Brett Favre at 40: Still holding court
Brett Favre is in the pressroom of the Metrodome, holding court.
"You know, my arm feels great," Favre says in his soothing Mississippi drawl.
Favre suddenly breaks off. Just outside, someone is bellowing.
"The Sil-Ver Faaaaaaawwx!"
Favre grins. He knows that voice.
"Jared Allen," says Favre, motioning toward the 27-year-old Vikings defensive end.
Allen gave him the nickname, because, well: "He's old, man. That dude—can we please stop calling him Brett Favre? It's the Silver Fox. That's his name: 'The Silver Fox.'"
In football, a sport notorious for chewing up and spitting out players, the 40-year-old veteran is practically a miracle. His athletic accomplishments have made him a multimillionaire and a superstar, but he still retains his down-home attitude. Here's a star low-key enough to wear Wranglers, who warms up for the season by throwing to high school kids in Mississippi.
"A lot of American men that watch football, they look at him as, 'Oh, well, Brett Favre, he's out there playing—and that's something I could do,'" says Jon Kendle, researcher at the NFL Hall of Fame.
This is all a marketer's dream. In one Sears spot, Favre pokes fun at his will-he-or-won't-he reputation by waffling about whether to buy a TV. But even as he's put into heavy rotation on the Sunday commercials, he never looks like a sell-out.
"His ruggedness, his no-nonsense attitude, his pleasure in what he's doing—you don't think about him as an overly marketed guy," says Michael Oriard, a former professional football player and professor of English at Oregon State University.
Though Favre is in many ways the classic man— five o'clock shadow, dirty ball cap—he also subtly upends the tradition of male reticence, says Jesse Steinfeldt, who played professional sports in Europe and is now a psychologist at Indiana University. "In a news conference, he wept openly. I think that he allows men to see how this tough guy, if you will, this iron man, can express himself emotionally and be okay with it."
Now at the ripe age of 40, Favre has led the Vikings to clinch their division. In a year that sorely tested many, Favre has transcended football and become a symbol of the will to endure.
"For especially older, middle-aged guys, there's like hope there," says Doug Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociologist. "Hope to overcome. It's like the fountain of youth."
On game day outside the Metrodome, throngs of men engage in a war ritual. They slather their faces in purple paint and cover their heads with horned Helga hats. Clad in the purple jerseys of their heroes, the fans prepare for the battle by downing beers.
Inside, the stadium erupts into a thunder of cheers and hollers as a giant inflatable Viking ship materializes at one end of the stadium. Fireworks explode. The speakers blare—the sound of wind whistling over water. A clap of thunder. A drumbeat begins.
The players dash onto the field. Some 64,000 fans bear witness. By far, the majority of them are men.
In recent decades, the rulebook on how to be a man has been rewritten. Historically, men were supposed to provide for their families, protect the weak, and procreate. "People talk about those as the three P's," says Andrew Smiler, a Wake Forest psychology professor. "Those are all kind of good and well, but they don't really fit post-industrialized America."
As physical labor decreased in importance to the economy and women entered the workforce, the template for manhood began to morph. This brought many benefits—fathers who are more involved in their children's lives, men who share household duties with their partners, the emancipation of half of a population previously shuttered by an equally narrow definition of what it meant to be a woman.
But it also left men without a roadmap. "So in a lot of ways, sports has kind of taken that place," says Smiler. "We talk about it as men at their best."
In football, dominance, competition, leading other men—these ancient traits are on full display, and Favre is king.
"He is our ultimate male," Hartmann says, "The alpha dog."
Favre's story is the classic hero myth: The son of a football coach from Kiln, Mississippi, he grew up hunting and fishing between football games played with his brothers in the backyard. The kid could throw, but his team had good running backs and his dad emphasized hand-offs—so young Brett learned the value of teamwork.
When it came time to go to college, Favre's arm was an unknown commodity, so underrated that Southern Mississippi was the only school to offer a scholarship. He was recruited as a defensive back but wanted to play quarterback so badly that he rode the bench as a seventh-stringer.
One night, Favre and a buddy stayed up late downing 36 beers. He was so hung over the next day that he vomited during pregame warm-up. Coach put him in during the third quarter, and the passes started flying—really flying. Favre threw two touchdowns and led his team to a come-from-behind victory over Tulane. He became a starter.
During his senior year, Favre flipped his car and nearly died. Doctors removed 30 inches of his small intestine. Five weeks after being sewn up, Favre led his team to another comeback victory against Alabama.
