Fans still follow Favre

Published 9:10 pm Saturday, August 25, 2007

Oakland Raider fans are so ill-tempered they would jeer their own mother if she wore another team’s jersey. So caustic that booing opponents isn’t simply tradition for them, it’s part of their very being.

Yet when Brett Favre took the field in Oakland on a December night almost four years ago, the Raider fans welcomed him like one of their own, embracing him with a warm ovation.

On this night, he wasn’t simply the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, one of the best in the league. He was a son grieving a father who had died unexpectedly a day earlier. But he’d gone to work anyway, a man no different from the millions of ordinary folks who put a brave face to personal sorrows every day.

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“As professional athletes and movie stars, just entertainment in general, sometimes people think we’re bulletproof,” Favre said. “But things like what have happened to me and my family really hit home.”

Sometime this season, Favre will almost certainly pass Dan Marino’s NFL record of 420 touchdown passes, needing only six more to match the Miami Dolphins great. When Favre retires, he will own virtually every major passing record in the league, as well as a mark for durability that is unlikely to be matched.

What sets him apart, though, what has made him a fan favorite in cities all over the country, has little to do with the record books. It’s the way he’s played and the way he’s lived.

At a time when multimillionaire athletes have little in common with the people who cheer for them, Favre remains everyman.

The NFL’s only three-time MVP plays the game with the same exuberance he had when he was in Pop Warner, and has chosen to stick it out in the little city that’s come to feel like home even when it might be easier — and smarter — to go elsewhere. He revived a proud franchise and restored a state’s pride in the process.

Most of all, he is unflinchingly real. Despite his fame and riches, he struggles with the same problems as anyone else — deaths that came far too early and without warning, cancer, addiction, strains in his marriage — and is surprisingly candid about all of it.

“It makes him seem just like us, not some big, huge person above us,” said Karen Eiles, who traveled to Lambeau Field from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with her husband and two kids for the Family Night scrimmage earlier this month.

“The same things happen to him that happen to the rest of us.”

When then-general manager Ron Wolf traded for Favre in February 1992, the deal wasn’t exactly celebrated by Packers fans.

The state, and Green Bay in particular, have a bond with the Packers unlike anything else in pro sports. There are Brewers and Bucks fans across the state, of course, and Marquette and the Badgers have their share of followers. But to be from Wisconsin is to be a Packers fan, even if you don’t have stock in the country’s only publicly owned professional team.

Lambeau Field is sold out for every game, whether it’s an Indian summer afternoon or a night game in subzero windchills. The wait for season tickets is about 30 years, and it’s common for parents to put their children on the list as soon as they’re born.

While Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr and the Packers of the ’60s did the state of Wisconsin proud, the team was a disappointment for much of the next two decades. After winning Super Bowl II, the Packers had 15 losing seasons over the next 24 years. That the hated Chicago Bears were winning during that time made the losses all the more galling.

“It was pretty bad,” said Bob Harlan, longtime chairman of the Packers. “We had struggled so much to find that quarterback after Bart. Lynn Dickey filled it for a while, then Don Majkowski. We always used to talk here, are we ever going to find that quarterback to come in and help us?”

So what did the Packers do? Traded a first-round pick for a kid from Southern Mississippi who didn’t get off the bench in Atlanta.

“A lot of my calls were from fans who thought we were out of our minds,” Harlan acknowledged. “It turned out to be probably the best trade in the history of the franchise.”

When Majkowski went down with a bad ankle in Game 3 of that 1992 season, Favre rallied the Packers to a 24-23 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, connecting with Kitrick Taylor for the tying touchdown with 13 seconds left. Favre then held for the game-winning extra point.

He started the following week, and the Packers haven’t given the ball to anyone else since.

After the years of wallowing in mediocrity, Favre made the Packers an NFC heavyweight. They were .500 or better for 13 straight seasons, and were in the playoffs all but three of them. They won the Super Bowl after the 1996 season, and went back the next year.

Favre always looked as if he was having a ball out there, too. Sprinting around the field in joy after touchdowns. Throwing off his back heel. Scrambling for a few extra yards. Zinging balls into spaces he had no business going for, let alone pulling it off. Completing most of them, but not abandoning his gunslinging ways when he didn’t. Throwing blocks that would make his defense proud.

“I’ve always played the game a certain way. Sometimes it’s not pretty,” Favre said. “If you were coaching other young quarterbacks, I don’t know if you’d coach my technique. But maybe you would say his leadership, his durability, his mental toughness, his physical toughness is something I would want you to have.”

Plenty of players are dynamic on the field, but few of them evoke the warm-and-fuzzies the way Favre does. Marino, Joe Montana and John Elway were revered, but it was adoration from afar. They were icons, as untouchable to fans as they were to the defenses that chased them.

Favre, though, is the guy next door. Run into him at a restaurant or a grocery store, and fans are convinced they could not only talk to him, they’d soon be buddies.

He came to Green Bay as a brash and carefree small-town Southern boy, a guy who just liked to play football and have some fun. Sixteen years later, nothing’s changed.

