“Did you see my boy?” yelled the voice on the other end of the phone, drenched in emotion and thick Southern drawl. “Did you see what he did?”
It was Sept. 20, 1992, and I was pressing a phone to my left ear listening to a father choke up with pride and joy from a thousand miles away. The man on the phone was Irvin Favre. And roughly three house earlier, I had answered a call at the WBAY-TV sports department in Green Bay and given him satellite coordinates for the Green Bay Packers’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals so he could watch his son’s new team play. Amidst his own chaos and celebration, he called back to thank me.
I was still stunned by what I had just seen minutes before on the small monitor I’d been watching on the wall, tapping out a play-by-play on a typewriter like a good intern, while the other sportscasters were at Lambeau Field. Brett Favre, son of Irv, who had arrived in Green Bay from Atlanta in exchange for a first-round pick, had replaced an injured Don Majkowski at quarterback and just thrown a 35-yard touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor with 13 seconds remaining to win the game, 24-23. Running around the field with his helmet off, Favre didn’t even remember he had to hold for the extra point and was sent back out when he neared the sideline.
I was certain that I had just seen one of the most fantastic endings in Packers history. In truth, I had just seen one of the most fantastic beginnings. Not just in Packer history, but in the history of professional football, going back to leather helmets and pre-dating the forward pass. I wasn’t alone. It was a shared moment by a generation of Packers fans. A “Where were you when?” happening in the annals of sport.
Every legend has a beginning. Every storied play, a first act. This was Brett Favre’s.
New Packers general manager Ron Wolf had coveted the confident and strong-armed Southern Mississippi signal-caller. As a junior, Favre led the Golden Eagles to an upset win over No. 6-rated Florida State. The following summer, Favre was in a near-fatal car accident that required 30 inches of small intestine to be removed. But he was in the starting lineup for the Golden Eagles’ season opener and led them to a come-from-behind upset victory at Alabama. He’d earn MVP honors in the East-West Shrine Bowl at the conclusion of that senior season, as tales of his grit and cannon right arm made him a hot topic in NFL circles.
Wolf wanted to draft Favre when he was still GM of the New York Jets, and tried hard to trade up to get him, but the Atlanta Falcons took him No. 33 overall. Wolf settled for quarterback Browning Nagle with the next pick. Now in Green Bay, Wolf had his chance and traded away a first-round draft pick (17th overall) for the Falcons’ third-string quarterback known more for partying hard than playing hard. In his first season with the Falcons, Favre had four pass attempts. The result was two interceptions, one incompletion and a sack.
“I think Favre will be a good addition to us,” Wolf said back in the spring of 1992. “I think it’s between (Don) Majkowski and (Mike) Tomczak, though, to really push for the No. 1 job at this point in time… It depends how quickly Favre can adapt to this new offense.
“Let me say this – I think that when we made the deal for Favre, we knew exactly what we received, and I think in the long run that will prove to be a good trade.”
In his wildest dreams, even a personnel man of Wolf’s caliber couldn’t have imagined just how good. Given a fresh start in Green Bay by Wolf and new head coach Mike Holmgren – a quarterback guru who had worked with Joe Montana and Steve Young in the vaunted “West Coast Offense,” Favre’s resume would end up the football equivalent of a Greek epic. Often legendary, at times tragic. It was a football-themed “Odyssey,” filled with triumph and tragedy, death and betrayal, banishment, fate and the football gods, redemption, and in the end, a return home.
You couldn’t make up the kind of career that Favre laid out for fans over 20 years – 16 of them in Green and Gold. You couldn’t fictionalize the highs or lows that we all watched unfold. The twists and turns – within a given game or over the course of seasons. That’s what made that emotional bond so strong with Favre and his fans. We related to him. He took us with him on the highest of highs. And we cried with him at the lowest of lows. Favre is the kind of quarterback we always dreamed of being when we ran around our elementary school playground. His right arm a cannon, touched by God in utero, he improvised with the creativity and impulsiveness of an artist and the pure joy and reckless abandon of an 8-year-old.
