Underdog tale continues for new Packers starter Scott Tolzien

BY PATRICK FINLEY Staff Reporter

November 16, 2013 1:12AM

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Updated: December 18, 2013 6:29AM

The boys in the family chose their jersey numbers based on the dates they were born. The middle one, as little boys do, picked his favorite team based on the uniform colors he liked most.

And that’s how Scott Tolzien — born Sept. 4, 1987 — grew up wearing the green and yellow jersey of the most famous No. 4 on the planet, Brett Favre.

In Rolling Meadows, the heart of Bears country, Tolzien was a Green Bay Packers fan.

Today in New York, the Packers quarterback will combine his childhood love and his college legend. The Fremd High School and Wisconsin alum will become the ninth Chicago-area quarterback to start an NFL game since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

‘‘It’s a big atmosphere, a lot of people watching,’’ he told reporters in Green Bay this week. ‘‘At the same time, it’s the same game you played in high school, in youth football.’’

Or, it seemed this past Sunday, in the schoolyard.

In his first game on an NFL active roster — promoted after the Bears broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone — Tolzien replaced an injured Seneca Wallace after one drive. The Wisconsin grad had taken six snaps that week in practice.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles, while completing 24 of 39 passes for 280 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in a 27-13 loss, Tolzien called plays he’d never run before.

‘‘It has been a wild couple weeks,’’ he said, ‘‘but that’s part of the job, part of the business. The focus remains the same — it was the same whether I was practice squad in the locker room back there, or here. You really try to make the most of each day. They all count, whether it’s Week 9 of the season or the 17th day of training camp.’’

Until Sunday, Tolzien’s snaps were limited to drills inside an empty Lambeau Field hours before kickoff. His father, Mike, would drive 2 hours and 50 minutes and watch his son work before games.

‘‘It shouldn’t matter if it’s game day or midweek,’’ Tolzien said. ‘‘It’s a fight for reps.”

He has been fighting for a while.

In 2006, Tolzien was days away from signing with Toledo when Wisconsin assistant Paul Chryst offered him a scholarship.

‘‘He had that intangible all along — he showed great maturity, inclusiveness,’’ said Mike Donatucci, his former Fremd coach. ‘‘There was never a doubt this kid was going to be successful in life. There was some doubt he was going to be successful in football.”

In his first three years at Wisconsin — he redshirted his first season — Tolzien attempted eight passes. He confided in Donatucci he wasn’t sure he’d get his chance.

‘‘He’s been an underdog, especially in the age of athletic and bigger quarterbacks,” said Donatucci, an IHSFCA Hall of Famer. “If you had to pick one kid in all your years of coaching to make it and get the breaks he did, you’d pick him.”

He earned Wisconsin’s starting job before his junior year. He won the 2010 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award the next year.

The San Diego Chargers signed Tolzien as an undrafted free agent but waived him after training camp. He spent the next two seasons on the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad before being released and signing with the Packers on Sept. 1.

The Cleveland Browns wanted him on their active roster last month, but Tolzien decided to stay on the Packers’ practice squad instead.

Smart move, it seemed Sunday.

‘‘Every dad that has a son,’’ Mike Tolzien said, ‘‘should be able to experience that.’’

All the Tolziens but older brother Michael — a Special Forces pilot in England — traveled for Sunday’s game.

‘‘What’s transpired in the last two weeks is very incredible,’’ Mike Tolzien said. ‘‘This is a very ordinary guy who just worked relentlessly — and is realizing a dream.’’

Might the quarterback be converting Bears fans back home?

‘‘That’s really the least of my concerns,’’ Scott Tolzien said. ‘‘We’ll work on that later.’’

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley

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