You can get lost in Brett Favre’s numbers. The touchdown passes, the wins, the playing streak, the awards. Amazing, mind-boggling numbers. But like mirrors in a carnival funhouse, they reflect greatness as well as distort it.
We play a silly game when measuring our sports heroes. It’s not enough that a football player has a great career, a record-setting career, even a Hall-of-Fame career. No, we are compelled to compare him to all others who have ever played the game.
The Greatest of All-Time. That’s what we so passionately argue. Our yardstick? Numbers. As if statistics and records have anything to do with transcendence.
If they did, the argument would be short. By the end of the 2007 season – and now the end of his career – Brett Favre held nearly every meaningful passing record in National Football League history. He will still stand as the league’s only three-time Most Valuable Player, winning the award in 1995, 1996 and 1997. And at 38 — an age when most players have been retired for years — Favre enjoyed one of the best seasons of his storied career. And now we’ve got to say good-bye. That’s going to be tough.
The numbers are indeed heady. The thing is, if you’re a fan looking to measure the greatness of Brett Favre, you don’t start with the head. You start with the heart. First his. Then yours.
That’s why this story isn’t so much about numbers as it is about pictures.
It’s March 1997. Deanna Favre sets the box of family photo albums on the bed of a Hattiesburg, Miss., hotel room. Only a few months before, Deanna’s husband had led the Green Bay Packers to their first Super Bowl victory in 29 years. Now she’s asked to provide family photographs to be featured in her husband’s autobiography. The book — Favre: For the Record — would be released that fall and become the best-selling sports book of the year.
I had not met Deanna before that day, although I certainly knew who she was. I was in Hattiesburg with longtime friend and former Green Bay Press-Gazette sportswriter Chris Havel, helping him ghostwrite Favre’s book. The idea for the book was hatched in 1993 when Havel approached Favre three days into his second training camp with the Packers.
“Brett, I think you might have a book in you someday,” Havel said one day after practice. “How do you feel about getting together to write one when the time comes?”
At the time, Favre had a mere 14 NFL starts under his belt. Still, the request didn’t faze him. He had only one question: “Who are we going to write about?”
Havel laughed and Favre smiled. Then they shook hands. And that was that. The entire conversation lasted less than two minutes. Four years later, with Favre having won two MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring, there were all sorts of suitors clamoring to tell his story. The quarterback stuck with Havel. Loyalty is one of his more endearing traits.
One of the first photographs Deanna shares was taken from the deck of the Favre’s childhood home in Kiln, Miss. To say that Kiln is a small town is to give it the benefit of the doubt. There just isn’t much there. Curley Hallman, Favre’s old coach at the University of Southern Mississippi, once described Kiln as “a place that’s kind of like the Dukes of Hazzard minus the demolition derby.”
Favre’s family home was about 12 miles from the Gulf of Mexico and so close to the Rotten Bayou that you could spit into it off their deck. Favre had four dogs growing up. Alligators got them all.
Both of Favre’s parents were teachers. His mother, Bonita, taught special education. His father, Irvin – or Big Irv, as everyone knew him – taught physical education and drivers education at Hancock North Central High School. A lot of kids at Hancock learned how to do push-ups and parallel park under Big Irv’s tutelage. Big Irv also coached football. All three of his sons — Scott, Brett and Jeff — played quarterback for him at Hancock. Brett was blessed with the strong arm. His little sister Brandi got the good looks – she was once named Miss Teen Mississippi.
Deanna pulls out a picture. It’s from Bonita Favre. In the black-and-white photo, Brett wears No. 10 for the Hancock North Central High Hawks football team. He is a sophomore, and by the size of the grin on his face, he’s having the time of his life. It’s pure joy. The kid just can’t help himself.
That grin followed him from Hancock to Green Bay. You’ve seen it a thousand times.
There were quarterbacks like Joe Montana and Steve Young that might have been equal or better than Favre at running the complex West Coast offense. There were quarterbacks like Fran Tarkenton and Randall Cunningham who were better scramblers. And there were quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas and John Elway with perhaps even stronger arms. Maybe Joe Namath and Montana were more famous for grace under pressure. But Favre has all these qualities in abundance. But more importantly, he has another trait that transcends physical skills — infectious joy.
Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are wonderful quarterbacks. Both will assuredly end up in the Hall of Fame. By all accounts, they seem like good guys. Manning’s many TV commercials are even amusing. But really, when was the last time you saw either one of them play as if they were having fun on the field? Brady’s self-satisfied smirk doesn’t count as joyful. Manning, despite his commercials, still comes off as business-like. Effective? You bet. Like a surgeon, and just as sterile.
To have your hero do something amazing on the field, and then to have him celebrate the achievement with whoops and hollers and unabashed giddiness — that, my friend, is to have a hero to cherish for life. I have yet to see Manning lift receiver Marvin Harrison onto his shoulders and run with him after a touchdown pass. Favre has hoisted Donald Driver so many times you would think he was a firefighter saving him from a burning building. Does that make Favre a better quarterback? No. Just a lot more fun to watch.
The business arrangement
Every photograph Deanna brings has a story. There’s Brett and James “Bus” Cook. The two are wearing tuxedos at an award ceremony honoring Favre. Cook is Favre’s longtime agent. When they met, Cook was a lawyer in Hattiesburg. Favre was playing for Southern Mississippi. When Favre asked him to be his agent, Cook said: “I don’t know. I’ve never been an agent.” To which Favre replied, “That’s OK, I’ve never been a professional quarterback.” The two were made for each other.
