There's no getting around it. As soon as the clock hit zero on the Monday night game between Dallas and Carolina, everyone in the NFL turned their attention to this week's showdown between Green Bay and Minnesota. Some of us have already been looking forward to this matchup, including several members of this site.
Is it because the two teams are (3-0) and (2-1)? Is it because Adrian Peterson, Greg Jennings, Jared Allen, or Charles Woodson gets another chance to shine on national television? Is it because the result of this game will help shape the outcome of what may turn out to be the toughest division in the NFL?
Of course not. It's all about Brett Favre. He's squaring off against the franchise that took a chance on him in 1992, his former coaches, his former teammates, Ted Thompson, and the entirety of Packer Nation. To quote Ron Burgundy, it's "kind of a big deal."
For every fan rooting for or against Favre on October 5th, there is a theory as to why Brett flirted with retirement in 2005, 2006, and 2007, finally decided to retire, discussed unretirement, stayed retired, then unretired, then played for the Jets, then retired, then come thisclose to unretirement, then stay retired, and finally, unretired.
Some say it's because he wants a shot at another championship, and Minnesota is the team best-equipped to get him there. Others say it's because he's really not content to stay on the farm in Mississippi; he needs to play to keep himself occupied. Others still claim that the reason is revenge; revenge against Ted Thompson, revenge against Mike McCarthy, revenge against Aaron Rodgers, and revenge against the fan base that turned on him. A small (but vocal) minority cling to the notion that Favre "just loves the game so much" that he can't bring himself to walk away.
Each of these theories has some truth to it. Yes, Favre loves the game. Yes, Minnesota is a strong team that needed a quarterback. Yes, he still gets bored on the farm when he knows he could still play. And yes, he wants to stick it to the Green Bay Packers for denying him what he wanted: his old job back.
I subscribe to a different theory, and it takes us back to Christmas of 2003. Remember this?
The 41-7 win on Monday, December 23rd, 2003 was beyond any description I am able to conjure up. We've all heard the praises, platitudes, and adulations from all corners of the sports and mainstream media. It was defining for Favre as a football player, Favre as a legend, Favre as a media figure, but most importantly, Favre as a person.
He just loves the game so damn much. His consecutive start streak, which is now the longest for any position player ever, is proof that injury, nor personal tragedy, nor poor performances will keep him from doing what he loves. But where do you think he got that love of football from?
For those of you unsure of the contents of this photo, it is indeed Irvin Favre and his young son Brett on December 25th, 1970, in their home in Kiln, Mississippi. Brett was only 14 months old. His father got him to start playing and, in my opinion, is keeping him playing. This is where it all starts.
* * *
Bonita and Irvin Favre (more commonly known as Irv) raised Brett and his three siblings in the bayou of southern Mississippi, where the boys had free reign to hunt, fish, and play sports under the watchful eyes of their parents. Once they got older, it was clear that Brett was a special athlete, even compared to his brothers. However, he enjoyed the physical side of football, and started out playing linebacker and safety.
One of the first lessons Brett learned from his father was how to overcome injury. Namely, the lesson was to barely even acknowledge you're hurt.
"Brett thinks when you get hurt, put some ice on it, you'll be all right. That was Irv's patented move right there. Broken leg? Put some ice on it, you'll be all right. Get back out there."
- Clark Henegen, childhood friend
This lesson is still prevalent in today's NFL, especially with the recently-fined New York Jets, who failed to mention Favre on their injury reports in 2008 when he had a torn bicep. Favre has gone on the record as saying that the fines were "unfair", but acknowledges that he should have been on the injury report. But isn't a big part of Favre's Iron Man persona overcoming injury?
Of course, the obvious example of this occurred during a 2004 game against the New York Giants. William Joseph, a 6'5", 315 defensive tackle, came through on a pass play and crushed Favre to the ground, resulting in a concussion. Three plays later, on fourth down and without consulting the team doctors, Favre came back into the game, waved off the punt unit, and threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Javon Walker. Favre did not return after that series.
