When Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman broke his left collarbone in the second game of the 1998 season, he missed five Cowboys games over the next 50 days.
The wait was excruciating, even between owner Jerry Jones' news conferences.
"The pain was enormous, opening up the left shoulder to throw, a very sharp pain that kept you from being able to effectively throw the football,'' Aikman recalled. "But once I was pain-free, I was playing. I wasn't aware of or worried about more risk.''
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So Aikman understands the mixture of excitement and anxiety pulsating within Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers before Sunday's winner-take-all, NFC North championship game against the Bears. Rodgers has missed seven games in the 55 days since Bears defensive end Shea McClellin slammed him into the Lambeau Field turf and broke his left collarbone.
Rodgers' rehabilitation consumed Wisconsin like a Brett Favre retirement and now his Soldier Field return supersedes every other storyline in the first regular-season finale between the Bears and Packers to determine a title. Whether Marc Trestman stamps his first season a success and Jay Cutler makes a case for a new contract hinges largely on if Rodgers manages to make the Packers offense look as healthy as he finally feels after a long layoff.
"It's interesting how things have changed because I know Aaron has had different scans to check the bone and healing process and I didn't have that,'' said Aikman, who will call the game for Fox. "For me, there wasn't as much lengthy discussion or consideration. I didn't have anything mentally to overcome.''
The physical challenges barely fazed Aikman either. With typical Pro Bowl-precision, he came back to complete 14 of 26 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-0 victory over the Eagles, the first of four straight. Afterward, Aikman complained to reporters: "I wasn't as sharp as I wanted and early on I struggled.''
If Rodgers struggles that efficiently, the Bears are in trouble.
"I think Aaron will play well,'' Aikman said. "Guys aren't playing as long in preseason as they once did and still do well in the season opener, and I associate it with that situation. Also, he has practiced for three weeks, so I don't anticipate him showing a whole lot of rust, if any.''
If Rodgers doesn't, it will enhance Duke quarterback Anthony Boone's admiration for the passer he studies on videotape every summer. Boone, who patterns his release after that of Rodgers, broke his right collarbone Sept. 7 and missed three games — as well as many good nights' sleep. Boone's right shoulder still clicks when he throws. It took Boone three mediocre games — and seven interceptions — to regain the top form that led Duke to a 10-win season.
"The hardest thing was wearing a sling so when I came back my arm lost conditioning and my passes lacked pop at first,'' Boone said Friday. "But he's Aaron Rodgers. Psychologically, I was concerned about that first hit and not falling directly on it. But you can't play not to get hurt. You compete.''
This Rodgers knows or else he wouldn't be doing what Derrick Rose didn't; following his competitive instincts to return amid risk for a team unlikely to win a championship. Even if health concerns for the Packers' $110 Million Man have increased, the chance for re-injury hasn't necessarily, according to one NFL orthopedist.
The physician estimated it would take three months for Rodgers' collarbone to return to regular strength but breaking it again would require being driven to the ground like before — force that could break a normal clavicle anyway. Like Aikman, the doctor agreed that if Rodgers can throw without pain, he should play without worry.
And Rodgers playing — without restriction, Packers coach Mike McCarthy promised — makes the running game that emerged in his absence harder to stop. Funny how much running back Eddie Lacy's ankle improved after watching the Bears run defense.
"When Aaron went down, teams stacked the box and said, 'OK, beat us throwing the football.' And Green Bay wasn't able to do that as effectively,'' Aikman said. "Yet their running game got better.''
The better Rodgers plays Sunday, the smarter Cutler must. Yet after visiting a "relaxed" Cutler on Friday at Halas Hall, Aikman sensed no additional pressure — even if it is palpable around Chicago.
"As you get older in this league or remove yourself from the game and look back at games that really shaped who you were as a player or what you achieved as a team, this is one of those games,'' Aikman said. "These are the types of games that, as a quarterback, really help establish whatever legacy you have. I'm looking forward to seeing how Jay responds.''
Experience helps Aikman know what to expect from the other guy.