Donald Driver's "Thank You Fans" tour hasn't officially started and he's already gone off script.
He's minutes away from speaking to 1,800 Kohl's employees at their headquarters on the first of nearly 20 stops over five days when someone comes in the green room to tell him there's a HUGE fan, a woman who has plastered her cubicle with Driver photos, sitting in the front row.
Driver wants to meet her.
Tammy VanDerwoude of Milwaukee can scarcely believe it when the Green Bay Packers' all-time leading receiver makes a beeline for her, tenderly cradles her face in the hands that caught 743 passes – almost all of them from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers – and plants a kiss on her cheek.
"I thought I was going to faint," she says a few minutes later, still fanning her flushed face with one hand.
Driver, 42, has that kind of effect on people. Though he retired four years ago and makes his home in Dallas, he is a frequent visitor to Wisconsin and is, by far, the most beloved ex-Packer.
Unlike the reticent Favre, whose infrequent trips north are typically cloaked in secrecy, Driver enjoys being among his fans and thrives on the kind of adulation he couldn't have imagined as a homeless teen selling drugs in the streets of Houston. He is imbued with gratitude, rare for the superstar athlete who is handed everything in life – mainly because he was not.
Driver came from nothing and nowhere, a seventh-round draft pick out of tiny Alcorn State, a spindly receiver who by grit and talent and a little luck forged a 14-year, 205-game NFL career. His journey was something of a miracle, if you believe in that sort of thing. Driver certainly does.
"I count my blessings every day," he says. "Every day."
And so, for Driver, it's all about paying it forward. Yes, he has been expertly managed and marketed and has numerous corporate relationships, but there's not a phony bone in his body. He loves making someone's day, whether it's stopping to chat for a minute, signing an autograph or posing for a selfie (he often takes the cellphone out of a fan's shaking hand and snaps the photo himself).
If this was all an act, if Driver's ebullience was staged, we'd have caught on by now.
"I've always been a people person," he says. "Some guys don't like to be around after they retire. They're very secluded. I hope I can be out in public the rest of my life. It's the fans that put me on top of a platform that I never dreamed I would have. Words can't express the love I have for them."
If words can't do it, then how about a coach bus painted green and gold, bearing Driver's likeness and the words "Donald Driver's Thank You Fans Tour"? How about crisscrossing Wisconsin to personally thank those fans at a bunch of scheduled events and appearances, and a few that aren't?
The tour started Thursday with Driver's speech at Kohl's and concludes with a Goodwill luncheon Monday. In between, he was a personal back-to-school shopper for families with kids being treated at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin; visited a fan who has undergone 78 surgeries; made cream puffs at the State Fair; visited the Miracle League of the Lakeshore in Manitowoc and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Green Bay, and attended Leinenkugel's 150th anniversary celebration in Chippewa Falls.
"No player in any sport has ever done a tour like this," Driver says. "I wanted to honor the people who have honored me for so long."
It's not lost on him that his tour coincides with Packers training camp. He doesn't miss it, not even a little bit. Many NFL players are unprepared for life after football, but Driver made the transition seamlessly and never looked back.
He authored a New York Times bestselling memoir, took a winning turn on "Dancing with the Stars" and opened Driven Elite Fitness and Health in suburban Dallas, where he trains high school and college athletes. A second club is under construction and a Wisconsin franchise is a possibility.
"When I retired, I had other things in place," Driver says. "It wasn't hard for me. The first couple years, you think, 'I'll play forever.' But as your career starts winding down, you start thinking about what's next.
"I do miss Sundays, though. You miss the game itself. "
He still works out every day and is in remarkable shape. How many 42-year-old men who stand 6 feet can still dunk a basketball with two hands? Driver does it effortlessly, and says he can cover 40 yards in 4.5 seconds. That might be a stretch, but something in the 4.7 range is believable.
Put him in the slot for a couple plays tomorrow, and "I would kill," he says.
One of the stops on his tour was at the University of Wisconsin, where he addressed members of the football team. These Badgers grew up watching him play and hung on his every word.
He told them to seize their opportunities and to do so with purpose.
"You can have all the skills in the world, but you have to have a purpose," he says. "My purpose was to get out of the neighborhood, to get my family out of poverty. I got tired of sleeping in motel rooms and U-Haul trucks."
He talks about how there were 13 receivers in Packers camp his rookie year, how veterans told him to run the wrong routes to protect their jobs, how none of the coaches thought he would make the roster, how he slid under a fence while making a catch in practice one day and had to be extricated by fans, how Ron Wolf pulled him aside and said, "I believe in you. Make me look good."
"I was on the bubble, but I kept making plays, kept making plays," Driver says. "Someone asked Brett, 'What makes Donald special?' Brett said, 'You can put him in a phone booth with 11 people and it's going to take them 10 minutes to touch him.' "
Fourteen years later Driver had piled up 10,137 yards, 475 first downs and 61 touchdowns.
"And I got one of these," he says, holding up his right hand to show off his Super Bowl XLV ring.
Driver is comfortable in this setting, talking football, but he's at his best around children. He has three of his own – Christina, Christian and Charity – and has a knack for connecting with kids. During the back-to-school shopping spree at Kohl's in Brookfield, young boys and girls clung to him like mini-cornerbacks.
As he walked down the aisles, kids in tow, a shopper not associated with the event whipped out his cellphone and shot video, narrating it with a whispered, "Oh, yeah, that's the man. Donald Driver. He had monster hands. Caught everything."
Indeed, Driver almost never dropped the ball. Then, or now.