“There’s little mystery there,” said Ted Thompson, the Packers general manager. “You get the real Brett Favre. He doesn’t put on airs. I think that’s the same way he is as a player, and I think people gravitate toward that.”

To Packers fans, he is simply one of them. He has their blue-collar mentality and heart, going to work regardless of whether he’s healthy or hurt. He’s played in 239 consecutive regular-season games and counting, starting all but the first two.

Only two other players in the history of the NFL have longer streaks. The quarterback closest to him, Peyton Manning, would have to play five-plus seasons after Favre retires just to catch up.

“He was made for Green Bay. A small town, a blue-collar attitude. It’s the closest thing in the NFL to a college atmosphere,” Harlan said. “He just fit into the story so perfectly, and he added so many chapters.”

But not everything in Favre’s life is charmed. Far from it.

The summer before the Packers won the Super Bowl, he spent 46 days at a rehab clinic for an addiction to painkillers. He’s acknowledged drinking excessively, and talked about the problems it caused in his marriage.

“I never addressed anything publicly with the intentions of saving someone else. I was trying to save myself or deal with it within the family,” Favre said. “I’m not afraid to express my failures or where I’ve gone wrong in my life. To me, it’s healthy.”

The personal shortcomings didn’t bother fans. If anything, they made him more appealing. He had flaws, and he wasn’t going to hide them.

“As he grew,” Packers fan Steve Gehrmann said, “you kind of grew with him.”

And when tragedy sought out Favre and his family, fans all over the country grieved with him.

The first, and most devastating, was the death of his father, Irv, on Dec. 21, 2003. Irv Favre, who was his son’s high school coach and a fixture at Packers games, was 58 when he died of a heart attack.

Favre decided to stay with the Packers and play the next day against Oakland. It had nothing to do with his consecutive games streak, and everything to do with honoring his father’s memory and being there for his “other” family.

He had one of the finest games of his career, throwing for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a nationally televised Monday night game.

“I realize it’s not the most important thing in life, but it is something that distracts me, and allows me to focus on that for that period of time. It helps,” he said. “As hard as it is initially, football goes on, life goes on. Either you dwell on it and you let it just drag you down, or you go on.”

The following October, his wife Deanna’s younger brother, Casey, died in an ATV accident on Favre’s land in Mississippi. A week after that, Deanna Favre was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In 2005, the Kiln, Miss., home where Favre grew up and his mother still lived was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

And on the day the Packers opened training camp last month, Deanna Favre’s stepfather, Rocky Byrd, died of a heart attack at 56. The Byrds lived on Favre’s estate in Mississippi, and the quarterback was extremely close to Rocky.

“To be honest with you, I’m almost scared to say, ’Enough’s enough,’ or, ’What next?’ I’m afraid if I say that, something else is going to happen,” Favre said. “It’s almost like you’re asking for it.”

So once again, football is his refuge. But for how much longer?

He is almost 38, and after every season the questions are the same: Will he come back? And, if so, how much longer will he play? His arm is still strong, and he can still make those throws that amaze fans — not to mention coaches and teammates.

He doesn’t scramble like he used to, and, with the Packers struggling the last few years, there are some who worry he might stay too long. That he’ll go out looking more like Namath than Elway.

Favre scoffs at that. He still loves to play, and he still feels like he has something to give, both to the Packers and the game.

“Would I love to go out on top? Absolutely. But, and I believe this with all my heart, whether I go out 16-and-0 or 0-and-16, I’m going out on top,” he said. “Because it’s not about one season. It’s not about one play. It’s about a career. And I wouldn’t trade my career with anyone. It’s been wonderful.”

Still, the Packers are clearly in rebuilding mode and Favre knows the process could take several years — years he likely doesn’t have.

Though Favre believes the current Packers are as talented as any Green Bay team he’s been on — yes, even those Super Bowl squads — they’re young. There have been moves that could have accelerated the rebuilding, like trading for Randy Moss in the offseason, and Favre hasn’t hidden his frustration when the deals don’t get done.

Some fans have even said he’d be better off finishing his career somewhere else, somewhere where the Super Bowl doesn’t seem so far away. Though there was speculation he wanted to be traded after the Moss deal fell through, Favre said he’ll never play anywhere but Green Bay.

If the Packers did trade him, he said, he’d just go back to Mississippi and ride his tractor.

“I sometimes have to kind of pinch myself and say losing is a part of it,” he said. “I don’t accept it, but it’s a part of it and you have to deal with it and go on. Because there’s one day it’s going to be over and you’ll look back and go, heck, I’d love to even just play on a losing team just to play.”

When he is finally done, Favre will walk away knowing he’s given his best. Not because he’s left all those marks in the record book, but because he’s left a mark on his teammates and the people who watched him.

“If I had one person say, ’That one touchdown pass you threw in 1990-something, man, that was awesome,’ it would be flattering. But if the next person says, ’I love the way you play the game, win or lose,’ … that would mean so much more to me,” he said.

“I would hope 20, 30 years from now, I’m remembered for something else besides records, whether I have them or don’t have them,” he said. “If that’s the only way I’m remembered, apparently I didn’t do something right or leave a good enough impression on the fans.”