The Atlanta Falcons picked Favre in the second round of the 1991 NFL draft—the 33rd overall pick. The Falcons coach said at the time that it would take a plane crash to put Favre in the game. And he nearly kept his word—Favre was listed as third string and rarely played. He attempted only four passes and completed none.
In the offseason, Green Bay Packers GM Ron Wolf traded a first-round pick for Favre, whom he'd wanted to draft the year before. In his subsequent physical, Favre was diagnosed with the same condition that ended Bo Jackson's career: avascular necrosis of the hip. A doctor recommended failing Favre, which would have invalidated the trade. But Wolf believed in Favre. He got a second opinion.
At the time Favre signed with the team, the Packers hadn't won more than five games in a row since 1965. With Favre, the team started to win. He was wild and undisciplined but oh, was he ambitious. "I want to be known as the greatest quarterback who ever played," he told Pete Dougherty, a reporter for the Green Bay Press Gazette.
True to his word, in 1997 Favre led the Packers into Superbowl XXXI against the New England Patriots. The media focus on him was intense: Reporters visited his hometown and learned that his family dog had been eaten by an alligator, that he'd preferred to sleep on top of the sheets rather than make his bed, and that Favre's farts "could bring tears to your eyes," according to his college roommate.
Days before the game, Favre was under the sheets in his hotel room, shivering with a 101-degree fever.
"I was worried," he would later say. "I'd waited my whole life to play in this game, and now I wasn't going to be healthy."
Favre dry-heaved throughout the game, but his head was clear enough to make smart calls. Twice, he detected the defense's strategy and made split-second changes at the line of scrimmage that resulted in touchdowns.
The Packers won 35-21. Favre passed 27 times, completing 14 for 246 yards. He became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl with three touchdowns—two throwing, one rushing—and not be named Super Bowl MVP. That title went to teammate Desmond Howard, who returned a kick for a 99-yard touchdown and became the first special teams player to earn the honor.
Favre's joie de vivre was readily apparent to anyone who watched him play. Take, for example, the time Tampa Bay defensive end Regan Upshaw rammed his helmet into the middle of Favre's back and folded him like a paper clip. Favre popped right back up, slapped Upshaw on the helmet, and screamed, "Good hit!"
Favre was not without flaws—he drank too much, got hooked on painkillers, and went to rehab. But none of it could tarnish him in the public eye.
"People in Green Bay really liked his relatability," Steinfeldt says. "He's this person with these superhuman talents, yet he's a little bit flawed."
His back story helped people relate. When the Packers unsuccessfully tried to sign wide receiver Andre Rison, Favre said the team could do just fine without him. "Well, that hillbilly doesn't know anything," Rison responded, according to Dougherty, the sports reporter. When word got back to Favre, he stayed cool: "Well, he's right. I am a hillbilly."
On December 21, 2003—the night before a game against Oakland—Favre's father died. No one expected Favre to play the next day, but he did. More than that, he threw four touchdown passes, leading the Packers to a 41-7 victory. Even the Raider Nation cheered Favre's heroic performance.
Favre played 16 seasons in Green Bay. He started every game after September 20, 1992. He racked up three Associated Press MVP awards and led his team to seven division championships and two Super Bowls.
His performance declined in 2005 and 2006, and Favre was flirting with retirement. Each season, he would take weeks or even months to decide, as fans hung on his every word.
When the Green Bay head-coaching job came up in 2005, Favre was upset that his friend Steve Mariucci didn't get the gig. He also felt betrayed when the team drafted QB Aaron Rodgers over Favre's choice of a new offensive lineman. Then Favre wanted the Packers to sign wide receiver Randy Moss. Instead, Moss signed with the New England Patriots and helped take them to the Super Bowl.
"So that was kind of the final straw," says Ross Bernstein, author of the recently published flip book I Love Brett Favre-I Hate Brett Favre.
Even without Moss, 2007 was Favre's milestone year. At 38, he surpassed some of football's towering greats, beating John Elway's record for most wins with 149 and Dan Marino's record with 421 touchdown passes. Favre also became the third quarterback—along with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning—to beat all 31 other NFL teams. He led the Packers to a 13-3 regular-season record, losing the NFC championship game to the New York Giants—the eventual Super Bowl winners. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the 10th time in his career, but an ankle injury forced him to withdraw.