From early on, Favre was careless and genius. It was a combination that filled your lungs with a vacuumed gasp, then expelled the air forth. Sometimes as a cheer, other times as a scream. It was maddening to Holmgren, who tried to tame the side of him that was convinced he could make every throw, that he could put a ball through any window – no matter how small or fleeting, and no matter if no one saw it but him. Receivers love to think they’re always open. Favre thought they were, too. He’d “throw them open,” even if it meant throwing into and/or through multiple defenders. When it worked, it was spectacular. When it didn’t, it turned Holmgren’s face deep shades of Crayola reds. It brought calls for backups Mark Brunell and Ty Detmer from the fans. But Favre wasn’t going anywhere.
In the three months that followed that pass to Taylor, Favre went from backup to Pro Bowler, giving Green Bay its second best record (9-7) of the past 20 years, while setting franchise records for single-season passer percentage and consecutive 200-yard passing games.
The “Gunslinger” was just getting started.
Over the next decade and a half, Favre would etch some of the greatest plays and games in Packers history into our minds: The cross-body, 40-yard game-winning heave to Sterling Sharpe at Detroit in the 1993 playoffs. The scramble down the sideline for a score to beat the Falcons 21-17 at old County Stadium in Milwaukee. Five touchdowns on a badly sprained ankle at Chicago. The time he coughed up blood on the sideline after being pummeled by the Steelers’ defense on Christmas Eve 1995, only to return to the field to throw a touchdown to tight end Mark Chmura on the very next play.
Favre threw a record 99-yard touchdown pass to Robert Brooks, but could duck and spin his way out of a sack to toss a falling, underhand flip to his fullback or tight end for a key first down. There were 82-yard overtime strikes to Greg Jennings on “Monday Night Football” at Denver, and the ceremonial scooping of receiver Donald Driver up onto his shoulders through the mid-2000s.
As his career began to unfold, it was that talent and toughness and moxie that were factors in the late, great “Minister of Defense” Reggie White signing with Green Bay in 1993, as a new era of free agency dawned on the NFL. And along with White, he and Favre were the building blocks of a turnaround in Green Bay. A renaissance constructed under the watchful eye of Lombardi Legends like Bart Starr and Willie Davis, who made regular appearances at practices and games, all too eager to finally hand that torch to the next in line. The cheers of the present had awakened the ghosts of the past.
Green Bay would struggle with the Dallas Cowboys, led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, losing three consecutive years at to them in the playoffs. But Favre would establish himself as the pre-imminent quarterback of the 1990s, winning an unprecedented three consecutive league MVP awards from 1995 through 1997 by throwing 112 touchdowns during that stretch. That third MVP was shared with Detroit Lions running back and Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, while one vote – cast by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King -- was the lone dissenting vote for Steelers’ safety Carnell Lake.
The entire team was rising to prominence, reversing its on-the-field fortunes of the prior 20-plus years, along with the public perception about winning in Green Bay. It culminated in the 1996 season, when Favre put up 39 touchdowns, White led the league’s most dominant defense and Desmond Howard electrified the Packers’ return game.
After dispatching San Francisco in a “Mud Bowl” game at Lambeau Field and then clinching the NFC title against the Carolina Panthers in front of the home crowd, Green Bay traveled to Favre’s backyard in New Orleans for Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers’ 35-21 win was highlighted by a 54-yard touchdown toss to Andre Rison on Favre’s first throw of the game, a then-Super Bowl record 81-yard scoring strike to Antonio Freeman and a scrambling, diving-for-the-pylon touchdown run by Favre – not to mention the sacks by White and record-touchdown return by Super Bowl MVP Howard.
