To the surprise of none, Wednesday's Vikings practice was attended by about as many media members as there were players on the field. ESPN's Rachel Nichols patrolled the sideline grass. NFL Network's Randy Moss was shaking hands and slapping backs. Fox Sports' Alex Marvez re-arranged his schedule to attend. The two Twin Cities daily newspapers had nearly every beat writer, columnist and lookie-loo on hand. The TV cameras and still photographers made it appear as though a red carpet should be underfoot instead of the grass at Winter Park.
All eyes were trained on the same person – quarterback Brett Favre, who returned to the Vikings practice field one year to the day that he signed with the team initially. But the cameras missed what may well have been the real story.
While the collective sideline gaze was directed at Favre, a sub-plot to the story was playing out near and around Favre. Rookies and first-year Vikings were like little kids getting ready to sit on Santa's lap and make a present request. It was a sight rarely seen – young 20-somethings wide-eyed and smiling at the sight of an NFL icon most of them literally grew up watching. The players were fans, complete with child-like grins. They had seen his locker sitting in Winter Park, but until he was in front of it, it wasn't truly real for them.
For those who took the time to notice, it was a surreal sight. Last year, slack-jawed veterans shook their heads at their first sight of Favre in Vikings colors, but, after a magical record-setting season by Favre, to them, the sight of Favre was comfortably familiar. For the rookies, it was brand new, and among those experiencing the Favre version of Shock and Awe was rookie running back Toby Gerhart.
Gerhart admitted one of his first professional highlights was stepping into the Vikings locker room and seeing Favre's empty locker. To meet the man, much less line up behind him put the initial thrill of seeing his locker to shame.
"It's great," Gerhart said. "It's an honor and it's been exciting to be here on the first day that he's here and take a couple of handoffs from him. He brought a lot of energy to the practice today. Everybody was upbeat and we had a really good practice."
The surreal nature of their first meeting – Gerhart admitted he had a hard time maintaining eye contact with Favre – was deeper with Gerhart than most. Why? Because he idolized Favre growing up (Gerhart was three years old when Favre was a rookie) and he held a special place in Gerhart's football-fan heart.
"It's pretty crazy – I'm not going to lie," Gerhart said. "When I was a kid the only football jersey I had was a Favre jersey back in the day. I was young when he was with the Packers. It's crazy to think that it's a small world that I would ever be playing with him. It's exciting."
As is common among Packers fans, their allegiance to their team is unwavering. Gerhart's family was in California, but the devotion to the green and gold was undeterred.
"I was a huge Packers fan as a kid growing up," Gerhart said. "My family is from Wisconsin. I had (Favre's) jersey and a little cheesehead hat. We were all huge Packers fans and I grew up idolizing Brett. I never dreamed I would be a teammate of his."
When asked it there was an intimidation factor involved when Gerhart was asked to take handoffs from Favre, Gerhart conceded that he was more than a little nervous and out of his natural element.
"There definitely was," Gerhart said of being somewhat intimidated. "We were just in a walk-through and I was like, ‘Don't mess up. Don't drop the handoff or something.' I was kind of in awe at first, but now it's just football. We're excited to have him here and I'm looking forward to working with him."
Although Gerhart consistently received reassurance that Favre was coming back for a 20th (and, according to the QB, his final) season, Gerhart said he wasn't really going to believe it until he saw it. Like the other 79 players (and just as many media members), he saw it Wednesday.
It was real. He was there. They're teammates.
It was a long time coming, but it was finally true and Gerhart is hoping to take full advantage of his impossible childhood dream becoming a reality.
"It was strange going through all the offseason workouts wondering if he was coming," Gerhart said. "Most of the guys thought it would happen because they had seen it before. For us new guys, he was Brett Favre – the guy you saw on TV. Now he's Brett Favre our teammate. It's still sinking in, but I can't wait to work with him and learn from him, because there is so much he knows about the game and I want to take as much of it in as I can."
Gerhart gets wide-eyed at Favre's arrival
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