On March 4, 2008, Favre announced his retirement. He was dressed uncharacteristically formally for the occasion, in a button-down Oxford shirt.
Five seconds into his speech, he stopped, shook his head, and blew out his breath.
"I promised I wouldn't get emotional," Favre said as tears streamed down his cheeks. "It was never about me. It was about everybody else. It just so happens that the position I played got most of the attention."
The Packers said they'd retire Favre's No. 4 jersey, but that plan quickly evaporated a few months later when he told Green Bay he didn't want to stay retired. He wanted his job back.
By then, Aaron Rodgers was already in the quarterback slot. A talented young buck who'd dutifully ridden the bench for three years in Favre's shadow, Rodgers had been so highly touted that many expected him to be the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. He ended up 24th—still a first-round choice, and only the second quarterback to be drafted that year. Rodgers was the future of the franchise. Once Favre rode off into the sunset, it was supposed to be his turn to shine.
Green Bay management split the baby and told Favre he could come to training camp and compete for his job. Nothing could have been more insulting.
Favre asked to be released instead. On July 14, 2008, he spoke publicly about the situation for the first time on Fox News' On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. The interview got top billing over then-presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain.
"I am guilty of retiring early," Favre told Van Susteren.
The public spat wasn't pretty—Favre was criticized for waffling and then whining.
The Packers refused to release Favre, instead trading him to the New York Jets. In New York, Favre started the season well but finished poorly. In the last five games, he threw eight interceptions and only two touchdowns. The Jets lost four of their last five.
After it was all over, word leaked that Favre had been suffering from a torn biceps tendon during his decline. The team was fined $125,000 for hiding the injury. On February 11, 2009, Favre again retired, saying his arm was no good anymore. This time, everyone thought it was final.
On August 18, Favre boarded a plane in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and flew to St. Paul, Minnesota. Vikings Coach Brad Childress met him at the airport and personally drove him to the team's Winter Park training facilities in Eden Prairie. A news chopper hovered overhead.
In a surprise move, Favre signed with the Vikings, the hated rival of the very team that had told him he was no longer their hero. Favre would have his revenge.
On September 13, Favre donned a purple jersey in Cleveland to play for the first time as a Viking. After he passed a six-yarder to receiver Percy Harvin and gave the rookie his first NFL touchdown, Favre sprinted into the end zone and tackled him in a fit of joy.
Favre's season with the Vikings has been like that. The team is 11-3, and Favre's performance has been legendary. Twelve games in, he'd given up only three interceptions.
"I think this has been one of his best years," says tight end Visanthe Shiancoe, 29. "It's like being seasoned—the age isn't really about age." After the Vikings recently trounced the Cincinnati Bengals 30-10, Favre was asked whether his middle-aged body could hold up in the postseason.
"I don't feel like I'm falling apart in December like most people seem to think," Favre said. "I feel fine. I don't feel much different than most guys in that locker room at this stage of the season. In fact, I may be better off."
On a recent weekday afternoon, 24-year-old Vikings center John Sullivan is answering questions about what it's like to play with Favre.
"Brett's a legend," a reporter says. "I know you guys don't get starry-eyed, but are you going to say to your kids some day, 'I snapped the ball to that guy?'" "Yeah, you know," Sullivan says, "I mean everybody keeps track of the Hall-of-Famers they play with."
The quarterback himself is nowhere to be seen—he was famously accessible in Green Bay, but makes himself scarce in the Minnesota locker room when reporters appear. Still, tributes to his leadership are on each of his teammates' lips.
"He's done so much for us, especially myself, the rest of the receivers," says wide receiver Sidney Rice, who has flourished under Favre. "Just spreading the ball around and bringing that type of attitude to the team. Lets us win and have fun at the same time, so it's good for everyone around."
"He has brought a calm to the team," says kicker Ryan Longwell, who also played with Favre in Green Bay. "He is a prankster and a jokester and a great fit in the locker room. But the calm he has brought in all situations—you can especially see it on game day."
Off the field in Minnesota, Favre says during one of his weekly press conferences, he hasn't been out much.
"We have been to a few movies," Favre offers. "We actually went to see Grease a couple of weeks ago. And we went and saw Miley Cyrus a while back." He pauses, a hint of a grin dancing across his face, and raises his hands in a bemused shrug. "Which is a lot of stuff I just told you," he says. He looks down and smiles again, as the reporters chuckle. "A lot of stuff."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.