Sun Herald archives 1989: Longshot Heisman candidate has beaten greater odds

Brett Favre drops back in the pocket against Memphis State.
Brett Favre drops back in the pocket against Memphis State.

Editor’s note: This story originally was published Aug. 29, 1989, as part of the Sun Herald’s college football preview.

He is, of course, a local legend and the most popular player in South Mississippi.

But stray away from the piney woods that have hidden him from the national spotlight and you will find that Brett Favre is about as well known as your average 19th Century Russian poet.

Toiling for the University of Southern Mississippi, which has its own identity problems, Favre rates as one of the more unlikely candidates for the 1989 Heisman Trophy.

In a field of such well-publicized performers as Notre Dame’s Tony Rice, Florida’s Emmitt Smith, Indiana’s Anthony Thompson and West Virginia’s Major Harris, Favre’s prospects of being recognized as the finest college football player in the land seem, at best, far-fetched.

Oddsmakers don’t even list Favre as a candidate, primarily because they have never heard of him or the “Favre 4 Heisman” campaign that sprang to life after USM’s 10-2 season a year ago.

If this was 1988 instead of 1989, the junior quarterback from the tiny Hancock County community of Fenton would have been dismissed as a joke when Heisman voters discussed the race.

But when Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders defied the odds by walking off with the Heisman in ’88, it served as a reminder that the trophy can be won on the field.

Before Sanders won the Heisman, it was the general assumption that only the nation’s powerhouse programs, with all their money and national exposure, could wage a successful Heisman Trophy campaign.

“I think (Sanders’ Heisman) put some credibility back into the thing,” says OSU Sports Information Director Steve Buzzard, noting that the Cowboys thought so little of Sanders’ chances that the season was halfway over before OSU put together a “Sanders for Heisman” campaign.

“Barry finally proved that the Heisman voters do pay attention to what’s happening on the field. If the award is supposed to go to the best player in the country, the voters should look around.

“I hope that was the message Barry got out. There are a lot of good players around the country that nobody’s ever heard about.”

Such as Favre, who probably will own every meaningful passing record at USM as a teenager.

But even Favre has trouble swallowing the thought of winning the Heisman Trophy.

“If I was at UCLA or Notre Dame, everybody would know who I am,” says Favre, who will be four games into his junior season before turning 20 on Oct. 20. “But being at USM, you don’t get much publicity.”

Some say the lack of exposure renders Favre’s campaign meaningless, one that ended before it began.

But then, the critics didn’t know the incredible story of Brett Favre.

He’s a real nowhere man

Hancock County has a few small towns – Bay St. Louis and Waveland – but a lot of small communities.

One of those communities is Fenton, which sprang to life when a few gravel roads bumped into each other just outside of what is now Diamondhead.

Fenton is where Gulfport native Irvin Favre and his wife, Bonita, settled when Favre began his coaching career at Hancock North Central in the mid-1960s.

It was a good place to raise children, with plenty of fresh air to breathe and endless acres of deep, piney woods to explore.

So it came as no surprise when Brett Favre, the second of four Favre children, developed into a big, strapping, tough kid.

But for Izella French, Favre’s maternal grandmother, young Brett presented a paradox: The rough-and-tumble youngster showed a great aversion to anything associated with the outdoors.

“That’s what I remember most about him as a child,” says French. “He was always tough, always stronger than Scott (his older brother by three years). He was rough with Scott. Seemed like I was always setting his tail on fire for being so rough with him.

“You would think by that, that Brett would have been one of those kids that stayed outside from sun-up to sundown. But Brett didn’t like outside. Whenever there was work to do outside, he always told his daddy that he wanted to go to Memaw’s (Favre’s pet name for his grandmother). He knew he could always come to my house and watch TV all day long. I never saw anybody that liked TV so much, especially sports on TV. He knew all about every player in every sport, seemed like.”

Favre, who had accompanied his dad to coaches meetings since he earliest recollections, was particularly enamored or the pitchers and quarterbacks he watched on TV. And as he grew into the biggest kid in town, he soon exhibited the kind of arm strength that made him a feared Little League pitcher.

“He could bring it,” says his father. “But you never knew from one minute to the next where he was going to throw it. If he was on, he had almost perfect control. But if he was wild, you better be wearing two batters’ helmets when you stepped in against him.”

As imposing as he was on the pitching mound, Brett Favre’s greatest love was football.

Like most Coast kids, Favre grew up dreaming of playing quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

“Shoot, I think about that every day,” admits Favre. “Ever since I was a little kid, that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Against all odds

Simply playing at a small-town school such as Hancock North Central was the first obstacle Favre face in making a name for himself.

