Putting a Starr Atop Brett Favre’s Big Night

Brett Favre's special night means even more with Bart Starr, the 81-year-old legend, in attendance.

Four months and more than 40 degrees separated Brett Favre’s last appearance at Lambeau Field and the one at halftime on Thanksgiving night. Favre’s induction into the Packers Hall of Fame came on a sun-soaked July afternoon and signaled an official breaking of the ice and thawing in the relationship between the Packers organization and arguably their greatest player.

Thursday, Favre stood on a makeshift stage on the middle of Lambeau Field on a perfectly Packer November night to see his name and number unveiled among the franchise immortals. Under wave after bone-chilling wave of rain and a gusting wind that ripped through the stadium, he looked into a crowd of poncho-wearing fans defiantly holding up No. 4 flags and chanting “MVP” and gave his own thanks.

“A little bit different weather than in July, but this is Green Bay weather, I love it, I love it,” Favre said. “I know we have to be quick, we have to finish this game, but it is Thanksgiving and we have so much to be thankful for.  And as I think back to our time in Green Bay, I certainly thank God for the opportunity to play a game I love so much and to play it for such a long time and to play it in the best place to play football in the world.”

He’d thank his teammates — dozens of whom showed up to share in his celebration, from Antonio Freeman to William Henderson, from Doug Evans to Chris Jacke. He’d thank his family and, of course, he thanked his fans — including the 78,488 packed into Lambeau Field and millions more watching from afar.

Stop there, and it’s a historic occasion as Favre’s name and number take their place on the north end zone façade next to No. 14 Don Hutson, No. 3 Tony Canadeo, No. 15 Bart Starr, No. 66 Ray Nitschke and No. 92 Reggie White. A winner of three consecutive NFL Most Valuable Player Awards, a Super Bowl XXXI champion, an ironman who started 297 consecutive games — 321 including playoffs — Favre retired with every meaningful passing record.  His legacy cemented, his name fits comfortably among those legends, even if he can’t yet wrap his head around it.

“Disbelief. Probably continued disbelief forever,” Favre said as he described seeing his name revealed. “I’m well aware of what I’ve accomplished and the career that I’ve had. It was a long, wonderful career. I just don’t ever look at myself as being … I have to say to myself sometimes, ‘Really, with Bart Starr? Are you kidding?’ And really, you think about the players that have played in Green Bay, not just with their number retired, and the Hall of Fame here is probably close to rivaling the NFL Hall of Fame with the number of unbelievable players that have played here. So just to be part of that, whether your number is retired or not is quite an honor. To be one of what? Five? Including me, six? It goes without saying that’s a tremendous honor.”

But what truly made this a night to be thankful for was the appearance by the only other man who can be said to arguably be the Packers’ greatest player of all-time — Starr.

It was Starr, the humble 17th-round pick from Alabama, who would become one of the legends of the game and all-time class acts, winning five NFL championships, being named the MVP of the first two Super Bowls and becoming the poster boy for the Vince Lombardi era. But he’d wait decades to pass the torch to the next great Packers quarterback. And as Favre, a strong-armed but equally unlikely Southern boy from Kiln, Miss., restored glory to a franchise that had fallen on hard times, Starr was there to witness it.

Favre suggested bringing the 81-year-old back to Lambeau Field to be part of this momentous occasion. The chance to have the two greatest quarterbacks in team history — and two of the best in NFL history — on the same field at the same time, along with the next great signal-caller in Aaron Rodgers, seemed too much to hope for. Life got in the way of a great sports story as Starr was hit with two strokes, one heart attack and several seizures, which made his return far from a given. But a player who accomplished so much on sheer will did, in fact, have one last drive in him. And his return to Lambeau was something to truly be thankful for.

As Starr was driven out of the same tunnel Favre walked through minutes earlier, behind the south end zone where he made the most famous quarterback sneak in NFL history during the “Ice Bowl,” the stadium erupted. Starr looked to his wife, Cherry, in joyful amazement at the decibel level of the cheer and pumped his fist as the cart he rode in headed to the stage. This was a Starr no one was sure they’d see — cognizant of the moment, reveling in the cheers. When the two quarterbacking legends embraced and waved to the crowd, it was a photo-op for the ages, shared by not just Starr and Favre — but anyone who’s ever been a Packer fan.

“I really wanted him to be here,” Favre said. “His family wanted him to be here, I think that was a special way to send him off. He’s an amazing guy, amazing career here, an icon for so many, and just, it was a special moment.”

Just as important, he could tell it was special for Starr, as well.

“It meant a lot. It meant a lot,” Favre said. “I saw Bart earlier today… first time I’d seen him in, I couldn’t tell you how long. And I was worried. I was worried. But that was a totally different man (out there). I talked to Bart Jr. right before and I said, ‘Is your Dad ready?’ And he said, ‘Oh, he’s ready.’ So you’re thinking, ‘Oh, OK.’ But he was gritting his teeth, I mean, it was awesome. I got more of a thrill out of that than what I was here for. To see him, and I mean no disrespect that way, but to see him that excited at 81 years old was pretty awesome. “

And while the stunning 17-13 upset win by Chicago is a disappointing footnote to the night, Favre’s name — along with the other five names next to his — will look down on many victories to come.  But having Starr make what’s likely his last trip to Lambeau Field to see Favre’s name unveiled is a win that transcends the scoreboard.

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

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