by Denis Gullickson
First off, can we turn down the heat a little?
Seriously. Anyone that revved up one way or the other over Brett Favre, his oddball retirement, ignominious exit from GB — or any subsequent development — is taking themselves and, yes, Favre way, way too seriously.
That includes the guy who blogged his recent rant about Favre “the trader” [sic] doing the unforgiveable by playing for the hated Vikings. Not that I argue with his assessment of the Vikings. Just kidding for God’s sake … see?
Then there are folks like my usually steady buddy, Paul, who nearly froth at the mouth when castigating Packers GM Ted Thompson for how he botched “the Favre thing.”
Seems we’ve lost the historical context that says that the “Brett Favre Chapter” in the glorious legacy of this team was a great chapter — but only that: a chapter.
Hopefully this column puts the Favre fiasco into some kind of perspective that doesn’t have neighbors throwing up or — worse yet — blowing up fences or families canceling back-yard barbeques as autumn rolls around.
In other words: c’mon folks, let’s get a grip. At the end of the day, there’s room in that stadium for all of us — spiritually, at least.
Could one or two of you — especially the haters — slide over a little and make room for Number Four? You don’t have to talk to him or even look at him — but please, please don’t be so low-class as to boo him. With steeples scattered all across its skyline, Titletown should be the most-forgiving place on the planet.
A Frame of Reference
Those who remember the seventies and eighties will recall a lot of bad football doled out over there on the hallowed ground that is Lambeau Field. In that stretch from Super Bowl II through the 1991 season, the Packers went 142-201-9.
You were more likely to make it across town without stopping for a red light than you were watching the Packers win.
Sure the eternal flame of fan optimism and team support continued to burn. But even “diehard” fans mowed their lawns and hung up holiday decorations on Sunday afternoons as the team languished — aspiring in some seasons for anything even approaching mediocrity.
Five winning seasons and two measly playoff appearances in those twenty-four campaigns said it all. So, too, did the coming and going of five coaches — all flailing at futility. Indeed, every coach in succession led the team to a worse record than his predecessor. Especially tough was watching Lombardi legends Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg struggle — indirectly dimming even the luster of the Glory Years.
It’s numbing to recall the lousy trades (two first-rounders, two second-rounders and a third for a washed-up John Hadl) and lousy draft picks (Bruce Clark, Tony Mandarich, Rich Campbell) … let alone the lousy football.
The stretch would see 17 guys not named Starr or Favre take snaps as the Packers starting quarterback — with varying degrees of flickering success and final frustration. 1989’s “Cardiac Pack” led by Don Majkowski kept fans on the edge of their seats, but that meteoric squad still failed to make the post-season.
Then, along came GM Ron Wolf — beholden to nothing save the team’s proud heritage. And talk about righting the ship! Several bold moves put stalwart fans and idle bystanders on notice that a new day had dawned.
Wolf canned coach Lindy Infante and hired Mike Holmgren. Then, he snagged a near-unknown off the Atlanta Falcons bench. That guy? Well, that guy was Brett Favre. And what did Wolf ante-up for Favre? A first-round pick that garnered the Falcons running back Tony Smith who was out of football by 1994.
For Falcons Coach Jerry Glanville unloading Favre looked like dumping a blind horse on a snake oil salesman. Glanville had said that it would take a plane crash for him to put Favre on the field. When the trade offer came from Green Bay, he couldn’t move fast enough.
Now Favre came to GB with a reputation to be sure — not necessarily for football. Eventually, he’d be the “Gunslinger,” but — according to Glanville — back then Favre was actually vying for the role of “Town Drunk.”
“I had to get him out of Atlanta … I could not sober him up,” Glanville said. “I sent him to a city where at 9:00 at night the only thing that’s open is Chili Joes. You can get it two ways, with or without onions. And that’s what made Brett Favre make a comeback was going to a town that closed down. If I would have traded him to New York, nobody to this day would have known who Brett Favre ever was.”
(By the way, that’s our beloved Titletown Glanville was talking about. Sheesh! Please! It’s Chili John’s!)
Wolf — a shrewd judge of football talent — had taken a shine to Favre early on. As assistant GM with the Jets, Wolf had planned to snatch Favre in the 1991 draft until the Falcons took him on the previous pick — despite Glanville’s protestations.
Diagnosed with avascular necrosis of the hip, Favre failed his post-trade physical with the Packers and that looked to be that. Instead, Wolf consulted his crystal medicine-ball and overruled team doctors. Favre was assigned jersey number “4” as a back-up to Majkowski. At that point, Favre was just another in an endless string of qbs who’d flown into and out of GB’s Austin Straubel Airport.
Favre’s Magic …
In the second tilt of the ’92 season against the Tampa Bay Bucs, Holmgren yanked Majkowski and sent in Favre. Nothing could have proven a better precursor for Favre’s entire career as his first play from scrimmage: It was a pass play. A risky pass play. A risky pass play snuffed out by a Bucs defender and batted into the air that resulted in a completion to … Favre himself.
