The Green Bay Packers are one of the most iconic franchises in National Football League history as well as all of North American sports.
Their championship tradition far predates the AFL-NFL merger and the advent of the Super Bowl, and they have featured numerous stars and legends.
Wide receiver Donald Driver may not be as famous as Aaron Rodgers or Brett Favre, especially to the casual fan, but he had a lot to do with the Packers’ success in the modern NFL.
While establishing himself as one of the league’s better wideouts, he also served as a bridge between two very important eras in Green Bay history.
However, while growing up, he wasn’t exactly a candidate for the Most Likely to Succeed award.
In fact, simply overcoming his early circumstances was an accomplishment in itself.
A Rough Childhood
Donald Jerome Driver was born on Feb. 2, 1975 in Houston, Texas to Marvin Driver Jr. and Faye Gray.
When he was very young, his parents got divorced, and it cast a dark shadow on his ensuing years. Driver and his four siblings were raised by their mother, and it is fair to say that they were all living on the edge, so to speak.
For stretches of his childhood, Driver was homeless. At times, he and his family lived out of a motel room that his mother was able to secure using food stamps.
One time, after a collection agency took his family’s possessions, Driver and crew were forced to live out of a U-Haul truck.
The trying circumstances seemed to stir something deep in him, as he became determined to rise above them.
“I told my brother, ‘This is it. I’m gonna take my family outta this,’ ” he told PEOPLE magazine. “I didn’t know what it was going to be or how I was going to do it, but that’s what I told him. He just laughed and told me to go to sleep.”
Things were never stable for his family. Driver’s mother sometimes dated other men following her divorce, and one of them pulled a gun on the young boy.
Things were so bad that Driver and his older brother, Marvin III, took to selling drugs and even stealing cars simply in order to survive.
At age 14, with things at something of a breaking point, Driver’s mom sent him to live with his grandparents. Although it wasn’t exactly going from the outhouse to the penthouse, it was an improvement of sorts, as both grandparents at least held steady jobs.
But Driver, by his own admission, still wasn’t fully headed in the right direction.
“I had everything I wanted, but I was still playing both sides of the fence,” he said. “I was going to church on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and all day Sunday, but when church was over, I was back in the streets.”
Playing sports at Milby High School gave him his first sight of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. He played not only football but also basketball and baseball while running track.
He lettered four times in each sport and became a Texas All-State honorable mention in football. On the gridiron, he played wideout and defensive back while also returning kickoffs.
His success there led to him being considered the fifth-best wide receiver prospect in the country according to Dave Campbell’s Texas Football.
Driver matriculated to Alcorn State University, a historically Black university in Mississippi. It wasn’t exactly the most prominent football school, but for Driver, it was a huge step up.
Once there, he started to distinguish himself as a rising star. While with the Braves, he recorded career totals of 1,993 yards on 88 receptions, as well as 17 touchdowns.
His senior season was his best, as he had 1,128 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns that year.
If those stats weren’t too impressive, relatively speaking, what helped enhance Driver’s prospects was the fact that he was perhaps just as great, if not better, at track and field.
He high-jumped 7-feet, 6.5-inches in 1996, which was tops in the nation. It even earned him a trip to the 1996 Olympic Field Trials.
In just his sophomore year, he won multiple Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) honors while competing in the long jump, triple jump and decathlon events.
The next season, he claimed the conference title in the long (25′ 5″), triple (50′ 2″) and high jump (7′ 2″) competitions during the SWAC indoor meet.
If by all outward appearances it seemed like Driver had put his sad childhood behind him, he was still dealing with some remanents of it.
While at Alcorn State, he met his future wife Betina, and she persuaded him to fully leave his past in the past.
“At that time in college, I was still selling drugs and I asked my wife to put a package away for me in her room and hide it while they did a search in the dormitories,” Driver said. “And she simply said, ‘No. God is testing you and if you want to be with me, then you have to stop this now.’ ”
“That time in college I knew I had a great athletic ability,” he added, “but that was easy money. But she completely changed my life.”
A Slow Start in Green Bay
Driver wasn’t one of the top blue-chippers heading into the 1999 NFL Draft. In fact, he wasn’t taken until the 213th overall pick in the seventh round, when the Green Bay Packers decided to take a chance on him.
