GREEN BAY – Donald Driver swept into the Boys & Girls Club the same way he cut across the middle of a football field: with energy, optimism and a clear purpose.
Driver, in fact, is sweeping across all of Wisconsin as part of his Thank You Fans Tour, which began Thursday and wraps up Sunday with his charity celebrity softball game at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute.
His message for the boys and girls was that they can be anything they want to be if they work at it and their parents support them; "Even the next Green Bay Packer. Just don't break my records," he said, flashing his trademark smile.
He knows what it is to overcome long odds. Growing up in Houston, Driver was homeless for a time in his early teens and admits to stealing cars and selling drugs to support his family. Moving in with his grandmother and athletics allowed him go a different, better direction. He was a four-sport star in high school and excelled at track and football at Alcorn State in Mississippi, where the Packers found him.
Driver, who retired in 2012, is the Packers' all-time leading receiver, with team records for receptions (743) and receiving yards (10,137). He was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame on July 22 at Lambeau Field.
It was a loud, rambunctious group at the club, as you'd expect from a room full of pre-teens, but when Driver told them, gently, to shush, they shushed and listened to his message.
The west-side Boys & Girls Club of Greater Green Bay was his seventh stop of the day, several of them unannounced. He dropped in at restaurants where people nudged each other and wondered if it was really him, until he smiled. Then they knew.
"It's been a great lesson for myself. It kind of brings you back to reality," Driver said. "It makes you appreciate the fans so much more now. We even stopped in these little towns and see individuals that never get a chance to see us at all.
"Every stop we've had since Thursday morning has been remarkable."
Proceeds from Sunday's charity celebrity softball game and from corporate sponsorship of the tour go to the Donald Driver Foundation. Supporting the tour are Kohl's, Jockey International, Associated Bank and Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin.
"We've helped so many organizations and programs continue to grow. We've supported the Boys & Girls Club right here in Green Bay," he said. "We just left the Miracle League (in Manitowoc). We helped build a playground and baseball field for those individuals who just want to play the sport that they love."
Acoya Hernandez, 12, of Green Bay, was thrilled to present Driver with a drawing made by club members and to help him draw tickets for a raffle, even though one of the tickets she pulled out of the bucket belonged to her sister, Haylie, 13, and she admitted that she's at least half a Dallas Cowboys fan.
Kaeden Harris, 10, more than balanced Hernandez's fandom. Wearing a Driver jersey, he stepped up to the microphone and explained they had a drawing "for his guy here," before reading a poem that was part of the artwork, his smile equaling that of Driver.
"You wonder why we do the things that we do? This is why we do this, because of kids like this," Driver said.
Other tour highlights included giving three families back-to-school shopping sprees, making cream puffs at the Wisconsin State Fair, dropping in at Leinenkugel's 150th anniversary celebration Saturday in Eau Claire and more.
"I give to the state of Wisconsin because you all have given me so much for 14 amazing years of playing," he said. "This is why we've done this tour. This is why we continue to support the local community. To give this support back."
Story by Richard Ryman, courtesy of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.