That win – and roster – had Green Bay and its fans thinking dynasty, but it wasn’t to be. After another 13-3 record the following year, sans Super Bowl XXXI participants like defensive end Sean Jones, tight end Keith Jackson, and Howard on special teams, the Packers failed to repeat, losing 31-24 to 13-point underdog Denver in Super Bowl XXXII. John Elway got his ring, but with just 123 yards passing and one interception, that was Terrell Davis’ team. After leaving the game with a migraine, Davis returned and left the Packers’ heads ringing with 157 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Green Bay was looking to get back on track in 1998. And in a game that won’t be found on any “Top 10” list but defines the essence of Favre as much as any, Green Bay defeated Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers in a heavyweight-championship matchup of two NFC super powers and two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. It featured early touchdown strikes of 80 and 30 yards by Favre, followed by three mind-numbing interceptions in a seven-minute span, then a fourth-quarter rally that included a 62-yard strike to Antonio Freeman that gave the Packers a 29-22 lead en route to a 36-22 win. If one game had to sum up Favre’s career and illustrate the salvation and damnation that resided in that No. 4 jersey, that was it.
Long Road of a Legend
The Most Meaningful MVP
Diary of a Record Season
Working the Room Before Super Bowl XXXI
New Era, Same Favre
Laying It All on the Line
Jeckyl and Hyde
Dealing with a Favre-less Season
Special Game, Special Place
Dad ‘Was Watching Tonight’
By the Numbers
Teammates Return for ‘Icon’ Favre
But San Francisco would have its revenge come the playoffs. After a controversial nonfumble by Niners receiver Jerry Rice that instant replay – had it been in effect back then – would’ve easily reversed, the game was decided on a 25-yard Young-to-Terrell Owens pass that not only ended Green Bay’s season but ended an era. It was Holmgren’s final game as head coach, and White’s final game as a Packer.
Favre would provide three thrilling last-minute wins during the one-year Ray Rhodes experiment of 1999, along with plenty more highlights during Mike Sherman’s tenure at the helm. Most memorable during that stretch was also one of the greatest, yet saddest, games of Favre’s career. A day after learning that his father, Irv, had died, Favre took the field on Dec. 22, 2003, to a standing ovation, signs of support and plenty of tears at the Oakland Coliseum. He responded with the best eulogy that he could ever give for his father and former high-school coach. Three-hundred ninety-nine yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 41-7 win.
“I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play,” Favre said afterwards. “I love him so much and I love this game. It’s meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family, and I didn’t expect this kind of performance. But I know he was watching tonight.”
Unfortunately, in a season in which Green Bay had its best shot in years to win it all and seemed to have destiny, if not divine intervention, on its side, it ended with the ugly fourth-and-26 game in Philadelphia.
All the while, the numbers and records stacked on top of each other. The legend grew with each consecutive start of his Iron Man streak and each passing season. The games piled up – even as the injuries took their toll.
Over the years, Favre played through shoulder separations, ankle and foot sprains, deep thigh and hamstring bruises, a broken thumb and elbow tendinitis. There were concussions that -- in an era when the severity wasn’t appreciated or understood – never kept him out of a game. And that’s just a partial list. In a time before quarterbacks were viewed as investments to be protected for the long haul – let alone protected by changes to the rules themselves that Favre never had the benefit of -- he simply didn’t miss a game. It was a badge of honor and pride -- an inspiration to teammates battling through their own injuries.
Ted Thompson, who had worked under Wolf prior to heading to Seattle with Holmgren, took over the general manager reins in Green Bay in 2005. He replaced Sherman with Mike McCarthy the following season. In a place called Titletown, simply winning wasn’t enough, and there was one more run to greatness to be had with Favre under center.
The 2007 season was one few expected. Green Bay would go 13-3 in the regular season and then pound the Seattle Seahawks 42-20 in a virtual snow globe at Lambeau Field. A week later, the weather was far from novel when it hosted the NFC title game against the New York Giants. With a game-time temperature of minus-1 and a wind chill of minus-23, it was the Packers that went cold. Packers running back Ryan Grant rushed for just 29 yards after running over Seattle for 201 yards and three touchdowns the week before, and Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris was lit up for 151 yards by Plaxico Burress. Penalties, miscues and missed kicks – yet the game will be remembered for one pass. Not the 90-yarder to Driver early, but the interception by Favre that put the Giants in the Super Bowl. It would be the last pass Favre threw as a Packer. But in a bitter pill for many Packer fans, not the last pass of his career.