He’d caught his own damned pass!
Sure it was a seven-yard loss and probably bone-headed, but it was wildly entertaining — especially his boyish, earnest drive to turn the play into something despite every rational indication that he was dead in the water.
The following week was just as telling. Favre stepped in for an injured Majkowski and fumbled the ball four times — producing a cacophony of boos and lots of cries for third-stringer Ty Detmer.
“Boo-birds” were voicing a quarter-century’s worth of frustration and a “here we go again” ennui. But those same birds were chirping Favre’s praises when — with 13 seconds left — he pitched a game-winning toss to Kitrick Taylor.
A week later, Favre took the opening snap against the Steelers commencing the longest consecutive-start streak for an NFL quarterback in history — a record that will likely stand forever. Favre’s qb rating in the game was a remarkable 144.6.
The Pack ended the ’92 season 9-7, falling out of the playoffs in their final game. Still, they’d posted a six-game win streak — the longest such streak since 1965. By season’s end, most of the boo-birds had flown south to appear only sporadically in Titletown over the next fifteen seasons.
Favre would go on to put his name at the top of the list for every team record for passing — eclipsing Starr in most categories. He’d also post NFL records for the most touchdown passes (508), passing yards (over 40 miles-worth), most pass attempts (10,169) and completions (6,300) and most starts (298) and wins (186). In the process, he’d be the only qb ever to earn three consecutive NFL MVP awards and the only one to defeat all 32 NFL teams.
It would take another column to delineate all the records and achievements amassed by Favre between 1992 and his departure from the team following the 2007 season.
Then, there were the stories …
The story of Favre ignoring Holmgren’s demand that he not run the ball with time running out against the Falcons in 1994 and Favre running it anyway and doing the only thing he could do as he was about to be tackled which was leap between two diving Falcons tacklers for the winning score.
The story of Favre staring at Holmgren in the frigid air and the waning seconds at Lambeau Field and Holmgren asking what play Favre wanted to run to end the game and Favre just staring and Holmgren growing impatient and the crowd and the team waiting for Favre to get his instructions and Holmgren asking Favre what he was he staring at and Favre saying something like, “Coach, your mustache is frozen with snot.”
The stories of Favre and amigos Frank Winters and Mark Chumura enjoying the nightlife. Stories of Favre in every bar across northern Wisconsin. Stories of Icy-Hot in jockstraps and countless other less-irritating practical jokes.
Stories of injured thumbs and ankles and shoulders and elbows and a whole anatomy chart’s worth of broken, bruised or bloody body parts. And of an addiction to pain-killers.
The story of a Three-Peat MVP who — upon accepting his third such award — seemed to suggest that he was shedding a bit of his hillbilly, aw-gosh-shucks approach to the game as he talked about a personal legacy and confronting the reality that his next play could well be his last.
The story of channeling his heartbreak the day after his beloved father died and leading the Packers to a 41-7 thrashing of the Raiders that even “Raider Nation” applauded.
Stories upon stories upon stories.
… And Impulsivity
If playing NFL quarterback was easy, well …
Frank Shepich became a dear friend of this writer before he passed on. An old-time footballer from Stambaugh, Michigan’s Iron Range, Frank’s perspective on football came from the raw-boned days when he walked home after practicing on the hard surface of the school’s athletic field — his leather helmet folded in half in his back pocket.
“Cripes,” Frank said — grinning broadly when I asked him about Brett Favre. “Favre don’t give a damn about the money. If he wasn’t a family man and if things got bad in this country again, he’d play for a pinch of snuff and an orange at halftime, just like we used ta.”
Frank didn’t see a multi-million-dollar quarterback when he watched Favre play. He saw a guy who could have lined up with the Stambaugh All-Stars against any horde of miners or lumberjacks or hooligans on the UP gridirons — a guy who loved the game and was damned good at it.
Nothing captures Frank’s take on Favre like that iconic picture of Favre racing off the field after pitching that perfect touchdown strike to Andre Rison in Super Bowl XXXI — helmet clutched in his throwing hand, his left fist clenched, his face exploding in elation.
He was Huck Finn escaping the Widow Douglas for an afternoon at the fishing hole.
Frozen in time, that moment explains everything. It is joyous and innocent.
Its essence is the delight and intrigue of watching Favre play — the derring-do passes that no one else would try and the inexcusable interceptions that made folks cry. Including the one in the 2007 NFC title game that knocked the Packers from a Super Bowl.
Nothing could have been uglier. As many as four receivers were wide open and Favre put the ball smack-dab into a Giants defender. The football season ended with a thud and the snow moved in — that interception hanging like a lone icicle in the winter air. And the boo birds took a perch in a high tree to watch.
March 4, 2008, Favre called a press conference. Packers fans watched their hero — the guy who started nearly-300 consecutive games despite pain and pain killers and bizarre interceptions and last-second, coffin-corner touchdown passes — stammer and weep.
