Hooper pinching himself over shot at NFC Championship, Rodgers

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Austin Hooper sounds a bit like he’s having a hard time believing not only that he and his teammates are going to play in the NFC Championship game, but that they’ll square off against one of his boyhood idols — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Growing up in San Ramon, Calif., before he went to Stanford, Hooper followed nearby Cal. Rodgers set several passing records for the Golden Bears before being drafted No. 24 overall by the Packers in 2005.

“Rodgers, Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson … I didn’t watch Stanford at all; they were awful,” said Hooper, the Falcons’ third-round draft choice. “At Cal, I watched all the greats come through. That’s where my uncle went to school so I grew up watching all those guys.”

After missing the final two regular-season games with a knee injury, Hooper returned for Saturday’s divisional-round playoff victory over Seattle, catching one pass for 10 yards. During the regular season, he caught 19 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns.

Hooper doesn’t need to be reminded that being part of only the fourth Falcons team in 51 seasons to make it to the NFC Championship game is a big deal, but center Alex Mack has made sure he knows.

Mack, a Cal graduate who redshirted as a freshman for the Bears during Rodgers’ final season in Berkley, played the first 117 regular-season games of his career with the Browns, from 2009-16, and never went to the playoffs.

“It’s a great opportunity in my rookie year to be able to go to the NFC Championship (game),” he said. “Talking to guys like Alex Mack, this is his first legit playoff run (in nine NFL seasons). These opportunities don’t come around often, and you have to appreciate it. He told me to savor this.”

The 6-foot-3, 254-pound Hooper relishes his role with perhaps the NFL’s most multiple offense, saying, “having all the ballers on the offensive line … it’s just fun collectively to all make plays together. The mantra of our offense has been, ‘Who’s going to set it off?’ Every game someone does something real different.

“Defenses don’t know if Al Robinson’s going to have a day, or Taylor (Gabriel is) going to have a day, or Julio (Jones), (Mohamed Sanu), any of the tight ends or running backs. You can’t double one person or else we have other people to make plays, too.”

Rodgers has been known to make a play or two. Hooper hasn’t lost track of him since the “hometown” 49ers passed on the Cal quarterback at the top of the 2005 draft, instead tabbing Utah quarterback Alex Smith.

San Francisco’s loss became Green Bay’s gain, as Rodgers has won two NFL MVP awards and a Super Bowl title. The six-time Pro Bowler is in the running for both again.

“Everyone thought the Niners would pick him, naturally,” Hooper recalled, “and they didn’t so he went to Green Bay and things have worked out a little bit.”