While working on Favre’s autobiography, we were invited to Cook’s home, which was under construction outside of Hattiesburg. It was dark when we arrived. Cook, Favre and a couple of his high school buddies were shooting the breeze while standing around a pile of burning brush.
At one point, Favre stood in the bucket of the front-end loader Cook had used to clear the brush and questioned his agent’s building ability. The next thing anyone knew, Cook hopped behind the controls of the rig and hoisted his prized client about six feet in the air. He wouldn’t let him down until Favre apologized for the perceived insult to his manhood. That or he was just tired of listening to Favre talk smart. Everyone howled, including a future Hall of Fame quarterback perched high overhead.
So the answer is yes. The goofiness you see from Favre is genuine, and it is not limited to the football field.
Brett and Deanna
Deanna pages through another photo album, stopping when she comes across a photo of her and Brett. They’re dressed up for his high school junior prom. He is in a white tuxedo and blue bow tie, and she in a white dress. The photo could be of just about any high school kids in America. Funny, but that moment must seem like a million years ago now; so much has happened. Most of it played out for all of us to see.
Back then it was pretty simple. They were high school sweethearts. Both were good athletes: she an all-conference basketball player and he a star football and baseball player. Usually the two just hung out together, talking and playing some kind of sport. Brett was a pitcher on the baseball team, and for fun, Deanna would catch him. That’s how they spent time together, with Brett firing fastballs at her and Deanna never backing down.
It seems that early practice of taking everything Brett could throw at her would pay off down the road.
Throughout his 17-year career, that shy, small-town girl has been by his side, yet somehow in the shadows. Fame, fortune, deaths in the family, the addiction to painkillers that threatened Brett’s career, and the ensuing 46-day stint in drug rehab that saved it — they dealt with a lot.
When Walter Iooss, the famed photographer for Sports Illustrated, photographed Favre for the cover of his autobiography as well as for a Got Milk? ad campaign, the young quarterback’s hair was dark. Ten years later, it’s mostly gray. There’s a reason.
In 2004, Deanna was diagnosed with breast cancer. When treatment caused her hair to fall out, Brett shaved his head in support. Deanna emerged cancer free and has written a candid and inspirational memoir, Don’t Bet Against Me: Beating the Odds of Breast Cancer and In Life. She now heads the Deanna Favre HOPE Foundation, whose mission is to provide assistance to women who are underserved or underinsured in their battle against breast cancer. Does having a wife who inspires hope make you a better quarterback? Not sure. But she certainly helps make you a better person.
In the March 2004 issue of Men’s Journal, Favre was chosen as the No. 1 “Toughest Guy in America” on the basis of his “fearlessness, perseverance, a willingness to take risk, a tolerance for pain and even a dash of modesty.”
During his NFL-record 253 consecutive games started streak, Favre has played through a first-degree separation of his left shoulder (courtesy of a Reggie White hit), a severely bruised left hip, a severely sprained left ankle, tendonitis in his right elbow and a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his left knee. In 2003, against the St. Louis Rams, he broke his right thumb. Outfitted with a makeshift protective cap that made holding the ball difficult, Favre played the last two months of the season in constant pain. Yet he still managed to finish the year with 32 touchdown passes and a quarterback rating over 90.
Pain, of course, is relative. You hit your thumb hard with a hammer and it hurts like a son of a gun. But when something happens to an NFL player during a game — a game you’re watching from the comfort of your couch — it doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s face it: the distance from couch to field clouds everything. That’s why we think players should be able to shake it off, ice it down, or shoot it up. Something. Anything. As long as they can get back on the field to play before you get back from the kitchen with more potato chips.
Of course, it doesn’t work that way.
Willie Davis, the Packers Hall of Fame defensive end, didn’t miss a game from 1960-69. He knows a little something about playing through pain.
“If they were looking for a symbol for toughness in the dictionary they’d get Brett Favre,” Davis said. “He is one of the gutsiest, toughest quarterbacks this league has ever seen. Those of us who watch him probably don’t truly appreciate that he’s played with pain, and played at times when lesser quarterbacks wouldn’t have tried it.”
The big hurt
Among the final pictures Deanna pulls from an album is one of Brett in his first football uniform. It’s Christmas and he’s a little more than a year old. His dad sits cross-legged on the floor, tucking the jersey into his son’s pants. It’s a simple, touching scene, made even more so because you know what is to become of the boy. And of the man.
The closest Favre ever came to missing a football game in Green Bay was Dec. 23, 2003. No one would have blamed him if he had. He didn’t have a dislocated shoulder or a sprained knee. Far worse: a broken heart.
The day before the Packers were to play the Raiders in Oakland on Monday Night Football, Favre’s dad died of a massive heart attack while driving on a road near his home in Mississippi. A mere 26 hours later, Favre not only played but he had the best statistical game of his career – 399 passing yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions. The Packers won 41-7, and a national television audience choked back tears. The touchdowns and championships and awards help to give perspective to a career. Numbers don’t lie. They just don’t tell the whole story.
Is Brett Favre the greatest quarterback of all time? The numbers sure make a strong argument. It’s the man, however, who makes an even stronger one.