Although they were just two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, the Packers were in slow decline. Superstar quarterback Brett Favre, who had recently won three straight MVPs, was still early in his prime, but the rest of the offense needed a lift.
Driver would not get that opportunity for a little while, however. During his first three seasons in the NFL, he languished behind star wideout Antonio Freeman, number two option Bill Schroeder and Corey Bradford on the depth chart.
In that span, the Houston native only managed a total of 37 receptions, 520 receiving yards and three touchdowns while starting only four of the 35 games he appeared in.
It was a time when the Packers had to rediscover their identity. With running back Dorsey Levens heading downward, he would gradually be replaced by Ahman Green, who quickly became a Pro Bowl-caliber performer.
After missing the playoffs in both of Driver’s first two seasons, the Packers returned to the postseason in 2001 with a 12-4 record.
Three years earlier, they had suffered a gut-wrenching loss in the wild card round to the San Francisco 49ers on a last-second touchdown catch by Terrell Owens. This time, Green Bay got revenge with a 25-15 victory over those same Niners.
Driver made something of a cameo in that contest with two receptions for 26 yards.
In the divisional round, however, the Packers got routed by the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams, as Favre threw a league-record six interceptions.
One Of The Leaders Of The Pack
The Packers looked different on the offensive side of the ball in 2002. Gone were Freeman, Schroeder and Bradford, which meant that Driver would now have the opportunity to show his stuff on a regular basis.
Therefore, ’02 would be his coming-out party.
Driver put up 1,064 yards on 70 receptions and scored nine touchdowns, earning him his first trip to the Pro Bowl. In three games that year, he would have better than 100 yards.
Green Bay won eight of its first nine games, and it was starting to look like it had a real shot at returning to the Super Bowl.
However, a Week 17 blowout loss to the New York Jets cost it the division title, forcing it to start the playoffs with a wild card game against the Atlanta Falcons.
That game would be an embarrassment for the Packers. The Falcons, who had won two fewer games than them, blew them out 27-7 at historic Lambeau Field, despite 64 yards and a touchdown on three catches by Driver.
It was the first time the Packers had ever lost a playoff game at home.
Things hadn’t exactly improved by the 2003 season. The Packers lost at home in Week 1 to their NFC North rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, while Favre was banged up throughout the campaign.
It was also a bit of a struggle for Driver, who only had 621 yards and two touchdowns on the year.
The Packers still managed to claim the NFC North title in the final week of the season by the slimmest of margins. The wild card game was a struggle against the Seattle Seahawks, who managed to get a touchdown from running back Shaun Alexander in the final minute to force overtime.
Defensive back Al Harris’ interception and touchdown gave Green Bay the win. Driver contributed 66 yards towards the victory.
The divisional round would pit the Pack against Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles in another contest that went into overtime. But a Brett Favre pass that was intercepted by Brian Dawkins led to a 20-17 loss for Green Bay.
It was a rough outing for Driver, who only caught two of six passes thrown to him for just 25 yards.
But he reached new heights in 2004, recording nine touchdowns along with 84 catches and 1,208 yards, both of which were new career-highs. He was starting to establish himself as arguably Favre’s favorite target.
In Week 16 he exploded for 162 yards and a touchdown in a narrow win over the Vikings that helped ensure a playoff berth for Green Bay.
Once in the postseason, the Packers would again face Minnesota in the wild card round. Driver played reasonably well, putting up 78 yards, but his team lost, 31-17.
A Changing Of The Guard
Favre was now nearing his 36th birthday, and although he was still a strong quarterback, he was starting to show signs of decline. In the wild card loss to Minnesota, he threw four interceptions against just one touchdown.
Management knew that a contingency plan was needed, and to that end, Green Bay drafted quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 draft.
Favre would really start to show his age during the ’05 campaign. He had always been prone to throwing interceptions, but that aspect of his game hit a new low that year, as he registered a league-high 29 picks.
Fortunately, Driver was in the middle of his prime.