Upon his eventual retirement, Favre owned nearly every meaningful passing record in existence: touchdowns, yards, completions, attempts, wins and, yes, even interceptions -- a stat that speaks to his style of play as much as all the rest. But the most impressive record by far is the record 297 consecutive starts (321 including playoffs) that he amassed over 19 seasons. While Favre was under center, 238 other quarterbacks would start a game. If baseball’s Cal Ripken is the “Iron Man” for his streak of 2,632 consecutive games, Favre is the “Man of Steel” for his 297. And with all due respect, no one was trying to tear Ripken’s head off or knock him out of the game, like defenses were with Favre. Denver’s Peyton Manning may have broken Favre’s record of 508 touchdowns, and is poised to overtake his yardage record of 71,838 yards in 2015. Younger players like Green Bay’s current star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, or the Colts’ Andrew Luck might someday best Manning’s marks, but 297 consecutive starts will never be touched. And it’s that record that mattered most to Favre.
“I’m proud that I threw for 508 touchdowns, but I’m most proud of my consecutive games streak," said Favre, after Manning broke his touchdowns record on Oct. 19.
"None of those other records are possible unless you play a long time.”
Favre was tough beyond reasonable measure. Open. A jokester who’d crack up teammates in the locker room and keep them loose in the huddle. More candid than any athlete should be. But when we woke from that childhood dream, Favre gave us the reality, too. All of it. The joy. The pain. The painkillers. We waited anxiously through his treatment for alcohol abuse and Vicodin addiction. We felt his pain over the death of his father. And sent prayers to him and his family as they coped with the unexpected death of his brother-in-law and his wife Deanna’s battle against breast cancer, along with when the Favre family home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
We argued vehemently amongst ourselves over his ongoing indecisiveness about his career and, even more so, his new places of employment. We shook our heads over embarrassing off-field missteps. We saw an ugly side to the greatness and, at times, recognized ourselves in those shortcomings. Favre was great. And he was flawed. If we couldn’t relate to the former, we could relate to the latter, even when we didn’t always want to.
Mistakes were made, to be sure. There were off-field interceptions he’d like to have back. But it’s part of the story. He moved on, and in the end, the touchdowns and wins and the way they were accomplished – with passion and toughness – will be remembered most.
Favre didn’t tarnish his legacy leaving Green Bay any more than Joe Montana did when he played for the Kansas City Chiefs or White did when he un-retired to play in Carolina or Michael Jordan did when he returned with the Washington Wizards. Favre wanted to play. Then he didn’t. Back and forth until Thompson and the team made the decision for him. We all remember. And like any divorce, it’s the kids that are often the victims. In the ugliest divorce in sports’ history, that meant Packer fans, who were left to sort out their allegiances in the aftermath of a clash between egos that had plenty of blame to go around.
And when Favre left, it was a raw nerve. An open wound, salted often. But the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy. And no one ever stopped feeling something about Favre. That connection permeated a franchise and fan base. It was a defining characteristic. It was part of the essence that set him apart from all others. He’s Favre, therefore, we feel.
Upon arriving in New York, Favre took the Jets on a ride unlike any they’d had in years. He had them being talked about as AFC favorites to get to the Super Bowl, they knocked off their bitter rival New England, and Favre had a six-touchdown game – a career first in his 18th NFL season – against St. Louis. But Favre would injure his biceps tendon down the stretch, and while the Jets would win 10 games, they’d miss the playoffs, as did Green Bay in Rodgers’ first year starting. And despite Green Bay’s struggles that year, somehow both teams missing the playoffs seemed palatable to those on both sides of the debate.
