Jordan Love's transformation from 'Sticks' to Packers' future QB

Packers trade up to take Jordan Love (2:20)

The Packers climb up the draft board to select former Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. Love talks with Suzy Kolber about learning under Aaron Rodgers. (2:20)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Jordan Love needs a nickname -- or at least a new one.

The old one -- "Nutella Sticks," coined by his high school teammates -- no longer applies.

Love isn't the short, thin, easily breakable snack stick that comes with the sweet spread.

"He was 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds as a freshman," said Bryan Nixon, varsity football coach at Love's Liberty High School in Bakersfield, California.

"He might have been 130 on a good day," said linebacker Krys Barnes, Love's high school teammate.

Not anymore.

"It took him awhile to grow," Barnes said. "Freshman year, he was shorter than most of us. It wasn't until his junior year that he really had a growth spurt and even senior year he was still light, probably weighed 170 maybe. We used to make fun of him and call him 'Nutella Sticks,' and we used to try to make him eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."

When Matt Wells, then the head coach at Utah State, first laid eyes on him during the spring before Love's junior year of high of school: "He was 6-2, 170 -- and that 170 was maybe on a good day," Wells said.

Not anymore.

"Whenever he came back from college, that's a whole different story," said cornerback Johnny Balderas, another of Love's high school teammates. "This was a grown man, and it was amazing just how he looked. Time changed, and so did he."

It took awhile, but the Jordan Love who got the call from the Green Bay Packers with the 26th pick in last month's NFL draft no longer looked like a Nutella stick. These days, he's almost 6-4 and 224 pounds and tough as leather both physically and emotionally, according to those who have watched him mature.

Such is the physical maturation of Love, who impressed the Packers enough for them to create one of the biggest stirs of the offseason when they traded up to pick him in the first round even though their two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers remains under contract through the 2023 season and has given every indication he plans to play through then (and perhaps beyond).

Love popped up on the NFL radar during the 2018 college season, when he threw for 32 touchdowns with six interceptions and rushed for seven more in Wells' high-flying offense. Though his production dropped (20 touchdowns) and his interceptions skyrocketed (17) in 2019 under new coach Gary Andersen after Wells left for Texas Tech, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst fell in love.

"I talked to Brian Gutekunst a lot," Wells said.

When asked the nature of their conversations, Wells said: "You ain't got enough time on this call to ask.

"Let's just say there was a tremendous amount of interest and that generates a lot of questions about things you can't see on tape."

Wells had the same questions when he went to Bakersfield to recruit Love.

The answers started with Love's mom, Anna. The longtime California Highway Patrol officer became the central figure in Love's life after her husband and Jordan's father, Orbin, a veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department, died by suicide in 2013. Anna Love declined comment for this story, but she wrote in Orbin Love's obituary that he was "taken suddenly by a medical demon," blaming his sudden change in behavior on a new blood pressure medication. Jordan was 14 years old at the time of his father's death.

"He told my son, 'I'm done with sports; my dad wanted me to play,'" said Dennis Hicks, whose son Dennis II was one of Love's childhood friends. "My son would tell him, 'Just stick with it, you're too good. What are you going to quit for? He wanted you to be a quarterback. At least let's finish out high school.' So I think some of their little talks helped. Then he started to love it."

Like Orbin Love, Dennis Hicks was heavily involved in his son's athletic pursuits. Together, they coached Jordan and Dennis II in seventh grade basketball.

"We were the only two fathers there when all the kids were trying out," Hicks said. "He was at one end of the gym and I was at the other, and we saw this one coach trying to coach the seventh and eighth grade boys. We said, 'Do you think this guy needs some help?' So we asked him, and then next thing you know we're coaching the seventh graders. Orbin was always there for Jordan."

Then, it became Anna.

And football.

And his teammates.

Balderas, who plays at San Jose State, moved to Bakersfield shortly before the 2015 school year because the woman who raised him, his grandmother, died unexpectedly.

"My grandma was the person that raised me and when I lost her, I lost my person," Balderas said. "And Jordan's dad was that person for him. He was that father figure that most people want in life that helps you become a better person. He was there after every practice and every game. So he lost his person, and I lost mine. We had another friend of ours, it was the same situation with his mom passing away. Our friend group just bonded over losing a family member. We just had that similar pain, I guess."

Said Love on the night the Packers drafted him: "For me, I got through it with my family and also my friends and teammates and football. I was able to lean on them, and it helped me get through it. But I know if my dad was here, he'd be super proud and just have a lot of good things to say right now."

With emotional support and tough love from his mother, Love went off to Utah State. In fact, he enrolled early, having finished high school with a semester still to go.

"I've told this story a few times," Wells said. "But in January of 2016 when she came to drop him off in Logan, Utah, Jen, my wife, and I met them at the dorm. She looked at my wife and she said, ‘Jen, take care of my baby. Matt, kick his butt.'"

Wells did his part.

So did Love.

"Jordan put a lot of hard work and effort into learning our offense, and he really went to work in the weight room with our strength coach," Wells said. "The credit goes to Jordan."

The work continues now, and while so many rookies are alone in remote locations going through virtual offseason programs because of the coronavirus pandemic, Love isn't alone. The Packers signed Barnes, a linebacker, as an undrafted free agent out of UCLA. They live 7 minutes apart in Bakersfield and get together along with Balderas and others to work out -- under social-distancing guidelines -- at their alma mater, Liberty High.

On occasion, Barnes allows himself to flash back to his time on the Liberty High field with Love. Shortly after he signed with the Packers, he posted a picture on Twitter that showed him and Love walking off the field during a playoff game their senior seasons.

"For me, whenever I look back at that picture, it brings back so many memories of the stuff that he's been through and the stuff that we've both been through and what we've been able to accomplish to get where we are now," Barnes said. "For him, I think about all the stuff he went through with his dad. It was a rough time for him and it took its toll on him, and he was able to push through everything.

"He's an inspiration for me because of how he carries himself and how he can stay positive through any situation. That's what I think of when I think of who he is as a person and who he's helped me to be as well."