GREEN BAY – A northern California native, Aaron Rodgers was more a 49ers fan than a Raiders fan growing up.
He knew greatness when he saw it, though, even if it was in the form of a San Francisco boyhood hero wearing an Oakland uniform.
Back in 2001, Rodgers’ senior year of high school, his quarterback coach was the nephew of Norv Turner, then the offensive coordinator in San Diego. With the Chargers coming to what is now called the O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Rodgers got an opportunity to attend the AFC West matchup.
Excited to watch one of his favorite players, former 49ers receiver Jerry Rice, Rodgers went to the game early.
“We got to see Jerry go through warmups, and it kind of stuck with me how impressive he was,” Rodgers said in recalling the story this week.
Rice went on to be the star of the show. Playing in the 17th of what would eventually be 20 NFL seasons, Rice caught eight passes for 131 yards and three touchdowns in the Raiders’ 34-24 victory.
Strangely enough, as another ageless wonder in Charles Woodson attempts to leave a similar impression on Rodgers from the opposite side of the line of scrimmage this weekend, the Packers quarterback will be playing in the “other” stadium near where he grew up for the first time.
Green Bay hasn’t traveled to Oakland since 2003, a game forever famous for Brett Favre’s otherworldly performance the night after his father died.
A change in the league’s scheduling formula involving AFC West teams created the rare 12-year absence of a road game in Oakland for the Packers. That change was the same reason Kansas City visited Lambeau Field earlier this year for the first time since ’03.
As a young team, the Packers often have dozens of players entering a given NFL stadium for the first time for a game, but this Sunday will be unusual. Only two players on Green Bay’s roster, Julius Peppers and James Jones, have played a regular-season game in Oakland before.
It’ll be the bulk of the team’s first exposure to the baseball-shaped venue, though the infield dirt will be covered up now that the A’s season is long over. It’ll also be their first experience with the collection of fans in one end zone known as the “Black Hole,” the same fans who actually stood and cheered for Favre 12 years ago but have never been hospitable to opponents otherwise.
"The fans, they're passionate about their team," said Peppers, who has played in Oakland once each with Carolina (in 2008) and Chicago (in 2011). "They're not too rude, not any different from any other stadium for fan support.
"It's a special place to play if you've never played there before."
More germane to the issue than the surroundings, of course, will be an up-and-coming Raiders team that just knocked off the AFC West-leading Broncos on the road last week.
Jones suffered through a 3-13 season in Oakland last year, but he could see the Raiders were in the process of building something. Their upset last week in Denver didn’t surprise him in the slightest.
“They should have beat Denver the first time in Oakland,” Jones said, referring to a 16-10 decision in Week 5 that was part of the Broncos’ 7-0 start this season. “I’ve been telling everybody, do not sleep on the Raiders. They’ve got a very good ballclub. I was around those guys last year, so I know they’ve got a lot of guys that can play football.”
They’ve got one of the oldest (Woodson) and youngest (Khalil Mack) defensive stars in the league to go with a developing quarterback (Derek Carr) who looks every bit the potential franchise guy he was drafted to be, and at 6-7, they’re fighting for their wild-card playoff lives.
The Packers, on the other hand, are one win away from clinching an NFC playoff berth after winning six straight, losing four of five and currently riding a two-game upswing begun by a Hail Mary victory.
The manic highs and lows aren’t the norm in Green Bay, so perhaps the setup for Sunday is the way it’s supposed to be – a chance to achieve the first goal of this unusual season in the most unusual of places.
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