The 2009 season is where the relationship went south as Favre went north and west of Green Bay by roughly 300 miles. As a member of the Minnesota Vikings, Favre had one of the top statistical years of his career at age 40, throwing for 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 107.2 – nearly eight points higher than his previous career high 99.5 in 1995. When he beat the Packers twice in decisive fashion while guiding the Vikings to the NFC title game, the divide between himself and Packer fans was at an all-time high. But dreams of another Super Bowl appearance were dashed in all-too familiar fashion as an ill-advised interception – as if there’s any other kind – ended Minnesota’s season. No matter what came before – fumbles and muffed kicks – the loss was pinned on one final pass. Still, if Favre had a point to prove that he could still play, it was made that year.
Of course Green Bay would make it to the Super Bowl the following season, downing the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 as Rodgers earned Super Bowl MVP honors. Meanwhile, Favre’s Vikings collapsed in much the same way as the dome they played in. Favre’s streak would end on Dec. 14, 2010, and he’d retire for good at the end of the season.
If the football gods were offering up a break even, a compromise to Packer fans, this was it. Favre proved he could play as well as he ever had – but didn’t win a Lombardi Trophy with his old team’s rival. Green Bay was humbled by a purple-clad Favre, but came back the following year to win it all with their current signal-caller.
Perhaps Super Bowl XLV was the start of the healing. It was slow. But as Favre gets closer to Canton, and further away from the controversy of the final years of his illustrious career, it’s easier for all to reflect on his 16 magnificent years in Green and Gold. The animosity and ego and all that went with it on both sides of the disagreement had to subside. And if LeBron James can go back to Cleveland, surely Favre can be welcomed back to Green Bay.
Bob Harlan, the former team president who hired Wolf all those years ago and had a front row seat for the franchise’s resurrection, got involved. As did the Packers Hall of Fame. It was an important step.
“This is a guy who as bad as we were in the ’70s and ’80s — and people thought we were finished — this guy helped bring this franchise back, and not years and years did it take him, but right off the bat,” Harlan said at a press conference back in August. “They won immediately. And he was special to me. He was the first move Ron made when he came in, that was the first thing he said, ‘I want to make a trade for Brett Favre.’ So, Brett deserves to be on a special pedestal.”
Time does heal. Favre’s legacy remains intact. Anything that happened after he left Green Bay could never touch what he accomplished while he was there. Nothing was undone. Bitterness can lead to some revisionist history, but as the years pass, the proper perspective returns. Favre was and always will be one of the greatest Packers of all time and a giant of the sport. He goes into the Packers Hall of Fame on Saturday, surrounded by the men who launched his career. His No. 4 will be officially retired and his name will take its proper place on the Lambeau Field Ring of Honor with Starr, Hornung, Nitschke, White and Wolf in a nationally televised Thanksgiving night game against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 26.
“I’m honored, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart, to have my name enshrined with … the list is so long, from Don Hutson and Curly Lambeau to Vince Lombardi on down to Reggie White and myself. It’s just an amazing honor (and) one that I never dreamed of,” Favre said via conference call following the announcement.
“I always dreamed of playing pro football as a kid, but I had never dreamed of Hall of Fames and jerseys being retired and things of that nature. I just thought about playing and how much fun that would be. To be able to play one game in Green Bay is enough. To be able to play 16 wonderful years in Green Bay is just an amazing honor. There’s no place like it. It’s rich in tradition and to be associated with that organization and the names that have been placed in the ring of honor, the names that have been placed in the Hall of Fame is more than a dream come true. I’m truly honored.”
The “Greatest” will always be a subjective ranking, skewed by the prism of an individual’s perspective. No one was more exciting than Favre. No one showed more passion. Or had more fun. No one was tougher. Championships, records, the Iron Man streak, the way you felt watching him -- all are factors. Somewhere ahead of Dan Marino, behind Montana and Tom Brady, Favre is jostling for a place in the minds and hearts of fans with Manning and Elway and amid immortals like Starr and Johnny Unitas.
But the place he’ll be in Saturday is Green Bay and Lambeau Field. It’s the right time. It’s about time.