The Jets’ starting quarterback has thrown himself into the culture of his new professional home before he’s thrown a single pass.
At the Tony Awards last month, best leading actor in a musical went to J. Harrison Ghee, the nonbinary co-star of “Some Like It Hot.” As they praised their mama while nervously patting the trophy’s base, something happened that always does during an acceptance speech: a reaction shot of the audience. This one was to Casey Nicholaw, the Broadway musical’s director and choreographer. His shows are usually up for Tonys; he’s cut away to a lot. But this time, there was something new for a Nicholaw cutaway: Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers, in a silky double-breasted suit and matching dress shirt that paint-chip enthusiasts might have ID’d as “spilled merlot” or “Miss Havisham’s gate,” was seated just behind Nicholaw. And people — well, the people who would’ve known to ask in the first place — wanted to know: Why? Who invited a four-time N.F.L. MVP and one-time Super Bowl winner? “Aaron Rogers [sic] sitting in the third row of the Tony Awards is the equivalent of me sitting in the third row at the ESPYS,” tweeted the actor Josh Gad, whose umbrage made the rounds, aided by the screen-captured image of Rodgers’s face frozen between dismay and disorientation.
As for why — Aaron Rodgers is the new starting quarterback for the Jets. His previous (and only other) professional home was Green Bay, Wis., where, for 18 years, he played for the Packers. Now, there he was at American theater’s Super Bowl, stoking bafflement. Rodgers wasn’t in a show, hadn’t (as far as anybody was aware) seen a show and didn’t produce a show. But Rodgers’s new teammate, the tight end C.J. Uzomah, did, and he took Rodgers with him to the ceremony, where the play Uzomah co-produced, “Ain’t No Mo,’” Jordan E. Cooper’s pungent, Blackness-in-America satire, was up for six Tonys. That should have been that. But evidently, sand had found its way into folks’ peanut butter.
Comments like Gad’s trickled in. And the stinginess of their generosity, their snark and begrudging were a bummer. Rodgers’s appearance at the Tonys seemed, to me, like a new resident acclimating to a new residence, getting cozy with its — forgive me — tonier perks. A man from one set of communities was breaking the ice with several others, doing more than passing through: crossing over, perhaps.
It’s a tedious business, nowadays, disclaiming how much nastier and less patient we all are about everything, from the truth to our tastes. But beef is as much a meal as a state of mind. Fail to stay in your lane and become suspect. The image of Rodgers that traveled around the internet seemed to warrant suspicion. Never mind that he got dressed, showed up and, when Harrison Ghee assured the trans and nonbinary kids watching the broadcast that they matter, Rodgers applauded along with the rest of the room.
But tolerance isn’t what’s been on my mind. It’s curiosity. It’s a sense of adventure. For the last four months, Rodgers has appeared to be enjoying himself in select zones of the city. Maybe you saw him shouting the Rangers’ goal song during the Stanley Cup playoffs and placed courtside for the Knicks’ playoff win against the Heat. He attended two of the season’s must-see concerts (Ed Sheeran’s, then Taylor Swift’s) at the same New Jersey stadium that houses both New York football teams — Rodgers’s new office, basically. (No word on whether he’ll be back Saturday to behold Beyoncé’s.)
It’s so rare anymore that a person of note arrives in this city, jumps right in and, before he even does what he’s been hired to do, makes a little splash. The mighty Kevin Durant just spent four years here as a Net and, possibly even to his credit, never got anything wet.
Of course, to draw this conclusion, I first had to give my Etch A Sketch a vigorous shake. Rodgers’s final seasons with the Packers didn’t seem happy for anybody. He left Green Bay under a cloud. Even as he kept winning awards, his team stalled in the postseason. He wasn’t simply vocal about wanting a trade, he sounded petulant, troll-y. A feature of his pandemic life included the misinformation he oozed. When he was asked at a news conference whether he’d received the Covid-19 vaccine, prevarication followed. (“I’m immunized” is how he choose to put it.) During his weekly appearances on Pat McAfee’s old Sirius XM show, he became the “I’m just asking” guy, sounding all sorts of persecuted, extemporizing his way around Conspiracy City.
