Favre’s Flag Game Caps Statewide Celebration

From the emotion of Saturday to the cheers of Sunday, it was an unforgettable weekend — or an un-4-gettable weekend for Brett Favre and the fans.

Over the course of two sun-drenched July days, Wisconsin welcomed back Brett Favre like a long-lost son.

Saturday was all about the emotion: the long, sustained cheers and the choking back of tears. Favre was back in Green Bay, back at Lambeau Field, and back in the arms of Packer Nation with his induction into the Packers Hall of Fame.

“I know we’re here because of football. I understand that,” Favre said at his press conference on Saturday afternoon. “I think what I did was pretty good. I think it was fun to watch. It wasn’t always great, but it was fun to watch. But (I want to be remembered as) a good man, who has definitely made a lot of mistakes. I think what people relate to me is the genuineness and just (being) real. I’d like to think that when they look at my career or watch me play that they thought, ‘That’s the way I would do it. If I could play, I would do it that way.’

When Favre walked onto Lambeau Field hours later, he was moved by the sound and passion of 67,000 fans who voiced their affection with a decibel-defying ovation that rivaled any big moment that took place during an actual game.

“He’s like one of us,” said Fred Rhoten, who made the drive north from Indiana and was sporting a Favre Falcons jersey to pay tribute and stand out among a sea of No. 4 jerseys. “He’s so relatable, he’s so down to Earth, and it feels like we’re watching a friend. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching a superstar athlete, it feels like we’re watching family.

“If he didn’t have everybody’s heart in Green Bay before, I think he does now. The man gave everything he had every game he was here. And he earned it. He earned the respect. And I think he won everyone over that might’ve been a little on the fence tonight.”

The weekend wasn’t about the way Favre left town or his post-Packer employers; rather, it was a celebration of all he did to restore glory to Titletown. When Favre hugged his wife, Deanna, before they exited the field and walked back up the tunnel, it was a sort of fairy tale moment. From there, the tributes rolled on, from Bart Starr Jr., to longtime center Frank Winters to former coach Mike Holmgren and more, highlighting a three-hour banquet that would’ve needed two weeks to get through all the stories.

When Favre finally spoke, much as he was when he addressed those in the stands earlier, he was open, humble and emotional, and took time to thank everyone from fans to teammates to coaches to trainers to the maintenance staff during his 50-minute speech.

And while Favre’s jersey officially was retired that night, he wore a familiar green No. 4 one in Madison the following afternoon to take part in the Brett Favre Legends Flag Football game. It was the first time in more than five years he’d thrown a pass in Wisconsin, more than seven since he did it in anything resembling a Packers jersey, and 16 years since he last took the field at Camp Randall for a preseason victory over the Broncos. And while it was far from full-contact, it was definitely fun to watch.

The game was a spillover Packers reunion from the previous night, with Favre — sporting a tan baseball cap, sunglasses and black Adidas high tops — and former teammates including Super Bowl XXXI participants Antonio Freeman, Mark Chumura, Frank Winters, Dorsey Levens, William Henderson, Andre Rison, Doug Evans and Eugene Robinson, among others. Former nose tackle Gilbert Brown got the crowd into it early when he busted out his signature “Gravedigger” celebration during pregame introductions.

Their opponents were an all-star team comprised of former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, running back Ron Dayne, who won a Heisman Trophy and helped the Badgers to two Rose Bowl titles, former Chicago Bears receiver and Olympian Willie Gault (who at age 54 may have still been the fastest man on the field) and former 49ers running back Roger Craig, among others. A surprisingly athletic Kenny Mayne from ESPN was McNabb’s backup.

Favre would say afterward this was not about watching stellar football, and despite the talent on the field, he had a point. Some players were visibly rusty, and/or not quite (or not close) to their playing weight. But there was no shortage of plays that drew the applause and approval of 22,497 fans in attendance.

“I haven’t caught a pass in probably five years except from my son, but I had to get adjusted to catching that Brett Favre fastball again,” said a smiling Freeman afterward, his 10-year-old son at his side. “But it was amazing. I felt awful in the first half. I know I’ll feel worse tonight. I need a rubdown, a hot bath, a cold bath, but I’d do it all over again just because this weekend was so amazing.

“This was like a class reunion and it was awesome to see so many different guys come as a tribute for Brett and the great career he had. It’s sad to see it be over, but it was definitely a memorable moment.”

The laughs on the field were plenty. They played against each other and played to the crowd. They danced in the huddle, Favre slapped his old center on the backside and former Packers receiver Javon Walker — who pursued a post-NFL bodybuilding career and might have been in the best shape of anyone on the field — even threw a souvenir ball into the stands following a diving catch. After the game, he went up into the crowd to find the fan who caught it and autographed the ball.

It was that kind of day.

To Favre’s credit, he busted out his signature escapability, albeit against pass rushers whose only intention was to grab a yellow flag around his waist. But seeing him scramble around and sling it 40 yards downfield with ease to Freeman or Levens or Rison let fans — and even his teammates — imagine for a moment it was 1996 all over again.

“It’s just something, we’re little kids … we’re grown men, we’re fathers, we’re grandfathers, but we’re still little kids at heart and football’s such a great game, it does magical things that you can’t even say, you can’t put your finger on it,” Rison said. “But just that moment in the huddle with Antonio and Brett, Mark Chmura, myself, Dorsey Levens, you can’t beat it. I’m ready to go to training camp.”

While the “Legends” team won 38-32, highlighted by touchdowns to Levens and Freeman, Favre wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about playing as was Rison, the receiver he famously connected with for a 54-yard score following an audible on Green Bay’s second offensive play of Super Bowl XXXI.

"I don't believe I'll be making a comeback,” Favre said. “My feet are killing me.”

“But it was fun to be with the guys. Today was about having fun and reuniting with a lot of guys that obviously we had some great times with. And I haven't had fun like this for a long time. You realize how much you miss those guys and how quickly it goes by."

Four months from now on Thanksgiving night, Favre will be back at Lambeau Field for the Packers-Bears game to have his name unveiled next to the legendary Tony Canadeo, Don Hutson, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke and Reggie White — the only other men who’ve had their numbers retired.

Until then, he’ll be back in Mississippi.

"I'm ready to go back home and just kind of be normal," said Favre. "I'd much rather be on my property kind of hiding out. November will be here before you know it. I really hope that Bart (Starr) can be there, to celebrate that night with him."

And don’t rule out Favre throwing a few more touchdowns in a flag football game at Lambeau Field, which was the preferred site of Sunday’s game had the Packers not cited the need to repair the turf following the Kenny Chesney concert held June 20.

"I'd like to do it in Green Bay someday," Favre said. "I would think everyone would. It was a great crowd today. I really can't thank people enough for coming out. Again, it's not about seeing Super Bowl-type football. It's just seeing some old faces and to do it in Green Bay would be awesome."

Just seeing Favre’s face back in Wisconsin, not to mention seeing his right arm in action one more time, was as much as any fan could’ve hoped for.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.

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