In ’05 and ’06 he had better than 1,200 receiving yards, and in Week 10 of the ’06 campaign, he had perhaps his best game ever, posting 191 yards and a touchdown in a 23-17 win over Minnesota.
The following season was also a strong one for Driver, as his 82 receptions and 1,048 yards got him his second straight Pro Bowl nod. By now he was gaining a reputation as one of the league’s best wideouts.
One of the keys to stardom in the NFL as a receiver is the ability to add yards after the catch. It just happened to be something that Driver was adept at.
Packers Hall of Famer Donald Driver with the most ridiculous touchdown of his career pic.twitter.com/dmnhQnCvm8
— Packers Nation (@PackersNationCP) July 29, 2017
After missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, the Packers finished 13-3 in 2007, earning them an NFC North title. The 38-year-old Favre had a bit of a resurgence, throwing for 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while reaching the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2003.
He took them to the NFC Championship Game against Eli Manning and the Giants, which would be a barnburner played in frigid temperatures at Lambeau.
Driver feasted on this day with 141 yards, which included a 90-yard touchdown catch, the longest postseason play in franchise history.
May 23rd ~ Donald Driver Day 🧀
— IKE Packers Podcast (@IKE_Packers) May 24, 2018
But an interception from Favre in overtime led to a 23-20 defeat for the Pack.
For a couple of years, observers had expected Favre to retire, and in March 2008 he finally did so. However, by early summer he had changed his mind, yet the Packers had already decided to invest in Rodgers moving forward, and Favre was ultimately traded to the New York Jets.
Driver helped ease the transition to Green Bay’s new signal-caller. He had 1,012 yards and five touchdowns in the 2008 campaign, while Rodgers got his feet wet and started to impress Packers fans while giving hope for the immediate future.
Green Bay returned to the playoffs in the 2009 season after a one-year absence, thanks in part to yet another 1,000-yard-plus year from Driver. It was the sixth consecutive season and the seventh in the last eight that he hit that milestone.
He hit a huge milestone in Week 6. During a 26-0 beatdown of the Detroit Lions, Driver’s seven catches made him the Packers’ all-time career leader in that category.
With Rodgers reaching the Pro Bowl, the Packers won 11 games. Although they narrowly lost to the Arizona Cardinals in the wild card round, their prospects had markedly improved in a short amount of time.
Reaching The Promised Land
By 2010, Driver, who was now 35 years of age, was no longer Green Bay’s top receiver. He still put up 565 yards and four touchdowns on 51 catches that season, however, and he remained a vital part of the team.
It was a challenging, up-and-down season for the Packers. Rodgers missed a crucial Week 15 game against the New England Patriots with a concussion, and Green Bay lost to Tom Brady’s crew, dropping its record to 8-6 and putting its playoffs hopes in jeopardy.
The Packers won their final two regular season games to claim the sixth and final seed in the NFC. Somehow, they got past the Eagles and Atlanta Falcons to reach the conference championship game, which would be a showdown against Green Bay’s longtime rivals, the Chicago Bears.
Although Driver had a very poor outing, the Packers won by a touchdown to advance to Super Bowl XLV. There, they would have to deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had won two world championships in the past five years.
Early on, it looked like Driver would be a key for Green Bay, as he had two receptions for 28 yards. Alas, he suffered an ankle injury in the first half and was forced out of action.
In the game of his lifetime, despite the pain, and with his team’s lead dwindling in the fourth quarter, Driver made the courageous decision to return to the field in the final minutes. A field goal by Mason Crosby sealed a 31-25 win, giving the Packers the world championship.
After spending his childhood partially homeless, poor and seemingly down and out, Driver now had the Vince Lombardi Trophy to add to his hardware collection.
Unfortunately, he was now deep into the downside of his career. He would play in each contest of the 2011 season, and on Sept. 18, 2011 against the Carolina Panthers, he would leapfrog James Lofton to become the Packers’ all-time leader in career receiving yards.
Despite a dominant 15-1 regular season record, the team lost in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, despite a touchdown from Driver.
2012 was his NFL swan song. He appeared in 13 games but started just one of them, only being able to muster 77 yards and two touchdowns on the year.
A few weeks after the end of the regular season, he announced his retirement on ESPN2’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning.”