Given the nonstop interest in him (as an athlete, a brother, a boyfriend, a psychedelics enthusiast), Rodgers’s views sounded knowingly irresponsible at best and, at worst, dangerous. He’d already cultivated a look to match, too, arriving for training camp, in 2022, with his hair long and oily, his graying beard scraggly, jeans and a white tank top clinging to him. People posted side-by-sides of this outfit next to Nicolas Cage dressed the same in “Con Air,” an action-farce set aboard a prison transport plane called the Jailbird. By season’s end, Rodgers looked miserable. A face that naturally could seem long had gained another mile. News of his departure from Green Bay was met, in some quarters, with “good riddance.” So: The sharp, sheeny person doing step-and-repeats at the Tonys? He seemed like a new man.
One recent Friday afternoon, I found myself walking a few feet behind a fellow who turned out to be Rodgers. We were both on our ways somewhere in SoHo, and I went out of mine to stick with him for a few extra blocks. Not something I tend to do. New Yorkers feel a certain satisfaction from crossing paths with someone notable and not caring. Or “not caring,” I should say, because we perform the permission of anonymity. At some point, on Grand, a street that doubles as a parking lot at that time of day, a gentleman with taxi-livery plates leaned out of his window and somehow audibly mouthed, “You’re walking behind Aaron Rodgers.” He could have yelled at Rodgers himself. He opted instead to alert/impress/warn me but also encourage me to continue whatever reconnaissance he thought I was doing while almost blowing my cover. Really? I mouthed back, mendaciously, and kept it moving.
Truth be told, I wasn’t paying that much attention to Rodgers. This jaunt in his shadow was an opportunity to observe a sliver of New York take in the Jets’ most plausible hope in eons for a title, even if run an errand was all he did. Not that anybody said a word. The people who noticed him spoke to each other: a UPS guy to a store’s security guard, two gentlemen on a FedEx truck. Mostly, they were making sure the other person didn’t miss this; they were confirming.
There’s a kind of famous that can probably feel our averted eyes. They know that we know and are maybe grateful that we’re letting them be. But maybe they’re skeeved that we’re milling about, hovering, stopping in our tracks, but not simply saying “hi” or “I love you” or “Dude, please, you have to get us to the Super Bowl.” I don’t know how going out for a walk went for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. But what it seemed like he was experiencing that Friday in Soho was true anonymity, which for a certain class of celebrity can seem like liberation. We’ve seen it all here in this city, even the likes of this guy. And that, in turn, could be an opportunity for a star to feel like a civilian, which, it must be said, is how Rodgers looked, pausing his walk, it seemed, to make sure he was headed the right way. That’s a question that’s dogged him all over the city, especially at the Tonys: You lost? I don’t know, he’s been seeming pretty found to me.
Sports are a strangely transformative human event. They change people — the people who play them, the people who watch them. The pandemic changed sports and maybe the athletes, maybe Aaron Rodgers. Looking for unorthodoxy, he discovered villainy and embraced it, perhaps in a scheme to get traded, damning being adored in pursuit of a self that seemed true. People were baffled by that, too. In professional wrestling, they call this sort of manufactured misbehavior a heel turn. Done wrong, it’s baffling.
For now, the heel in him appears to have mellowed. So what classification will make sense for Rodgers’ time here as a Person of Interest? A second chance, a redo, a doubling down, a clean slate? Revenge? Rodgers has yet to throw a single touchdown pass for the city. The season could be glorious — or the sort of debacle that turns a simple jaunt like the one he took “with” me the other day into a trial. Maybe the professional relationship doesn’t last more than a year. But maybe the residential one lasts, thrives. Rodgers turns 40 at the end of the regular season. I’m not an athlete, let alone an elite one. I am, however, a New Yorker, who turned 40 here, and I know how it feels to let some of the past go, to actually, finally have a home here — here in New York Freakin’ City. Whether you’re broke or flush, it’s a relief, a great fortune, possibly the seed of some social and emotional gluttony. “If this town is just an apple,” Michael Jackson once sang, “Then let me take a bite.”
Maybe he’ll come to love about this place what lots of us do, that despite the evident suffering, inequality and mismanagement, New York remains a town where you can experience a lacerating, queer farce about Black existentialism like “Ain’t No Mo’” and an artist as self-astute and paradigmatically white as Taylor Swift and teams with fates as addled and fanbases as inflamed as the Rangers and Knicks (and the Jets and the Mets), where people on the street will give you your space until, of course, they won’t.
I caught Rodgers at the Tonys and swore I recognized a guy discovering what it’s like to be himself but somewhere else, to experience what he’s seen on TV and in the movies, what he’s read in books. It’s been a dream for some of us to live here, in “the greatest city in the world,” to quote the musical about the history undergirding such dreams. I’m sure I’m being naïve. But that’s sports, which really isn’t so different from art. It works best when you suspend disbelief.