that ring on your finger and that trophy, no one can ever take that away from you. And I think of all the accomplishments throughout my career, that’s one that I know I’ll cherish for a very long time.
Since your playing career ended, you’ve gotten involved in so many different things – lots of charity work, public service and commercials, but also doing "Dancing with the Stars" and writing books. How do you decide what projects to pursue, where to devote your time and energy and not get overextended?
For me, it’s a platform I was able to acquire playing football. Did I ever think I’d get the opportunity to be on one of my favorite shows, "Dancing with the Stars?" No way. The opportunity presented itself and I just felt that was the perfect opportunity to do not just things in the community where I live and where I played football in Green Bay, but to be known nationwide as a great human being, a great father, a great husband and a great individual. And that’s what I want to be known for, not just this great football player.
I was glad I had the opportunity to be on "Dancing with the Stars." Then to go on and write my memoirs right after I got done playing, and for that book to turn out to be a New York Times bestseller, I would have never thought in a million years that that would happen – you know, to tell my story and where I came from and where I’m going now, that’s a testimony in itself. I’m so blessed to be able to look back now, and be able to tell my kids, and hopefully one day tell my grandkids, what their dad and grandfather had done. That’s why I continue to get myself involved in so many things that I’m passionate about.
You know, if you told me to go create something with marbles, it probably would never happen (laughs), but anything having to do with helping another individual accomplish success, that’s what I’m all about. When you’re not looking to receive anything from it and you continue to be willing to give, that’s how God blesses you, and He blesses you three times more than you could ever imagine, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about putting smiles on individuals’ faces.
I think playing for the Green Bay Packers, putting a smile on millions of fans’ faces from the way I played the game, the way I carried myself, and then to go on "Dancing with the Stars" and be able to show 38 million people that watch that show every single week what type of person I was, and then to turn around and write a memoir that made the New York Times bestseller list – they’d never published an athlete’s book, and mine got published twice, a hard copy and a paperback on the New York Times bestseller list – I mean, that’s unheard of.
And now I’m writing a new book that’s called "The 3D Body Revolution," just telling people to be determined, to be disciplined, but also to have a drive to change their lives and be successful in fitness and health and wellness. I’m opening a new gym where I live, a 24,000-square-foot facility that’s all about fitness and health, and giving people an opportunity to come in and get in the best shape they can. It’s not about me trying to tell them what type of shape they should be in; that person has to do it for themselves, but I think if I can show them how I tried to be successful in life and how I had this determination that I wasn’t going to allow anyone to tell me I couldn’t do it, and then to have the discipline to follow through with it, I think that’s the most important part.
That’s why I decided to write this book and open up this fitness center, so these individuals can understand: I got paid to look the way I look and play the game that I played, but now I don’t get paid to do it anymore, so why do I still do it? And the reason is because I just want to live – I want to be able to walk my daughters down the aisle one day and play with my grandkids someday, and that’s what it’s all about. And I’m hoping the message I can give to all individuals is you don’t have to be great at it to start, but you’ve got to start at it to be great.
How do you approach these new life interests and projects? Football is all about preparation and it’s what you did your entire career; what’s it like to step outside that arena, so to speak, to learn and try new things?
I’m always up for the challenge. You have to continue to learn; that’s what education is all about. When you allow your brain to stop working, then you get complacent, just learning what you’ve been learning your entire life. I’ve always known football, and that’s what I did. I have a degree in accounting, and I love working with numbers and all that, but to take yourself completely out of your regimen and out of your box, that’s when you start to learn more.
I’ve been training since I was a kid, but I had no professional, personal training experience and I had to take on the challenge of learning how the body works. I was able to do that, and now I’m a certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach. I made my mind work; I didn’t just play 14 years in the National Football League. You continue to learn and grow and then that makes you a better individual. And that’s what I try to instill in my kids is you always gotta continue to learn, because if you don’t continue to let the mind work then you just get complacent with the way you already are.
A lot of people who know about your enormous charity and community work probably don’t realize that you started the Donald Driver Foundation in 2000, which was your second year in the NFL after being a seventh-round draft pick. You were not exactly an established player who knew he was going to be successful and make a lot of money and have this big platform. Can you go back to that and talk about why you started the foundation and the belief you had in yourself to grow it and make an impact?
When I decided to create the Donald Driver Foundation, I basically created a private foundation; I didn’t want any help from outside people. So what I did was I donated 10 to 20 percent of my salary to my foundation every single year, until I got to a point where I went to this charity event and someone said "Donald, allow the community to support you and have your back." That’s where I changed it to a public foundation and opened it up to the community and showed them what type of heart I had, what type of passion and love that I had for what I was doing.
