GREEN BAY, Wis. – Brett Favre was equal parts desperado and virtuoso during his 20-year NFL career that was predicated on taking big risks in the game’s biggest moments.
That style never paid off more handsomely than when he hit Andre Rison with a long TD toss on an audible that kick-started his lone Super Bowl victory. And it never backfired so spectacularly as when he threw careless, late interceptions in two NFC championships.
Favre’s unorthodox style made for one of the most exciting, colorful careers the league has seen.
“Brett Favre’s in the top-5 as far as the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game,” suggested Hall of Famer John Elway, who led Denver past Favre’s Packers for the first of his two Super Bowl triumphs in the late 1990s. “He was a gunslinger and he wasn’t afraid to fail. That’s what made him great.”
It’s what landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the headliner next weekend of a class that includes Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel, Ed DeBartolo Jr., Tony Dungy, Kevin Green, Marvin Harrison and Orlando Pace.
Those who cringed as Favre threw off his back foot or across his body to well-covered receivers labeled him a riverboat gambler. His coaches, especially Mike Holmgren, walked a fine line trying to curb his gaffes without cropping his greatness.
The punctilious Peyton Manning would break many of his NFL records after Favre’s retirement in 2011, but Favre still has the longest consecutive starts streak as well as records for most completions, attempts – and interceptions – while ranking second to Manning in TD throws and passing yards.
Former Packers safety LeRoy Butler said Green Bay’s defense takes the bulk of the blame for the 286 passes picked off during Favre’s time in Green Bay “because we told him, ‘Be yourself. We'll go get the ball back.’ When he did that, it was easy for his talent to take over.”
Showing up week after week, year after year, Favre piled up records and accolades. Yet, it was his unparalleled passion that set him apart.
“I can’t say that I was the best passer. I can’t say that I was the most mobile. I can’t say that I was the toughest. I can’t say all that,” Favre mused. “But what I can say is that I had the most fun. On and off the field, in the locker room and on the bus rides to the stadium, on the flights back.”
He brought a child’s delight to the game, entertaining teammates on the sideline by imitating old-time announcers. He’d bounce up from a big hit, straighten his facemask and seek out the man who hit him to ask why he didn’t hit any harder.
“You could tell he enjoyed playing. He didn’t feel the pressure that a lot of other guys feel,” Elway said. “He wasn’t afraid to fail. He wasn’t afraid to make a mistake, and that’s why he made so many great plays. He also made some bad ones like playmakers all do, but he made a hell of a lot more great plays than he made bad ones.”
Favre was a world-class prankster who never let frivolity get in the way of work. He just always found a way to lower the pressure and lighten the mood.
With his Southern drawl and razor-sharp timing, Favre was part Huck Finn, part Kevin Hart. He was as wide-eyed when he left the league as he was when he entered it.
“I could not believe that they were paying me to do what I was doing,” Favre said. “There were guys that came in and seemed so miserable and I just could not figure it out. I always tried to do my best to keep it as lighthearted as possible.”
That style drove him out of Atlanta, where he showed up late for the team photo in 1991 before throwing just four passes as a rookie, none of which landed in his receivers’ hands and two of which were picked off.
Ron Wolf, enshrined in the Hall of Fame last summer, arrived in Green Bay in 1992 as its new general manager and his first order of business was trading a first-round pick to the Falcons for Favre.
In Week 3, Favre replaced an injured Don Majkowski with Green Bay trailing Cincinnati by two TDs and engineered his first comeback, rallying the Packers to a 24-23 win.
He never came off the bench again.
The following week he began a stretch of 297 consecutive starts, 321 counting playoffs, that didn’t end until Dec. 12, 2010, because of a shoulder injury in his final season, his second in Minnesota after a year with the Jets.
Through broken thumbs, concussions, torn biceps, twisted ankles, sprained knees and separated shoulders, he played. He even played one of his greatest games with a broken heart after his father, Irv, died of a heart attack in 2003.
A decade earlier, Holmgren was under pressure to bench Favre after a 3-4 start in 1994. Instead, he called him into his office and told him, “We’re joined at the hip. Either we’re going to the mountaintop together or we’re going to the trash heap together.”
They scaled that summit in 1996, when Favre, who overcame an addition to painkillers in the offseason, led the Packers to their first Super Bowl title in nearly three decades, 35-21 over New England.
He won his unprecedented third consecutive MVP award the following season, but Green Bay lost 31-24 to Denver in the Super Bowl.
His time with the Packers ended poorly. He announced his retirement during a tearful press conference in 2008, only to change his mind and force his way out in a trade to the Jets.
Favre’s storybook romance with Green Bay almost didn’t happen at all, though, because he flunked his physical when he arrived from Atlanta. Favre had gotten hurt in the East-West Shrine game his senior season and the devastating diagnosis was avascular necrosis, similar to what ended Bo Jackson’s career. When Wolf’s medical staff told him they didn’t know how long Favre could possibly play, he retorted, “I'll take whatever good years he can possibly give us.”
“And suddenly a losing franchise became a winning franchise,” Wolf said.
Favre said he owes a “forever payable” debt to Wolf.
“Boy,” Favre said, “what a gamble.”
What a jackpot, too.