“I’m going to officially put the cleats on the shelf. I’m going to walk away from the game,” Driver said.
Just days later, he bid farewell to Packers fans in a very classy way – with a public ceremony at Lambeau Field Atrium. Over 1,000 attendees braved sub-zero temperatures to pay tribute to him.
“Even though I feel that I can still play the game, God has made the answer clear to me, the time is now,” Driver said. “I have to retire a Green Bay Packer. I’ve always said I never wanted to wear another uniform, but always the green and gold.”
Driver left the game as arguably the greatest wideout in team history, as well as the source of many fond memories for cheese heads.
Green Bay Packers’all-time leading receiver is a 7th round draft pick out of Alcorn State University named Donald Driver. And he was the truth. Don’t sleep on HBCU football pic.twitter.com/xXTigiBKZS
— Drew Comments (@sjs856) November 7, 2021
After The Packers
Driver has done plenty off the field, and his activities there started well before his retirement from the NFL.
In 2001, he and his wife Betina launched the “Donald Driver Foundation.” The organization helps give homeless families new, fully furnished homes, feeds low-income families and provides educational and career opportunities for poor children.
For such work, he has won the “Community Service Award” from the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, the Ed Block Courage Award and has been named the AMVETS Humanitarian of the Year.
The former Packer has also become passionate about health and wellness, particularly physical fitness. He started the Driven Elite Fitness and Health Center in Dallas, which has numerous programs for athletes at all levels to help them achieve peak fitness levels and improve their overall health and well-being.
Driver authored a book called “The 3D Body Revolution: The Ultimate Workout + Nutrition Blueprint to Get Healthy and Lean” to help people lose weight, build muscle and get fit. The book also offers a meal plan and includes numerous recipes for healthy food.
He also wrote three children’s books, and he released his memoir, entitled “Driven,” in which he goes into detail about his inauspicious childhood and reveals details about his parents.
“The reason behind the book was just telling the story,” Driver said. “For me it was trying to put everything in perspective, and letting people know that regardless of what obstacles you may face in life, whatever adversity, that you can overcome anything. You just have to continue to believe that you can be successful.”
Driver has also been active on the tube. He has appeared in marketing campaigns for several companies, and for many years he has co-hosted “Inside the Huddle with Donald Driver,” a TV show that offers analysis on the Packers that airs locally.
But what Driver is most well-known for in terms of media is his appearance on season 14 of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Teaming up with professional dance partner Peta Murgatroyd, Driver’s energetic style got him to the final episode, where he outlasted William Levy and Katherine Jenkins to win the competition.
Although Driver hasn’t been named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, at least not yet, he has received other prestigious honors for his accomplishments on the field.
He was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame, an honor that recognizes the best of the best players, coaches and contributors from historically Black colleges and universities.
— BlackCollegeFootball (@BCFHOF) January 4, 2022
In addition, he was also named to the Packers Hall of Fame.
Still, Driver is waiting on the biggest honor of all – getting enshrined in Canton, Ohio – and has questioned the criteria of those who choose who gets named into the Hall of Fame.
“What is it?” he asked almost rhetorically “I think no one knows that. I think if they would have come out and said, ‘You need 1,000 catches, you need to get to 15,000 yards, and you need to have 100 touchdowns,’ I would still be playing today to make sure that I wear that gold jacket.”
Regardless, he is considered to be a legend in Green Bay, as his former teammates can attest to.
“Donald was a tremendous player,” said Favre. “He overcame great odds to make the team when he first joined us and, as has been well documented, extreme challenges while he was growing up. He was dependable and productive for the Packers. … I have great memories of playing with Donald. He was a great teammate – he was very likeable in the locker room. That he could go from a seventh-round draft choice to the Packers’ all-time leading receiver is a real tribute to him.”
“He was a playmaker,” said fellow Packers wideout Jordy Nelson. “That is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of him on the field, all of the amazing catches he would make, the one-handed catches. He could just make plays. He would be practicing every single day, wouldn’t take a day off no matter how many years he had been here. As far as a person and what he meant to this community, it speaks for itself with his foundation and all the things that he does and the way the fans love him. There is a reason why.”