I was a kid that grew up homeless, and I knew that I couldn’t stop it but I could try and put a dent in it, and that was the most important part. So we started buying families homes, and now we pay subsidized rent and utilities, and we’ve helped over 200 families transition from homeless shelters to apartments and housing. We’ve given over 300 scholarships to kids who are going to two- and four-year colleges; we give them $1000 scholarships a year and we roughly do 20 kids a year. We have the Blessings in a Backpack program, where we see kids that are on federal government lunch that don’t have food to eat on weekends and we provide for those individuals. And now with the Driven to Achieve Awards, honoring all the people in the state of Wisconsin who continue to do amazing and incredible things – it’s about giving them that same avenue and that same opportunity, because we don’t want them to have to struggle for anything.
That’s why I decided to create the foundation and be a part of something that’s truly special. It’s amazing because a lot of people talked about how, when I retired and left, they thought they’d never see me again. I’m going to always be ingrained in the state of Wisconsin, I’m not going anywhere; that is home for me. I love to see the people, and I know when I’m gone and I come back, it feels like I never left. It’s just the love of the community and the fan base that have supported me over all this time; I don’t think that’ll ever change, as long as I continue to show the love and support back.
The fourth annual Driven to Achieve Awards are March 25 at the Pfister Hotel. With those events, you’ve raised more than $750,000 for charity and brought in celebrities like Gladys Knight and Anthony Anderson. Have they become so successful because there’s sort of a multiplier effect with your platform and other big names and regular people donating?
It’s amazing. This was always something that was on my mind, to create an awards banquet and take the spotlight off myself and put it on other individuals doing extraordinary things. That’s why I wanted to do it, and that’s why I decided to open it up to the public, so they can see that they can really get involved and see what we’re trying to do and put smiles on individuals’ faces.
I think it’s going to continue to grow, I don’t think it’ll ever change. I’ve been to the Jimmy V charity event and golf tournament, and that’s what I want – to bring so many different celebrities and CEOs and top execs together. And if you can bring those types of people into a room and show that it’s not about you taking anything, but showing that you’re willing to give back to the community, that’s what makes it exciting.
You were inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame last year with Bo Ryan. What was that experience like?
I was speechless; words can’t explain how I felt when I stood up there. Normally for a hall of fame, you have to wait four or five years before you can be inducted. But to be a first-ballot guy when this Hall of Fame hadn’t even been established the last nine years, and to be the first guy that went in to start it back up, I was shocked. I thought they were going to go out and get some other former players, people that have done some amazing things in Wisconsin.
And to be inducted with an amazing icon and legend in Bo Ryan, I mean, you couldn’t have picked two better people to go into the Hall of Fame at that time. I know Bo would say the same thing; he’s an amazing man, and I was glad I was able to share that moment with him. Those are the moments that we’ll be able to share for a very long time together, to have statues that we can always go back and say look what we accomplished in the state of Wisconsin. That’s truly amazing.
I saw you guys at some of those events, it looked like you’d basically become best friends.
(laughs) Yeah we’re best friends now. We talk a lot. I check on him, see what he’s doing now that he’s retired. He’s just enjoying life, and I told him now we have to go play a lot of golf and see how that turns out. I have so many other things going on, I know his golf game is probably way better than mine, but it’s OK. That’s when I can play better, when I don’t play a lot and I go out and just hit the ball.
You’re the emcee for this year’s induction. What does that mean to you and what’s your hosting style going to be like?
I am honored to be the emcee; I have emceed a couple of events now. I’m very charismatic, I love to have fun and enjoy the crowd and hopefully I can get the recipients going in, the honorees, to have fun too. You make jokes here and there. The same thing I did when I was up there speaking last year. When I did my speech, I went after Bo, and they had told us we were only supposed to speak for 15 minutes, and Bo spoke for about 45. So I got up there and I was like, "Bo, listen, you see what I’m doing? In and out, 15 minutes," and he started laughing. You have to have fun, you have to be entertaining. I’ll be watching the Oscars; I want to see what Jimmy Kimmel is going to do, as well.
You don’t want the music to come on and play people off stage.
(laughs) No, I won’t stay up there too long. I’ll do my job, couple of jokes here and there, and sit down. It’s not about me, it’s about all these other great legends and icons that are getting ready to go into the Wisconsin Hall of Fame.
The inductees this year include former Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, your old teammate. I won’t ask you to spoil your introduction speech for him, but can you describe what Woodson was like and why he deserves to go in?
