ARLINGTON, Texas — The moment Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal split the uprights, knifing the Cowboys faithful right through the heart, the press box erupted.
They shouted. They banged the table. They smacked palms. Who cares that the PA announcer had declared 10 minutes earlier that there’s no cheering in the press box? General manager Ted Thompson’s army of personnel men, seated in the second row, needed to celebrate this pulsating 34-31 win over the Cowboys.
And each person flanking Thompson deserves a raise, a promotion and at least a pound of cheese curds for piecing together a masterpiece.
No question, Aaron Rodgers further cemented his legacy at AT&T Stadium. His flick of the wrist on 3rd-and-20—rolling left, under duress, legs dancing and eyes likely blindfolded by the time we tell our grandkids about this throw—was his Michael Jordan-in-Game 6 moment. But he isn’t the only one who deserves credit.
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This is a Packers offense besieged by injury. There’s Jordy Nelson and his broken ribs in street clothes. There’s Randall Cobb finally healthy after an injury-plagued season. Eddie Lacy, the No. 1 back, is out. James Starks, the No. 2 back, is out. Davante Adams rolled his ankle and now won’t even practice until the day before the NFC Championship Game.
These are injuries that nuke seasons.
They should have nuked the 2016 Packers’. Instead, Green Bay is traveling to Atlanta with a Super Bowl ticket on the line and an offense that has become a Bay of Misfit Toys.
But here’s the revelation from Arlington: Those misfits made Dallas pay.
First, Aaron Rodgers threaded a 34-yard touchdown through the arms of Sean Lee to…Richard Rodgers.
Go ahead and Google search that name. Richard Rodgers ran a 4.87 at the combine.
Drive Nos. 2 and 3 were both punctuated with touchdown runs from…Ty Montgomery. This receiver-turned-running back spun the ball atop the “O” in “Cowboys” after his second score as 36 family members and friends roared somewhere in attendance.
Yes, that’s a No. 88 at running back.
Setting up that touchdown, of course, was fullback Aaron Ripkowski, barreling ahead for 20 yards and then teeing off on a linebacker at the goal line.
Ole ‘Rip’ was a lineman in high school (really) and carried the ball six times in four years at Oklahoma.
Aaron Rodgers looks left, scrambles right and a wide receiver somehow stays on his same page the entire time, reversing direction mid-play to find a sweet spot in the Cowboys secondary and corral a pass for a 26-yard gain. That receiver? None other than Geronimo Allison.
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And with the game on the line, a player released by the Rams somehow held a Michael Jackson pose along the sideline to set up Crosby’s heroics.
Released by the Rams.
“Words can’t describe it,” Jared Cook says. “It took me eight years to get to this point.”
These are the loose parts fueling an improbable run toward the Super Bowl.
Both the 1996 and 2010 Green Bay Super Bowl teams were slammed with injuries. And, from afar, Antonio Freeman absolutely sees the parallels to his ’96 group.
Whenever one player went down, another stepped up.
“I can definitely compare our Super Bowl team to this football team,” the former Packers receiver says, “because we had floating pieces.
“Not only are they deep, but they’re prepared when their numbers are called. That’s a great credit to the scouting department and the Green Bay Packers. You take Antonio Brown out of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ situation, you take Doug Baldwin out of the Seattle Seahawks’ situation, you take Dez [Bryant]…a lot of teams can’t overcome that. But because guys are prepared and, no doubt, you’ve got No. 12 back there, those are the difference-makers.”
So where did these players come from? The streets of Tampa, a weight room in Texas, on a basketball court in Georgia, with 17 foster siblings in Dallas…
Before the Packers discovered these gems, others did.
Long before Aaron Ripkowski resembled a castaway with a football in one hand and a blood-faced “Wilson” in the other, he must have been a high school legend.
Surely this beast in the beard ravaged defenses 20, 30, 40 carries at a time.
Wrong. His high school tape was as uninspiring as it gets. At Dayton (Texas) High School, Ripkowski played right guard, while dabbling in some linebacker and defensive line. Go ahead and watch his four-minute, 37-second “highlight reel” on YouTube, but pound a venti coffee first.
When Bruce Kittle, Oklahoma’s recruiting coordinator, popped in the film himself a half-decade ago he wasn’t impressed.
“He didn’t really have any good tape,” Kittle says. “He wasn’t a guy who jumped off at you.”
At linebacker, Ripkowski sumo-wrestled a blocker. At right guard, in a spread offense, he pulled into space but was obviously undersized. The only Division I scholarship offer Ripkowski received was from the Naval Academy, and considering so many of his uncles had fought in wars, this seemed like the obvious choice.
Yet Kittle was intrigued.
He heard the urban legends. Apparently this Ripkowski character could lift the weight of small cars in the weight room. And when “Rip” attended the Sooners’ summer camp before his senior year of high school, he benched 500 pounds, squatted 620 pounds and was oh-so-close to deadlifting 700 pounds, which would’ve been a state record.