Once he got to high school, Irv (the head coach) put him at quarterback, following the footsteps of his older brother Scott. This drew ire and claims of nepotism from other parents, but Irv's reasons were far simpler: the coach's son was the most dependable to show up to practice.
"Irvin got flak about that. People said, 'He's the head coach. He's just making his kids the quarterbacks.' He'd talk to me about it and say, 'You know, the reason I do this is because I know they're going to be at practice. They ain't got no choice.' There was a lot of logic to that."
- Rocky Gaudin, Hancock North Central High School assistant coach
While he manned the offense from under center, Brett wasn't able to show off the arm that would one day make him famous. Irv stayed true to Bear Bryant's "Wishbone" offense, which didn't call for passes unless absolutely necessary. As a result, Brett rarely passed more than a handful of times in any given game.
But he was always learning from his coach. He was always learning from his father.
* * *
Much has been made of Brett's erratic and sometimes irresponsible behavior between graduating high school in 1986 and being traded to the Packers in 1992. There was the Tulane game during his freshman year, where Favre began the day with a wicked hangover, vomiting numerous times during pre-game warm-ups. He and his roommate thought they would be red-shirting their freshman year, so made the most of it the night before the third game of the season. In a surprise move, the coaching staff called on Favre to come into the game after halftime.
"All five offensive linemen were fifth-year seniors and now you've got this young idiot quarterback," Ryals said. "He was hung over. Sick. They all knew he got drunk the night before."
- Chris Ryals, roommate at Southern Miss
Nevertheless, the one-time seventh-string quarterback for Southern Mississippi started the second half and threw two touchdowns in a come-from-behind victory. He started every game he was available for afterwards.
There was the car accident before Favre's senior year. On July 14th, 1990, Brett lost control of his car, which flipped three times and crashed into a tree. Favre suffered a concussion, cracked vertebrae, numerous lacerations, and three weeks later needed 30 inches of his small intestine removed. Despite these near-fatal injuries, Favre was able to continue playing football and started against ranked Alabama, who Southern Miss upset for the victory.
"You can call it a miracle or a legend or whatever you want to, I just know that on that day, Brett Favre was larger than life."
- Gene Stallings, Alabama head coach
There was the 1991 NFL Draft, where Favre fell out of the first round and was selected by the Atlanta Falcons at the 33rd overall selection. Favre showed immense promise and possessed incredible talent, but that was offset by his rebellion against Jerry Glanville's clubhouse policies.
According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, Glanville had four rules: 1) Be on time. 2) Prepare all week to play. 3) Spill your guts on the field. 4) Only accept victory.
"If he'd [Favre] have got to 3 and 4, he'd have been fine," Glanville once told the paper. "But you had to get past 1 and 2."
Favre's behavior was immature and unprofessional. He stayed out late, he showed up late and fell asleep in meetings. As he [Favre] once said, "I'm sure I didn't help my cause by trying to drink up Atlanta."
Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Then, of course, was the 1992 trade from Atlanta to Green Bay, Favre's rise to stardom, and the eventual revelation of Favre's dependence upon Vicodin, a powerful painkiller, to cope with his nagging injuries. Combined with his drinking habits, Favre's personal life was a mess. It took a seizure and not one, but two ultimatums between 1996 and 1999 from his wife Deanna for him to get his life together.
With Deanna standing by his side in May of 1996, Favre told the world he had been playing MVP-caliber football while addicted to painkillers, and checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic.
Deanna had also issued an ultimatum: Clean up, or she was gone.
And while Favre beat the Vicodin addiction, he was drinking heavily. Once again, his wife Deanna, pregnant with their second child, issued another ultimatum to Favre in 1999 after having called a divorce attorney: Quit drinking, or she was gone.
- Lori Nickel, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Favre's success against these personal demons are admirable no matter what team you support. He stood to lose everything he had built up, his career, his livelihood, his relationships, and even his life, and he responded by scaling all obstacles. That fortitude is a part of what makes Favre the national figure he is today.
* * *
But where was Irv throughout these troubling episodes? Why would the father who instilled the toughness, the courage, and the love of the sport into his son sit idly by while Brett flirted with disaster time and time again?