He couldn’t do it anymore. “I know I can play, but I don’t think I want to,” he said. “And that’s really what it comes down to.” Huck Finn was second-guessing his own inclinations. He was, he said, retired.
Black flags shot up all over Titletown. So did distress flags — some hoisted by Favre’s formerly-staunchest critics. Sixteen years of palpable expectations had supplanted 24 seasons of despair. Where to now? Another dismal stretch of losing football? Of sadness?
Fortunately, there was a promising young quarterback — Aaron Rodgers — who’d, literally, dropped into the team’s lap in the 2005 draft. Rodgers had played Favre’s understudy for three seasons. Pensive and patient, however, he was nearly the antithesis of Favre.
And, then, Huck Finn changed his mind. Come to think of it, he wanted to keep on playing — to take that chance on another hair-splitting completion or, yes, another hair-razing interception. To feel that joy. He would — he said — even compete against Rodgers for the starting job.
The team had moved on. It had to. There was football to be played — and Ted Thompson was about nothing if not cutting through the quirks of the modern-NFL to field a winner.
Now what? Open the door back up for Favre for another season or two — he’d mulled retirement since 2002 — or close it for him if he couldn’t make up his mind? The door closed.
The next undulations in the Brett Favre tale were particularly bizarre: a trade to the Jets, a lewd text and photo of his “junk” to Jenn Sterger, another retirement, yet another return to football — this time with the Packers’ bitter rivals, the Vikings — two seasons there and, then, a third and final retirement.
Packers fans couldn’t keep up. They didn’t have to. With Rodgers in charge, the Packers had posted a combined 27-21 mark and won Super Bowl XLV.
If “heart” was the only measurement for NFL quarterbacks, Favre would be without equal — past, present or future. He left just eight games due to injury — returning every time to start the next week. Two hundred thirty-eight other quarterbacks (a 7.7 per-team average) started NFL games — while the Packers had just one. Packers fans could simply watch the revolving door in Chicago to find a team that started 23 signal callers while the Packers started Favre.
Critics, of course, hang on the interceptions — a record-smashing 336 of them to be exact — including two glaring “picks” that kept the Packers and the Vikings out of Super Bowls. Those looking to pile on add the personal peccadilloes — skeletons in Favre’s closet for which he’s had to build an addition.
A mild twist on an old axiom says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first football.”
Along those lines, disappointment in Favre’s high-profile failures — both on and off the field — is as much about the perceiver as the perceived.
After all, Huck Finn was supposed to be in Sunday school — grateful for the roof over his head and kowtowing to the prevailing social norms of the day. Instead, he was a wayward rascal eschewing his gilded primer for a more-intuitive sense of right and wrong. Along the way, he would stumble, but get it right in the end. (Or, did he? Helping a runaway slave was against the norms of the day, wasn’t it? Hmm!)
With Favre, one can only point out that you take the last-second heroics with the foolhardy mistakes. They exude from the same place. Felt and not contemplated.
For those who’ve turned the Brett Favre controversy into a pitched battle between their football hero and the Packers or Ted Thompson: Step back from the ledge.
Watching Favre, the crazy kid, dive into the Milwaukee County Stadium end zone in the ’94 game against the Falcons, I called my wife screaming, “This is the best thing we’ve had behind center since Bart Starr.” My real love, however, isn’t Brett Favre. It’s the Packers.
Seated at Lambeau Field with a couple of friends a few years back, Favre’s name came up. Rodgers was having a great day — cool under pressure, moving the team up and down the field with the precision of a chess master, that easy smile on his face.
My buddies were dogging Favre — suggesting he’d have tossed a couple of picks by that point.
“When did it become popular to kick Brett Favre in the ass?” I asked them. “That guy brought more joy to this town than …”
“Yeah and a whole lot of dumb-ass interceptions,” one of them interrupted.
“Yeah and a Vikings jersey on his back,” said the other.
“Yeah, and just one Super Bowl,” the first doubled-down.
Without warning, a woman in front of us turned around. “Listen, you two,” she said. “If Aaron Rodgers sucked, you’d be sitting there saying how much you missed Favre.”
“Well,” I thought, “‘nuff said.”
The Packers are the most-storied franchise in all of sports. The life of this team and its fans did not begin with — nor will it end with — Brett Favre.
Being a fan (maybe, even, an owner) of this team comes with a little responsibility, however. Especially on the heels of the recent ranking by Forbes magazine that Packers fans are number one.
Favre’s jersey will be retired next summer and rightfully so. And we can finally put some kind of end mark on a long, convoluted — though wildly-entertaining — sentence that most English teachers couldn’t parse.
For anyone planning to attend that celebration to boo: Stay home. You’re missing the point. In fact, you’re missing several points. If, on the other hand, you’re still hating on Ted Thompson … the team train is about to leave the station. All aboard.