“It’s always been a basketball school,” says Coach Favre. “Wendell Ladner, (the late pro basketball star) played ball here and basketball had always been the sport at Hancock. Football was kind of like a stepsister to basketball. Nobody seemed to care very much.”

In itself, Favre’s high school would not be considered major obstacle to football success. Players from even smaller towns have gone on to glorious college and pro careers.

But location wasn’t the only stumbling block in Favre’s path.

He came down with mononucleosis and missed his entire sophomore season (“It nearly drove him crazy, not playing,” says his grandmother). And by the time Favre recovered and moved to the varsity as the starting quarterback his junior season, he inherited an offense built almost exclusively on the running game.

By his own estimation, Favre threw fewer than 150 passes during his high school career.

But Hancock enjoyed its greatest successes by running the football.

“I always knew Brett could throw the ball,” says his father. “But you stick with what works for you and our personnel was better geared to running the ball, even though Brett had a good arm.”

During Favre’s senior season, tailback Charles Burton was the Hawks’ star, with Favre playing a supporting role.

Burton, a 5-9, 180-pound speedster, rushed for more than 1,000 yards, while fullback Donald Vince added 600 rushing yards and Favre another 400.

“That’s 2,000 yards right there,” says the coach. “When you’re moving the ball on the ground like that, why other throwing the football?”

Brett had a reason, one he kept to himself.

“I understood why we ran the ball most of the time,” says Favre. “But I the back of my mind, I was saying, ‘Shoot, Dad, how am I ever going to get a scholarship if we run the ball every time?’ That’s what I was thinking about after almost every ballgame.

“If I had played in an offense where I got to throw the ball 30 times a game, I probably would have had college scouts all over me. I always dreamed of playing college and pro ball, but I didn’t see how I had much of a chance coming out of high school. I never accomplished much in high school. Nobody wanted me I college.”

Well, almost nobody.

Beating the bushes

“Not many coaches make recruiting trips to Kiln, Miss.,” says USM offensive line coach Mark McHale, referring to the location of Hancock North Central. “it’s out in the middle of nowhere, a place you don’t hear much about.”

But McHale, whose recruiting area is the Coast, kept hearing about a good “athlete-type” quarterback playing in the Kiln.

It was then that Favre’s luck began to change.

Chances are, had McHale shown up for the Hancock North Central-George County game midway through the first quarter, he would have driven back to Hattiesburg not impressed with the Hawks quarterback.

But McHale arrived early enough to catch Favre in pregame warmups.

“That was where Brett first made an impression,” McHale says. “I watched him warming up and I knew right then he had a big league arm. When the game started, (HNC) just ran the ball. But I liked what I had see I the pregame warmup. I figured I’d come back the next game. They still didn’t pass much, but I remember Brett throwing one beautiful pass. After that, my mind was made up. I knew he could play quarterback.”

But McHale was the only coach on the USM staff with that opinion.

“Like most schools, we have meetings where we talk about prospects,” McHale says. “We’ll sit around and talk about players and watch film on them. Well, there wasn’t much to see of Favre the quarterback on film. They didn’t film the warmup and that’s when Brett did all his throwing.”

What did stick with the UMS coaches was Favre’s style of play. The rough-and-tumble kid who pummeled his older brother as a child was a head-hunting terror at defensive back.

“When I put Brett up on the board the first time, I wrote ‘quarterback’ by his name. All of the coaches but me passed him over. The next time, out by where I listed him at quarterback, I added ‘strong safety.’ ”

The USM coaching staff liked that idea.

Five days before signing day in 1987, USM offered Favre a scholarship.

Favre, who had written off USM and was deliberating between Division II schools Delta State and Mississippi College, grabbed USM’s offer.

USM had just found the best passer in school history, but it took awhile for even the USM coaches to realize that.

Brett Favre, strong safety

When Favre arrived at the USM campus in Hattiesburg I August 1986, he did so armed with a promise from McHale. Favre would get a shot at quarterback.

But early in preseason training, it was apparent that Favre’s work at the position would be little more than obligatory.

Working primarily as a strong safety, Favre took a few snaps at quarterback and was listed on the depth chart at the position: the No. 6 quaterback on a six-quarterback roster.

“I remember thinking, ‘Shoot, I’ll probably be a defensive player,’ “ Favre says. “But deep down, I knew I could play quarterback.”

It was a belief shared by Irvin Favre, who often made the 45-minute trek to Hattiesburg to watch his son practice.

“When I first went up there, I really didn’t know how Brett would stack up to the other quarterbacks they had,” the elder Favre said. “But I knew their quarterback from the year before had graduated and none of the other quarterbacks had any more experience than Brett.”

After a few practices, the elder Favre reached a conclusion.

