Armed with a career’s worth of highlights and breathtaking moments, Brett Favre approached the podium Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, the last of the eight-man 2016 Pro Football Hall of Fame class. Wearing the coveted gold jacket that mints him among the best to ever play the game, he stared out into a mass of cheering No. 4 jerseys. Green Bay surely wasn’t 600 miles away.
“I’m not surprised one bit at the Packer fans here,” Favre said. “This is incredible. Incredible.”
But during the ensuing 36-minute induction speech, Favre framed his place in football immortality not with talk of touchdowns thrown or records broken, musings of Houdini-esque escapes from defensive linemen, diving for pylons or hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over his head. The quarterback with a record 321 consecutive starts (including playoffs) didn’t discuss playing through injuries, pummeling his division rivals or connecting with a host of receivers for 77,693 yards – more than 44 miles -- during a star-studded, 20 seasons.
Favre did talk about connections of a different sort, however. He defined his journey to that Hall of Fame stage not with plays, but with people. Honest, inspiring, funny and drenched in emotion, it was vintage Favre. He talked about his wife, Deanna, who introduced him. He talked about his family – the kind born of blood and the kind forged by the bond of a team. He talked about the fans. Coaches, comaradery and slapping teammates on the backside. It was all there.
He talked about his love of the game and those he played it with and those he played it for -- as if that wasn’t evident in everything Favre ever said or did.
A playground Picasso who never let the fear of an interception deter him from an amazing play, Favre’s talent and exuberance reversed the fortunes of a franchise and returned the title to Titletown, succeeding on the game’s biggest stage long before he stood on a stage in Canton.
“I was there in 1992 and (former Packers general manager) Ron Wolf always said when he walked on the field it titled the field in our favor,” said current Packers GM Ted Thompson, who joined the team’s personnel department shortly before Wolf made the trade. “And that’s a pretty good thing to have.
“There were a lot of special players, but Brett was different. I was there. I saw him. He was something else.”
Favre talked about the importance of being a father, lessons learned and lessons passed on. Of course, he spent much of the time talking about the importance that his late father and high school coach, Irv, had on his life. Describing him as short on praise and long on tough love, his relationship with his father shaped the player and man he became.
“Believe me, I’m blessed,” Favre said. “I’m an extremely blessed man. I look at my family, what a lucky man. To play a game that I love so much for 20 years, to have all the wonderful things happen, what a blessing. To share in that joy with you guys here tonight, what an incredible night, what an incredible week.”
For a player who played with -- and elicited so much -- passion, it was never just about what he did. It was about how he did it. And how you felt when it was done. On this night, the crowd laughed and cried and screamed their lungs out.
Favre walked back through time, down the winding road of his life, stopping at pivotal moments and thanking everyone along the way. Backing up to Dec. 18, 1983, Favre told the story of the time his dad took him and his older brother, Scott, to see the New Orleans Saints take on the Los Angeles Rams.
“Now, I was pretty certain at 14 years old of what I was going to do in my future, and that was I was going to be the next Roger Staubach or Archie Manning or Joe Montana,” Favre said. “But this was the first and only game that I would ever see in person, and if the Saints won this game, they would have made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, so it was a pretty electric crowd.
“And as we sat in our seats prior to kickoff, the crowd stood and they pointed in the direction of the Saints tunnel and, as I stood, I saw this long, gray-haired, scruffy-beard player emerging from the tunnel. And I knew then and there as goose bumps ran up my arm and the hair on the back of my neck stood up that that was what I was destined to do and be. I wanted to be that player.
“Well, that player happened to be none other than Kenny Stabler. I knew, of course, I didn't have many choices; it was football, baseball, or bust for me. I didn't have many choices. But I knew then and there that I wanted to be and feel what Kenny Stabler was feeling. What an exciting moment for me.”
That wasn’t all that happened that day. Favre would stumble in the house first after the game, spoiling the surprise birthday party planned for his older brother. But amid his embarrassment, he locked eyes with the girl who would one day become his wife and mother to two daughters.
“I went and hid in my room, and as I got up the nerve to come out later, that person and I, we played basketball, we talked. We played basketball, we talked. And several days later, as we used to say back in the day, we started going together.
“Well, that person happened to be my future wife, Deanna, by far the strongest and most courageous person I know.”
Favre gushed about his daughters, Brittany and Breleigh, and when he got to his mother-in-law Ann, who lived with his family in Green Bay, New York and Minnesota to help raise their family, he choked up for the first time and stepped away from the microphone.
It was a moment the crowd was waiting for and they soaked it in -- cheering him on, even while choking up themselves.