“Everything was so ridiculous,” Kittle says. “It took a little bit of vision on our part.”
Good thing Kittle knew a fullback when he saw one. He calls himself an Iowa guy who “grew up with fullbacks.” What Ripkowski lacked in athleticism and quick twitch, he made up for with grunting toughness. Kittle offered him a walk-on spot, and Ripkowski took it. Soon, head coach Bob Stoops learned this kid possessed the necessary amount of maniac to thrive at fullback.
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press/Associated Press
First, Ripkowski dominated a rigorous weightlifting regiment that usually weeds out walk-ons.
Then, the pads came on and this fifth-stringer practically foamed at the mouth when isolation plays were called.
“He totally crushed our starting linebackers,” Kittle says. “Everybody was like, ‘Holy s–t.’ Nobody really appreciated him until then. The guy comes in and crushes. …
“He has a physicality. An absolute fearlessness of anyone. He didn’t care who he was playing against. Whether you’re an All-Big 12 linebacker or not, he’s going to smack you in the face as hard as he could.”
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When the games began, he knocked a Kansas State player out cold on a kick return (Kittle thinks the poor victim broke a rib) and was used as a lead blocker in Oklahoma’s “Belldozer” goal-line package with quarterback Blake Bell.
The Packers, one team that still employs fullbacks, fell in love with this human monster truck. Ripkowski went 206th overall in the 2015 draft and eventually replaced John Kuhn.
Injuries mounted. Options were low. And suddenly, this former offensive guard was carrying the ball 34 times for 150 yards with three total touchdowns. After yelling “Kuuuuuuhn” for eight-plus years, Midwesterners started yelling “Riiiiiiiiip” as their new cult hero spiked footballs as if drilling for oil.
If any of you Wisconsinites get stuck in a ditch this winter, don’t bother calling AAA.
“Give him a call,” Kittle says, “and he’ll pull your car out.”
Meanwhile, in Tampa, Florida, Mike Bellamy had no clue who this person was outside the home of Geronimo Allison. The Illinois receivers coach was there to recruit a lanky wide receiver with vice-grip hands.
Who was this guy?
As Bellamy walked inside, he asked the stranger if he was joining him.
“No,” the man said. “I’m here to watch your car.”
Allison’s neighborhood—about 15-20 minutes outside of Tampa—was rougher than Bellamy ever imagined. As a kid, the receiver was surrounded by drug and gang violence. Sports offered an escape. The 6’3″ receiver with the unforgettable name had attended Iowa Western Community College, won an NJCAA title and was ranked the No. 7 JUCO receiver by Rivals, earning himself the attention of Illinois.
Inside that living room, Bellamy saw how dearly Allison wanted to take care of his family. He saw “the joy” of Mom, of his grandparents, of everyone staring back at Allison as their beam of light.
Then, on Allison’s official visit in Champaign, Illinois, coach and player ate dinner at Firehaus on 6th Street.
At one point during the visit, Bellamy’s wife leaned into Allison’s ear with a message.
“You better be coming to Illinois,” she said, “because this is my wedding anniversary.”
Indeed this was the Bellamys‘ 15th anniversary.
Allison chose Illinois and finished with 106 receptions for 1,480 yards and eight touchdowns in two seasons.
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So how does a kid whose 4.67 in the 40 ranked 33rd of 37 among wide receivers at the NFL combine find a role in the NFL? How does a kid who was academically ineligible to play football until his senior year of high school become one of Aaron Rodgers’ trusted receivers?
This process takes years if the process even survives training camp. The math does not compute. But somehow, Allison knew precisely where to run in the back of the end zone at Detroit when Rodgers scrambled left. Somehow he stayed in bounds, dove and cradled a touchdown that helped clinch the NFC North.
“He wasn’t dumb,” Bellamy says. “He was just uncommitted and undisciplined when it came to his academic responsibilities.”
Once he committed, Bellamy explains, he was fine.
Allison graduated high school, graduated college and is now acing his first postseason test. At Illinois, Bellamy once showed Allison a photo of his empty house in Georgia. That’s what he sacrificed for this opportunity in Illinois…what would Allison do?
“If you’re giving me 99 percent,” Bellamy would say, “why should I be willing to give more than you’re giving yourself?”
So Allison lived in the film room, watching tape two to three hours at a time. Soon, he was dragging teammates there with him and teaching them what to look for. Coaches named him a captain for 10 of his 12 games as a senior. Allison learned how to read blitzes and coverages, all while perfecting every route on the route tree. On the field, he stopped being so cute his first five yards. Bellamy, who’s now at Toledo, taught Allison how to “speed release,” to “just go” into a route.
The result was an NFL-ready receiver.