“I remember sitting in the stadium and watching all the quarterbacks. Brett was as good as any of ‘em. I never told the coaches that, of course, but I was convinced. I liked what I saw when Brett was in there. He was in control out there and the other players seemed to respond to his leadership.

“I got Brett out to the side and told him, ‘You keep working, Son. These other guys don’t have anything on you.’ ”

But Brett was more concerned about making the traveling squad as a strong safety than considering his standing among the USM quarterbacks.

“I remember talking to my roommate (Chris Ryals, now a starter at offensive tackle),” Favre says. “I said, ‘Chris, I just hope I can make the travel squad and get to be on the sidelines in some of these big games.’ ”

Favre, a 17-year-old true freshman, did make the traveling squad for the 1987 season. And how.

A star is born

Brett Favre happily accompanied the Golden Eagles to Birmingham for their season opener against Alabama. Even a 38-6 drubbing couldn’t negate Favre’s joy at making the traveling squad.

What Favre didn’t know was how USM coaches were evaluating their quarterbacks in the wake of the loss.

Unhappy with the quarterbacks they had used against the Tide, Favre’s name surfaced. It was then that USM coaches remembered how USM receivers complained that Favre hurt their hands with his bullets during preseason practices.

Hours before USM’s second game, a homestand against Tulane, Irvin Favre was hanging around the USM coaches’ dressing room. He had taken the entire Favre clan to the game, unaware of the drama that was about to unfold.

“I was just standing around, talking to some folks when an assistant coach came by,” recalls Favre. “He told me not to be surprised if Brett got in the game.

“I was totally shocked. I didn’t know what to say. At first I thought he was kidding. But he didn’t say it like it was a joke. It’s a strange feeling. I felt cold inside.”

USM and Tulane struggled on even terms through the midway point of the third quarter. The elder Favre had forgotten about the assistant coach’s prediction.

“I was talking to my brother-in-law when I heard this big roar go up in the crowd. I couldn’t figure out what had happened. The team wasn’t playing bad, but then, there did’t seem to be anything to get excited about.”

When Favre looked back to the field, he saw a player wearing the No. 4 jersey trotting out to the field.

“I can’t describe what it’s like,” says Coach Favre. “Here’s this 17-year-old, pigeon-toed kid out there playing against guys 21, 22 years old. I’ll never forget it, ever.”

USM fans aren’t likely to ever forget that September afternoon, either.

By the afternoon’s end, Brett Favre had thrown two touchdown passes and led USM to a 31-24 victory before his family and a delirious USM crowd.

Favre wasn’t sure what to make of his success.

“At the time, I really didn’t understand what had happened,” Favre says. “As I was coming off the field, I remember thinking that maybe it was just a fluke. I really couldn’t grasp what had happened.”

And the beat goes on

Since that memorable debut against Tulane, Favre has led USM to a 16-6 record heading into his junior season.

Last season, Favre guided the Golden Eagles to a 10-2 record that included an Independence Bowl victory over Texas-El Paso.

USM offensive coordinator Jeff Bower, who installed a more pass-oriented offense to better use Favre’s talents last season, won’t compare his quarterback with the other top quarterbacks in the country.

“I don’t want to get into comparisons, but I’m extremely impressed with Brett,” says Bower, himself a record-setting quarterback at USM. “What impressed me at first was his raw ability. He’s got tremendous ability, an outstanding arm.”

But it takes more than a strong arm to be the best quarterback in the country.

Favre, says Bower, is equally blessed in other areas.

“There are a lot of guys out there who can throw the ball through a brick wall,” Bower says. “But that doesn’t make them a great quarterback. What sets Brett apart is his knowledge of the game and his leadership.”

Favre, Hesiman Trophy winner?

It takes two things to win the Heisman Trophy.

First, the player needs national exposure. Then his team must win and win and win.

With a quarterback like Brett Favre in the lineup, USM has a chance to meet both requirements.

“Being at USM, you don’t get a lot of publicity,” Favre admits. “But we’ve got a chance to change that this year. We’re playing Florida State on national TV in our opener. That’s a big chance for us to show people around the country what kind of football we can play.”

Curley Hallman, the Golden Eagles’ second-year coach, calls USM “the best-kept secret in college football.”

And with Brett Favre at quarterback, there’s a good chance the secret will be shared with the nation’s college football fans.

Favre 4 Heisman? The mere mention of it is more than Favre can comprehend.

“I started out just hoping to make the traveling squad as a defensive player,” says Favre, shaking his head in wonder. “Now, here I am just 200 or so yards from becoming, probably, before I’m 20 years old, the all-time leading passer in school history.

“When I sit down and think about the Heisman Trophy and everything that’s happened to me, I just can’t believe it’s true.”

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