He’s a great human being, a great friend, great father, great husband. The first time I met Wood, we played Oakland in a preseason game and I walked up to him because I was a huge fan of his when he was at Michigan, even though we were one year apart. And then when he came to Green Bay, after everyone thought that his career was over and he was done, to show up in Green Bay, I just kind of knew that things were going to turn fast, for him and for the Green Bay Packers. And they did.
He’s a true legend and an icon that’s going to be not just in the Wisconsin Hall of Fame and the Packers Hall of Fame, but will also go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. So to be able to say that I played against him and then with him, that’s something that I’ll be able to cherish, and I know he will too, for a very long time. We were able to bring the best out of each other. I knew that if I could beat Wood in practice, there was not another corner in the National Football League that could cover me. And I knew that if I worked hard in practice, and I think Wood would say the same, we brought the best out of each other – great players, and hopefully one day we both can be wearing that yellow jacket.
You guys were around the same age, established players and locker-room leaders, going against each other in practice. What’s your favorite Woodson memory either on or off the field?
The one that sticks out to me is when I had pulled my hamstring and Wood was in his second year in Green Bay. They (the Packers cornerbacks) were really shutting down our wide receivers – we couldn’t get off the line, we couldn’t catch the ball, we couldn’t do anything. And I remember screaming at Wood, "You just wait! Just wait ‘til I come out here tomorrow, I’m going to tear you guys apart!"
That was the first time me and Wood had that real competitiveness against each other, but we knew that we were going to challenge each other and make each other great. We came back out there the next day in practice and we went at it, every single play. He came in front of me and I said, "You better be ready" and that’s the thing I’ll always remember. That’s when I knew that things were going to change for both of us and for the Packers.
What are your thoughts on Ron Dayne and Sherri Steinhauer, who are also being inducted?
I watched Ron when he was at Wisconsin and had a chance to play against him once or twice in the NFL. Ron is an amazing individual, for what he did in college and what he’s continued to do in the state of Wisconsin and to be ingrained here, as well as Sheri, they are amazing individuals and icons. And I’m just glad I’m going to be emceeing this event and able to say I’m the one that inducted some amazing, amazing individuals. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity, and I’m getting that opportunity.
I’m hoping that they can see, and every person can see, where this event is going and what we’re trying to do with this event. We’re trying to bring it back. It was nine years, and now it’s been one year since we brought it back. To have this event and let people know all of the great individuals that came through the state of Wisconsin; we need to honor those individuals. We can’t let that go unspoken, we have to let these individuals know how much we love them, and that’s why we’re bringing this back, and it’s something amazing that Lammi Sports Management (which owns and operates the Hall of Fame) has done.
Why is it so important to you to be involved in the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame? Not just to be inducted and get a plaque and have your career validated, but to continue to stay involved and try and grow it and move it forward?
Because you have to honor the people that have given to the state, you have to give back to them. And these individuals deserve that honor. They have done so much in the state of Wisconsin, and I think the fans and the community want to see that, as well. I think the fans are trying to find ways to honor these individuals, but we have the platform to do that with the Wisconsin Hall of Fame.
So why not do that and why not be involved? That’s what I told Brian Lammi and the Wisconsin Hall of Fame Board when I got done, is there a way that I can be involved because I want to be part of this for the rest of my life. They all agreed that I can be the emcee, and I’m hoping this is not just for one year but for years to come that I’ll be able to sit up there and watch all these amazing individuals go into the Hall of Fame.
Was this past year’s Packers season a success because they went as far as they did, or a disappointment because they were predicted by many to be a Super Bowl team? As a former player, what do you think those struggles and expectations were like, and as a fan, how do you evaluate that team and its season?
As a spectator now, the way I evaluate it is they had an amazing year. To be able to bounce back, they didn’t know if they were going to get into the postseason or not, they only knew that they controlled their own destiny, and sometimes that’s the best situation. It makes players realize their backs are against the wall and it makes them fight even harder. Those players fought for what they wanted; they didn’t have the opportunity to say we’re 12-4 and we’re in. These guys had to continue to fight and fight hard, and to go on to win the division title and then make the postseason, that’s amazing.
I remember I called Jordy (Nelson) and I said, "Don’t this feel like 2011, when we went to the Super Bowl?" And he said, "It feels just like that." We lost so many guys and everybody else had to step up. You had (Randall) Cobb go down, you had Jordy go down, then you had Ty Montgomery go down, Davante Adams go down, you had Eddie Lacy go down, the list just keeps going on and on and on, and everybody had to step up and fill those guys’ shoes. Who would have thought Ty Montgomery would have stepped up and taken Eddie Lacy’s place the way he did? No one could have imagined that and you couldn’t have written the story any better than that.