This was one of those connections. If you rooted for Favre, then you felt for him. The highs and the lows. The heart-pounding touchdowns and gut-wrenching interceptions. The sheer joy and thrills of life’s successes and the sorrows of its struggles, from battling personal demons, watching a loved one battle cancer and losing a parent.
He talked about the lessons he learned from his mother, Bonita, a special education teacher at Hancock North Central High School in Pass Christian, Miss., and, of course, he talked about “Big Irv,” and that night in Oakland when he gave the greatest eulogy a football-playing son could ever give, just a day after his father’s unexpected passing just days before Christmas in 2003.
Favre’s coach at the time, Mike Sherman, still recalls that game with awe.
“It’s one of the most unique game’s I’ve ever been a part of, simply because I’ve been in games where players elevate and play above themselves, but never a whole team and every single player on that team had his back that night, Sherman said. “Whether it was Grady Jackson chasing down the running back or Donald Driver catching a touchdown pass, every single person had his back, and for him to come away at halftime with 300 yards after I said we’d just run the ball, don’t worry about it, this guy was spectacular.”
The victory over the Raiders on “Monday Night Football” was the single greatest game of Favre’s career, and a night when the football world grew even closer to a player they felt was already part of their extended family.
“That night, the fans saw it, you guys saw it,” former Packers running back Ahman Green said. “From the first half to the end of the game, he played top-notch the whole game and then everybody else supported him. We were co-stars in that game, but we didn’t mind it because we were making sure we were doing our job so he would be able to do the things that he did in that first half, which he broke a lot of records. We won and then he could go back home and finish doing what he needed to do with his family.”
What Favre revealed to Saturday’s crowd was that it was also the first time that the notion of making the Hall of Fame someday became a goal, after a conversation with Deanna on the flight back from Oakland to Mississippi.
“Deanna says to me on the plane, ‘You know, your dad had said to me that he had hoped or could not wait for the day that you were inducted into the Hall of Fame so he could introduce you.’ And up until that moment, I had never thought about the Hall of Fame. I had dreamed of playing in the NFL; believe me, way more than I thought about my schoolwork. I thought about being Archie Manning, running around, throwing underhand passes. I thought about being my childhood favorite, Roger Staubach and throwing it to Preston Pearson or Drew Pearson and handing it off to Tony Dorsett, being Kenny Stabler coming out of tunnel. I had thought of those things so many times, but I never thought of the Hall of Fame until that moment.
“So, a new goal had entered into my mind then and there, and I said to myself: I will make it to the Hall of Fame; that I would make it to the Hall of Fame so I could acknowledge the fact of how important he was,” Favre continued, taking a moment to keep his emotions in check. “This is tougher than any third-and-15, I can assure you. So I could acknowledge the importance of him and my career and my life, which he was a tremendous part of my life. He taught me toughness. Boy, did he teach me toughness. Trust me, there was no room for crybabies in our house. He taught me teamwork, and by all means no player was ever more important than the team.
“My father, for those who don't know, chose to run the wishbone, which some of you younger generation people do not even know what that is, but it never entailed throwing. But that was the type of coach he was, and that was the type of dad he was. He would never showcase his son's talents or anyone else's talents for their good rather than the team's good.
“So then and there in that moment on that plane, I was determined for selfish reasons to get to this point to acknowledge how important he was. I would not be here before you today without my father. There is no doubt whatsoever.”
In a way that only Favre could make a crowd of 22,000-plus feel like an intimate setting, he shared another story about his father – one he said he’d never told before. He described a conversation he eavesdropped on as a high school player that would inspire him for years to come.
“I overheard my father talking to the three other coaches, and I heard him -- and I assume I didn't play as well the previous week only because of what he said -- and he said: ‘I can assure you one thing about my son: He will play better. He will redeem himself. I know my son. He has it in him.’ And I never let him know that I heard that. I never said that to anyone else. But I thought to myself: That's a pretty good compliment, you know? My chest kind of swelled up. And, again, I never told anyone. But I never forgot that statement and that comment that he made to those other coaches. And I want you to know, Dad, I spent the rest of my career trying to redeem myself. I spent the rest of my career trying to redeem myself and make him proud, and I hope I succeeded.”
Of that, there is no doubt. Favre’s on-the-field accomplishments are why he was wearing that gold jacket in front of a bronze bust bearing his likeness. But the passion he played with and the feelings he instilled in anyone who ever watched him play – in Lambeau Field or in their living room -- is what will always set him apart, even among legends.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Green Bay Packers since 1992.