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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Aaron Rodgers has more on his mind than football. A lot more.

Aaron Rodgers, then with the Green Bay Packers, takes the field for a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 25, 2022. (Mary Holt/The New York Times)

By Katherine Rosman and Ken Belson

Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the most gifted NFL quarterback of his generation, spent a week last month in Costa Rica with a handful of fellow pro football players in search of transformation.

At a mountain retreat with views of the Pacific Ocean, they drank a psychedelic brew under the watchful eyes of a Yawanawa shaman and a documentary film crew.

Soon a news flash from back home — and then another — pierced the vibe. First, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the independent candidate for president, said he was considering making Rodgers his running mate, a partnership that did not ultimately materialize.

The next day, CNN reported that Rodgers had suggested in 2013 that the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was a hoax or an inside government job. Rodgers responded on social media, saying that he had “never been of the opinion that the events did not take place.”

These are not the circumstances in which you expect to find an NFL champion — sipping the brew, ayahuasca, in Central America while flirting with a run for vice president and batting away accusations of conspiracy mongering. It is certainly not what the team’s fans were imagining when Rodgers arrived last year as the would-be savior of the moribund New York Jets.

Football fans generally want low-complexity heroism from their standout players, and in many ways they get that from Rodgers: He led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory and has been named league MVP four times. He has had a string of famous girlfriends and endorsement deals with mainstream brands, including State Farm Insurance.

Under normal circumstances, a star quarterback resurrecting an iconic franchise in the country’s biggest media market would be just the sort of storyline that has helped make the NFL the biggest league in American sports.

But since joining the Jets, Rodgers has mostly distinguished himself by supercharging an off-field persona as an anti-establishment ideologue. If, at age 40, he is among the most well-known stars in American football, he may also be the most eccentric.

On podcasts, Rodgers trumpets Kennedy’s candidacy, rails against the COVID-19 vaccine and extols the virtues of psychedelic experiences. He has urged listeners to question the motives of those who control the government and media, tossing around his suspicion that the ruling establishment is in cahoots with Big Pharma.

“We have a captured media system, we have a captured medicine system, we have a captured education system,” he recently told commentator Joe Rogan on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” the most popular podcast on Spotify.

Outwardly, the Jets give no indication that his off-field endeavors are creating a headache. For them, Rodgers represents the team’s hope for success, even after he ruptured his Achilles tendon just four plays into his first game last fall and sat out the whole season.

But some Jets fans wish Rodgers would just shut up and play.

John Marchese, who lives in Florham Park, New Jersey, wonders if he might be setting up a post-NFL political career. “Being extremely vocal on divisive issues is one way to do that,” he said. “But as a football fan, I just want to focus on football, and I want Aaron Rodgers to focus on football since his talent is undeniable.”

Rodgers’ more recent avocation is taking part in “plant medicine” ceremonies — Rodgers bristles at the use of the term “drugs” to describe psychedelic substances taken with the intent of having emotional and spiritual experiences. He credits ayahuasca for helping him overcome fears that he traces back to the 1990s.

To some observers, Rodgers’ behavior is head-scratching. “Athletes tend to go from famous to infamous by accident, not by choice, and quarterbacks, in particular, are as careful with their speech and public actions as any position in any sport,” said Dan Le Batard, a podcast host. “I don’t think we’ve ever heard a starting pro quarterback espouse anything like conspiracy theories, never mind choosing that route after having arrived at the gold mine of finally being safe enough to sell us State Farm insurance on television.”

For most professional athletes, focusing on their game is a full-time occupation. Rodgers, who is paid more than $35 million a year, has intense outside passions.

Amid his eight-hour daily rehab sessions, Rodgers began talking with Kennedy about his presidential campaign. The candidate’s philosophy, particularly on the COVID vaccine, aligns with his own.

“If there is a way that RFK could get elected, to me, that’s where the hope starts,” Rodgers told Rogan this past winter. Less than two months later, Kennedy named him as a possible vice presidential partner, jolting Jets fans.

Some of those on the Costa Rican retreat were aware of the news but mostly ignored the distractions, said Jeramy Poyer, the brother of Miami Dolphins safety Jordan Poyer.

There, Rodgers and his fellow searchers spent two hours in an airless tepee that was heated to more than 100 degrees to induce feelings of enlightenment.

The last night, according to two participants and a podcast appearance by Rodgers, they gathered to drink ayahuasca, which is meant to bring on euphoria, hallucinations, and a processing of depression and trauma that can lead to long-term peace.

Adrian Colbert, a safety for the Chicago Bears, said the ceremonies helped him understand that “emotional healing is looked down upon, especially for men. But vulnerability is power.” He added: “I felt my heart explode, and I felt so much love. I couldn’t help but cry.”

Some people were playing bongos and guitar as the group ventured into the grass and gazed at the stars.

Poyer said Rodgers told him it was “one of the best nights of his life.”

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