If people think that this was a waste of a season, then they’re wrong, because no one even predicted them to win the North, and then to go on and get to the NFC Championship Game, no one imagined that. Just to get that far, you have to take your hat off to those guys; it was well deserved and only brighter things can happen. They have a young team, one of the youngest teams in the NFL, and the only thing they can do is grow, you can’t go backwards.
Your position of expertise, wide receiver: Can you give me some quick thoughts on Nelson coming back from injury, Adams emerging as a playmaker, Cobb doing his reliable thing, Montgomery changing positions, the rookie Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis, a seventh-round receiver like you?
I was telling somebody, you have weapons all around the table. We used to say this all the time: Aaron Rodgers has a toolbox. And he can reach in that toolbox and grab anything and unlock anything he wants, he can fix anything, that’s what he has in those guys. All those guys bring something different to the table.
Jordy used to be that guy that everyone talks about as a deep, deep threat, now that switched to Davante Adams. Cobb is that possession receiver. You’ve got Jordy, he just continues to do what he do; he can make the big plays, he can make the small plays, he keeps the drives alive. And then Ty Montgomery, to switch and be able to go into the backfield and have the success that he had, he might as well hang it up as a receiver – he’s big enough now to play running back and just be qualified as a running back. He’s like Darren Sproles, you can line him up outside, line him up inside, put him in the backfield. He’s an amazing kid, and now I think his career is just going to blossom, as well as Davante Adams.
And then my boy, Jeff Janis, I mean, you’ve gotta give him credit. I love him to death and that’s why I support him every single time he catches the ball; I’m like, just keep fighting kid, because you’ve got a bright future if you can just stay healthy, that’s the most important part. All of these guys are awesome, and I think now you have so many weapons to choose from, the question is what are you going to do with them? Because sooner or later all of their contracts come up and you have to make some tough decisions.
I won’t ask you who was better or who you liked to play with more, Favre or Rodgers, but …
(laughs) I’ll say this, I’ve always said this: They are two amazing quarterbacks. I had the pleasure of playing with Brett for 10 years; I had the opportunity to play with Aaron for seven, but as the starting quarterback for five. To have those types of individuals, you can’t weigh each one of them against the other, both of them are different.
You’ve got Aaron Rodgers, the possession guy that’s going to take what the defense gives him, and you’ve got the gunslinger that doesn’t care who does what, he’s going to throw it to who he wants to throw it to – doesn’t matter if you’ve got one guy on you or five on you because he trusts that you’re going to make the play. That’s never been Aaron; Aaron is going to keep possession and take what the defense gives him, and that’s what makes him successful. Brett’s the gunslinger and he’s going to throw it where he wants to throw it, and that’s what made him successful. So you had two different guys, I’m just blessed to say that I played with two amazing quarterbacks, and not too many players get that opportunity.
What was your reaction to those "Aaron Rodgers isn’t a leader" stories?
That’s personal issues. Everyone has an opinion, but at the end of the day, that’s personal issues. I’ve always had a great relationship with Aaron, never had anything bad to say about him. Aaron and I still talk about what we used to say before games. We used to walk out of the tunnel, even when Brett was the quarterback and then when Aaron became the starting quarterback, we used to always say, "I don’t like you today but I’m pulling for you." That was our favorite thing, and then we did our little handshake and our spin of the ball, that’s what we did.
Knowing we had nothing against each other, but that’s just something that we would always say to each other: "I don’t like you, you don’t like me, but I’m pulling for you today." And it went all the way to the bank, and that’s what you have to have, you’ve got to have that relationship with one another, knowing there’s no beef between anyone. Aaron’s an amazing guy, I talked about it this year – he has to be one of the best quarterbacks, one of the top three quarterbacks to ever play this game. There’s never been another quarterback, nobody in history, has done what he’s done, and you’ve got to take your hat off to him.
What did that mean, "I don’t like you but I’m pulling for you?"
Everyone used to think that we didn’t like each other, like, "Oh, Donald doesn’t like Aaron because he’s Brett’s guy," and it was never that. So we made this little thing up, "I don’t like you, you don’t like me, but I’m pulling for you today," so that’s what we’d always say to each other, and then we’d do our little handshake and spin of the ball. It was just fun, it was exciting, and that’s the way we were able to bond, because so many people out there thought that we had this beef, but we knew we never did.
What are your Packers expectations or predictions for next season?
I think the biggest thing is they’ll make the postseason again. One thing I can say about Mike McCarthy is he’s an amazing coach, an amazing mentor and he’s going to get those guys ready, he’s going to prepare them for whatever situation that may come. That’s why he’s had so much success as a coach, and I don’t think that’ll ever change.
Tickets for the 2017 Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame can be purchased here.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.