As it turns out, Irv was always watching from afar. He constantly followed everything Brett did, both good and bad. And whenever things took a turn for the worse, Irv was there to give support of the less forgiving variety.
"Oh, they fussed and feuded at times, like all sons and fathers do. Irv, who watched Brett battle an addiction to painkillers, often took the tough-love approach...The old coach would come out in Irvin, and he would say some stuff that would make Brett say, 'Dad, this isn't high school anymore.'"
-Jon Saraceno, USA Today
That was the style of fatherhood that Irv chose. He guided his sons closely until they were old enough, and then let them live their own lives and make their own mistakes. He didn't see the value in hovering or constant check-ups; he wanted his boys to learn the hard way so that they remembered the lessons they learned.
But when things got to be too much, Irv was there. Like any father, he made himself available to make sure that everything got settled down and back to normal. When Favre got drunk with a college buddy the night before a big game, Irv wasn't there, because he didn't need to be. When Favre was convulsing on a hospital bed as his daughter watched in horror, Irv was one of the first ones to help Brett back up.
And after Favre had turned his life around, Irv was always there as Brett's most trusted advisor. Sure, the lines between the father-son and coach-player dynamics got blurred, and there were more than a few arguments. But Irv was always around to give Brett the perspective and wisdom he needed to make the right choice.
* * *
Then Irv had his accident, and Favre had his Oakland game. In spite of his tremendous loss, Favre came through for the Packers in the game he and his father loved so much. But he was in his mid-30's and nearing the threshold where NFL players lose their skills to age. Practice was becoming more of a chore each day. His wife and daughters wanted him around more. The family was set financially. What was keeping him in the league?
Part of it was his love for the game. Another part was his desire to go out like Elway did: on top of his teammates' shoulders with the Lombardi Trophy in his grip. But there was a lot of conflict between his desires and his doubts. Sure, he wanted to keep playing, but was that more important than everything else around him?
One of Favre's defining characteristics is his childlike approach to the game. Whether he's tackling a teammate to the ground after a score, trick-or-treating at his coach's house, or throwing snowballs during a blizzard, his youthful exuberance has endeared him to thousands of people across the country.
But the notion that "he's just a kid out there" reaches further than just for three hours on an autumn Sunday. This big kid lost his role model, confidant, and most avid supporter nearly thirty-three years to the day after receiving the best Christmas present he'd ever gotten: a tiny helmet and an unmarked jersey. He decided to play against Oakland on that Monday night as a tribute to his father. He said that Irv would have wanted him to play.
"I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play. I love him so much and I love this game. It's meant a great deal to me, to my dad, to my family, and I didn't expect this kind of performance. But I know he was watching tonight."
- Brett Favre, 12/23/03
Now, I have never lost a parent, so I have no idea what it feels like. But I do know that most children go to their mother or father for advice they're faced with a tough choice. I have, and still do. Brett lost that opportunity far sooner than anyone expected, and when he seriously contemplated retirement for the first time in 2005, he couldn't consult his most trusted advisor.
The last piece of advice he took from his father is the same motivation he used on December 23rd, 2003. I think that the idea that "Dad would've wanted me to play" stuck with him for far longer than just one Monday Night Football game. No matter how long he thought about it or how many people he consulted, one final question helped shape his football-related decisions: What would Irv want him to do?
I wouldn't go so far to say that this one question dominated his decision-making process in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, or 2009. But I find it hard to believe that Favre didn't want to play for Big Irv. Other athletes have played and succeeded after losing their fathers. Michael Jordan did, and won three championships. Tiger Woods did, and won the 2006 Open. Favre is still looking for his next title, one he can dedicate to Dad.
* * *
So why did Favre do it? Why did he leave Green Bay for New York, then New York for Minnesota, and endure the aftermath that follows him to this day? There's a ton of reasons why, and I don't know which one is right. But what I do know is this: Favre played that Monday Night game for his father. Who's to say he kept coming back to the NFL for any other reason?