Brett Hundley has seized the moment before
Waiting his turn is nothing new for the second African-American quarterback to start for the Packers
GREEN BAY — There’s a slight bit of hesitation as Brett Hundley turns the corner to enter the Green Bay Packers’ locker room and sees a mass of media hanging in front of his dressing space. Recovering quickly, the replacement for injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers enters the fray and handles the session with reporters with confidence.
“I’ve been playing football my whole life,” Hundley says. “Aaron Rodgers [is] a Hall of Famer. I want to be a Hall of Famer. I will lead this team.”
Why is Hundley so poised and confident even though he has, in his third NFL season, never started a game at this level?
It’s because he’s been here before.
He waited his turn in high school, where his first two years at Chandler High School (Arizona) were spent quarterbacking the junior varsity team before being shifted to wide receiver as a junior. He was the varsity starter at quarterback within two games, and by the end of that season he was considered one of the top high school prospects in the nation.
He waited his turn in college, when he sat as a redshirt during the 2011 season, watching UCLA struggle through a disappointing 6-7 season. The next year he was a starter — he was a captain before he played his first game — and immediately helped the Bruins become a winner in leading the team to three bowl games.
Now he steps in for a legend. Rodgers had surgery on his broken right collarbone Thursday and could miss the rest of the season. In Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Hundley completed 18 passes for 157 yards, was picked off three times and sacked four times and got hit often playing behind a struggling offensive line.
But entering Sunday’s home game against the New Orleans Saints, the second African-American quarterback to start a game in Packers history has no worries.
“Football is football,” he says calmly. “My focus is staying focused. Keep the main thing the main thing. Play football, and just have fun.”
It’s easy for Hundley to carry that confidence in himself knowing that his coach has confidence in him.
After Rodgers went down on Sunday, he probably hadn’t even gotten into the X-ray machine before the “sign Colin Kaepernick” chatter began.
TV analysts weighed in. A Packers fan living in Oakland started a petition on Change.org that, as of Friday morning, had more than 21,000 signatures. Even Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan weighed in while rocking Packers gear when TMZ caught up with him at LAX. “That’d be dope,” Raekwon said when asked whether Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, would be a good fit. “Kaepernick can hold the fort down.”
Before outsiders could get a full head of steam bringing the noise, Packers coach Mike McCarthy quickly extinguished the potential funk.
“I got three years invested in Brett Hundley, two years invested in Joe Callahan,” McCarthy snapped at a reporter who asked him about Kaepernick on Monday. “The quarterback room is exactly where it needs to be.”
Hundley appreciated the support from his coach.
“It gives me a lot of confidence,” Hundley said. “And I’m grateful to have a coach and a team that believes in me, so I’m going to do my best to go out and help them.”
You can’t really fault Packers fans for being concerned. If fans here didn’t follow UCLA football from 2012-14, they probably don’t know a lot about Green Bay’s fifth-round pick (147th pick overall) in the 2015 draft.
Labeled the savior when he arrived on UCLA’s campus, Hundley’s first play in his first game was a 72-yard touchdown run in a 49-24 win over Rice. But it was his strong arm that led UCLA to a No. 17 ranking, and his 3,740 passing yards set a UCLA single-season passing record.
“Before he had ever started a game for us he was voted a captain, and that said a lot about how the team viewed him,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said during the Pac-12 conference call this week. “He’s smart, he’s big, he’s physical, and he’s got the ability to throw and mobility.”
The next year he led UCLA to a 10-win season and a victory over Virginia Tech in the Sun Bowl, where he was named the Most Valuable Player. By the end of his junior season, Hundley was UCLA’s all-time leader in total offense.
That dominance wasn’t a shock to those who watched Hundley — whose dad, Brett Hundley Sr., was a running back for the University of Arizona — light up the stat sheet in his two years playing quarterback at Chandler High.
“He is an unbelievable talent,” said Jim Ewan, his high school coach. “My wife is a teacher, and she was at his first game his freshman year. When the kids were in class the next day, she told the class, ‘Brett is going to be in the NFL one day.’ And that’s something that she had never said about a kid, before or since.”
What made Hundley so special in Ewan’s eyes? “He’s a lot like Aaron Rodgers,” Ewan says. “When you had the ball last when you had Brett, you had a chance.”
One of Hundley’s teammates at Chandler, Aaron Mayo, laughed when asked about the football game heroics of his good friend.
“We played one of the top teams in the state one game and I had 100 yards on five carries, but I didn’t get any shine on TV because he had over 200 yards,” Mayo said. “I would always joke with him that he controlled the amount of carries that I got, and that he probably just took off on a lot of those options instead of getting the ball to me.
“But seriously, of all the people I’ve known in life, he’s the hardest worker,” Mayo added. “Extra running, extra passing, study film, he put the work in. He’s always had all the intangibles.”
The only time an African-American quarterback started for the Packers was in 2013. That’s the last time Rodgers broke his collarbone (his left), which led to Seneca Wallace assuming the starting job.
Wallace held the starting position for one game, injuring his groin on the first series and being replaced by Scott Tolzien.
The Packers went 2-4-1 in the games that Rodgers missed, with his replacements recording a total QBR of 25 in the seven weeks he missed — the worst in the NFL in that stretch.
That’s likely the reason why Ticket King in Green Bay is reporting a 50 percent drop in resale tickets for Sunday’s game against the Saints.
The outside chatter doesn’t faze Hundley.
“I don’t feel like I have to win anyone over,” Hundley said. “Opinions on the outside don’t matter. We’re here to play football. I’m sure those opinions won’t have any impact on us when we take the field on Sunday.”
This is a big opportunity for Hundley. He’s in the third year of a four-year, $2.5 million deal, which means how he performs the rest of the season will help determine his earning potential for his next contract.
Hundley hopes to seize the moment, just as Rodgers did after backing up Brett Favre for the first three years of his career. The difference: Rodgers was drafted in the first round in 2005 as the heir apparent to Favre.
Hundley was drafted in the fifth round to back up a quarterback, Rodgers, who several months ago stated his intention to play for at least another seven years. So Hundley playing as a starter in Green Bay, behind arguably the best clutch quarterback in the NFL, comes somewhat as a shock.
“I didn’t expect it to come like this,” Hundley said. “Aaron’s been here 13 years, and he’s been healthy most of his career. There hasn’t been a quarterback other than Aaron to start a game since I’ve been here.”
So life for Hundley, these days, is different. He’s meeting with McCarthy (who he starred with in a commercial earlier this year) and the other coaches working on schemes as a starter. His teammates are responding to him differently. And journalists are suddenly interested in what he has to say.
“I see people noticing me because I’m starting, and I have a lot of support in here,” Hundley said. “While it’s changed a lot, it’s been awesome.”
It helps Hundley that he got a lot of preseason reps (after missing most of the preseason before his first year because of injuries). He got a taste of what life as a starter will be like against the Vikings when he was knocked around while facing heavy pressure.
“I got hit a lot, and my body hasn’t felt like this in a while,” Hundley said. “You have to get adjusted, especially as a backup, where I haven’t been hit. To get hit like that, it’s not refreshing but it wakes you up. Your body is like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re playing football.’ ”
The question the rest of the season: Can Hundley play football well enough to solidify his future while keeping the Packers in contention and their faithful fans interested?
“Everyone loves [No.] 12,” Hundley says, nodding to Rodgers’ locker to his left. “But our goals won’t change. Aaron’s my brother, love him to death, and he’s taught me everything I know. It’ll show on Sunday. It’s going to be fun.”