NFL teams, however, did not care. Allison went undrafted.
One reason was a combine performance as blase as Ripkowski‘s high school film. Allison dropped passes, had the poor 40, didn’t jump well. But when he sat out of the bench press, Allison struck up a conversation with a former NFL receiver. And this former Super Bowl champ saw something in Allison.
It was Antonio Freeman.
“He was full of pride,” said Freeman, who was at the combine through an NFL program to mentor prospects. “It looked like he just wanted to get on the field. Like when I was a kid—I’m not a weight-room guy, I’m not a 40 guy, but if you put me on the field, I’ll show you what I’ve got. And that’s what I read in his mind.
“He just had that energy that says, ‘I don’t want to be here. Just put me on the field.'”
So when injuries struck, the Packers counted on Allison. He’s this team’s version of Andre Rison, providing the same midseason Where did this guy come from? boost. Those ’96 Packers signed Rison in November when the position was decimated by injury. Robert Brooks was done for the year and Freeman broke his arm, so general manager Ron Wolf rolled the dice on Rison, just as these Packers gave this total unknown 274 offensive snaps (34.4 percent), per Pro Football Focus.
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Rison was no angel, and neither is Allison. When the world discovered him during a breakout game at Atlanta, Allison’s explicit, NSFW, sexually bizarre tweets from 2012 surfaced. He now faces a marijuana charge, too.
This has not been a smooth ride. But Geronimo Allison is now one game away from his Rison moment.
Bellamy still remembers that first visit to Tampa and doesn’t let Allison forget. That day, he took a baby picture of Allison off the refrigerator, and he’ll still text a shot of it to his old receiver.
“His passion for being great,” Bellamy said. “His work ethic. You can’t put that on paper.”
Kyle Richardson texted Jared Cook all game. He knew the Packers tight end wouldn’t see his texts until later, but he couldn’t help himself.
That’s my dog!
Richardson was Cook’s position coach in high school and is now a senior offensive assistant at Clemson. While admittedly “low on the totem pole,” even Richardson received 193 text messages after the Tigers upset Alabama in the national championship. He has no clue how many texts Cook received after pulling down one of the best receptions in NFL history.
But he kept texting. And texting. And at 7:45 a.m. Monday, Richardson sent one more message to Cook.
You’re one game away from the Super Bowl!
Three hours later, he heard back.
“He responds, ‘Hey dog, I’m locked in!'” Richardson says. “Which meant, ‘Hey, leave me alone.'”
LM Otero/Associated Press/Associated Press
Of course, Richardson understands.
After eight years of turmoil, Cook is finally a go-to tight end on a team one win from the Super Bowl.
Flash way, way back to 2003 to understand why. Cook was a junior at North Gwinnett High School and one of the best basketball players in Georgia, playing with and against the likes of Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Lou Williams in the AAU circuit. But football? Average at best. Cook caught a whopping nine passes in ’03. His team ran the Wing T.
Which is why all Packers fans should really be thanking Hal Mumme and Richardson right about now.
In 2004, Dennis Roland took over as North Gwinnett‘s head coach and instantly installed the Air Raid offense he learned under Mumme at Kentucky.
Cook would be the focal point, and it was on Richardson to convince Cook that football, not basketball, was his future. “Don’t be mad at me!” he’d tell him. “Blame Magic Johnson for excelling as a 6’9″ point guard. Blame all those 7-foot centers.” At 6’3″, Cook would never make the NBA. He was only cheating himself if he went through the motions in the fall.
Cook bought in, caught 32 passes for 800 yards and 10 scores as a senior and was off to South Carolina.
When one of Richardson’s players at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, was reluctant to buy in a few years later, the coach drove that player to the South Carolina campus to meet with Cook at a McDonald’s for 45 minutes. Like Cook, Cordarrelle Patterson wore No. 84. Like Cook, Patterson played the “X” spot in this Air Raid offense.
Patterson listened to Cook. Both are now in the NFL.
“I’m not proud of him because of that catch,” Richardson says of Cook. “I’m proud of where he was as a high school kid and his mindset then and goals and how he’s turned it around and made it all happen.
“He became a man.”
To Richardson, the final drive in Dallas was a microcosm of Cook’s career. It began with two balls the tight end should’ve caught—just as his career path has included so many potholes and dead ends. He was once benched by Steve Spurrier in college. Cameras once caught Cook shoving Rams quarterback Austin Davis on the sideline. He played with 11 different quarterbacks on seven teams that never reached the playoffs. He inked a massive five-year, $35 million contract with the Rams only to be released three years in.
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press/Associated Press
So after two contested drops—yes, Richardson would’ve lambasted Cook in person because the ball hit his hands—Cook then had the catch of his life.
Earlier in the week, the tight end ran the same route in practice but couldn’t keep his size-15 feet in bounds. Teammates hounded him. This time, he subconsciously knew precisely how to contort his body along the boundary. No, Cook doesn’t do yoga. No, he’s not sure where this flexibility comes from.
But when asked if the catch served as personal vindication, Cook did not hesitate.
“Absolutely,” Cook says. “No question. This is the best I’ve ever felt in my whole career. I’m happy to get this far. I’m happy to be here. And I’m looking forward to keeping this thing going.”
Now, he’s not the guy who shoved his own quarterback, and he’s not the guy who was served a chicken head at Buffalo Wild Wings.
This happened Tuesday when I went to eat @BWWings How Sway? How? 😷 pic.twitter.com/8T8aSaKrZ7
— Jared Cook (@JaredCook89) October 7, 2016
No, Jared Cook will forever be known for this catch in Dallas.
“Buffalo Wild Wings,” he jokes, “Call me!”
Maybe he’s not in a texting mood. If Cook wins a Super Bowl and that endorsement materializes, he knows he’ll have Richardson to thank. The coach knocked sense into him more than a decade ago.
So Cook was sure his coach received one important text message this week.
He secured Richardson tickets for the NFC Championship Game.
So Antonio Freeman sees similarities everywhere. It’s an eerie feeling.
His 1996 Packers were armed with a quarterback at the peak of his powers, just like this version of the Packers. It’s hard not to think of ex-Eagle and ex-Dolphin Keith Jackson when Cook splits the seam. Freeman sees much of himself in Davante Adams, too. Like Freeman, Adams overcame a rash of drops to emerge as a bona fide star.
“His athleticism. His footwork. His patience at the line of scrimmage,” Freeman says. “Those are the things that remind me of myself.
“We went through it young. We’re thrusted into the spotlight young.”
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
And like Dorsey Levens in ’96, Ty Montgomery in ’16 is a dangerous dual threat. His ability to adapt is traced back to childhood. Montgomery wanted a brother in the third grade, so Montgomery’s mother, Lisa Frazier, started taking in foster kids. One turned into two…into three…into four. Suddenly, Montgomery had 17 foster siblings, and 16 of them were boys. Inside, they shared twin beds and bunk beds. Outside, they played full-contact football and held boxing tournaments.
Whenever a handful headed to the local rec center, they teamed up and dominated.
Now, he’s the Packers’ starting running back.
“A lot of people counted us out,” Montgomery says. “They didn’t expect us to get to this point. But we’re here. We always had faith in one another.”
Back in Dallas, the city where he grew up with all those siblings.
“It was incredible,” Montgomery says. “I’ve been thinking about it since I was little.”
And of course the father of the first player to score a touchdown last Sunday was part of “The Play” between Stanford and Cal. For years, Richard Rodgers Sr. told Richard Rodgers Jr. alllllll about their five-lateral drama. Like (clutch) father, like (clutch) son. Richard Rodgers Jr. hauled in a Hail Mary one season then snared this pass whistling between Sean Lee’s arms the next.
“You could be covered perfectly,” he says, “and Aaron will put it wherever it needs to be.”
The pressure to keep up with Aaron Rodgers and score every possession now heightens. Atlanta boasts the seventh-highest scoring offense in NFL history, and it’ll be attacking a mangled, leaky, Duct-taped Packers secondary. With or without Jordy Nelson, the Cooks, Ripkowskis and Allisons must deliver.
Freeman knows that much, pausing to think back to his playoff runs in Green Bay.
“You have to be detailed,” Freeman says. “You have to exact. You can’t get a B on Sunday. You have to get an A. Because those two or three questions you may get wrong could be the difference in the game.”
He’s played with Brett Favre. He’s played with Aaron Rodgers.
This run by Rodgers, he admits, is different.
“I’ve seen Brett Favre come back from that broken thumb [in 2003] and go on a hot streak,” Freeman says. “But I’ve never seen a streak, in all my years, like I’m witnessing right now with Aaron Rodgers. Just the way he’s backing up his talk. With ‘R-E-L-A-X,’ he took care of things a couple years ago. Then he told everybody this year, ‘Hey, we just have to run the table.’ Then, he backs that up.
“To overcome all these injuries and all those last-minute throws? It’s amazing.”
Still, Freeman won’t say whether ’96 Favre or ’16 Rodgers is better, because this Packers team isn’t in the Super Bowl yet. This Packers team is still two wins away from glory, and it’ll take a Freeman streaking down the right sideline for an 81-yard score or a Rison down the middle for a 54-yard score to finish the job.
The ones who discovered the misfits first sure do believe.
Most importantly, the misfits believe in themselves.
“It’s fighting for the brother next to you,” Cook says. “It’s sticking together. And it’s becoming a family. Because if you’re fighting for the guy next to you, you’re going to sell out for him and you know he’s going to sell out.”
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.