SI Vault
December 10, 2007
The Packers' iron man is, at 38, enjoying one of his finest NFL seasons. His passing is more precise, his leadership more evident than ever, but his greatest attribute is the devotion he inspires in those he touches—and his dedication to making their lives better
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December 10, 2007

Brett Favre: Sportsman Of The Year

The Packers' iron man is, at 38, enjoying one of his finest NFL seasons. His passing is more precise, his leadership more evident than ever, but his greatest attribute is the devotion he inspires in those he touches—and his dedication to making their lives better

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Over the last decade the foundation has given out $4 million to dozens of charitable organizations, focusing its efforts on the kind of kids who remind Favre of Ronnie Hebert. One recent beneficiary was the Miracle League of Green Bay, to which Favre donated $100,000 to help build a baseball facility with a specialized wheelchair-friendly artificial surface. In addition to the field, Favre's money went toward a high-end public-address system and the retrofitting of the playground equipment to make it more accessible to those with disabilities. "These kids always had to sit and watch before," says Bruce Willems, whose 16-year-old daughter, Kyla, is a regular in the Miracle League. "Now they get to play, and you can't believe what it is does for their self-esteem."

In fact, some of the kids have developed big league attitude. Eleven-year-old Jacob Van Den Berg "won't go to bat until his name is announced on the P.A. system," says his father, Jeff. "The fact that Brett Favre helped build this place, that's a big deal to him."

Kids like Kyla and Jacob are kindred spirits with the children of Kiln's Gaits to Success, which provides therapeutic horseback riding for the disabled. With a stable of horses and 10 lush acres, it is not an inexpensive operation, and Carolyn Rhodes, the program's director, says simply, "Without Brett, we would not exist."

The link between Kiln and Green Bay became more explicit after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi coast in 2005. Bonita's house was flooded by the storm surge and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. (Since 1997, Brett and Deanna have spent their off-seasons in Hattiesburg, Miss., 70 miles inland, and their house was unaffected.) In the aftermath of the storm, Favre used a couple of Packers press conferences to appeal for help for his home state. An account was set up in Green Bay for contributions, and within eight weeks upwards of a million dollars had poured in. Says Mike Daniels, president of Nicolet Bank, which administered the account, "We had packages arriving full of change, with letters in crayon that said, 'Dear Mr. Favre, this is from my piggybank. Your friends need it more than I do.'"

The Door County Gulf Coast Relief Fund was also born in the wake of Katrina, though its roots could be traced to Super Bowl XXXI, when the Packers beat the New England Patriots at the Superdome in New Orleans, about an hour's drive from Kiln. During the week of the game, many of the Green Bay faithful made the pilgrimage to Favre's boyhood home, and the Broke Spoke, Kiln's main bar, became a sort of down-market Graceland. It was there that Pete D'Amico of Green Bay first met Big Irv, and a long-standing kinship with Kiln was born. Three days after Katrina struck land, D'Amico and his friend Tony Anheuser were in a borrowed truck, making the 22-hour drive to Mississippi, packing donated clothes, food, water and a couple of hundred steaks, which they cooked up every night in front of the Broke Spoke and handed out to whoever was hungry.

Since then, the relief efforts have continued to grow in scope; Green Bay volunteers—electricians, roofers and other skilled tradesmen in strong demand on the Gulf Coast—have made more than 20 trips to Kiln to help rebuild damaged homes. Just this October, during the Packers' bye week, 26 Cheeseheads traveled to Kiln. "My whole life has become about giving back the blessings I've been given," says the 66-year-old Anheuser, a retired home-furnishings retailer. "It's through Brett and the connection we have to Kiln that I've found my purpose."

WHEN FAVRE hears these stories, he can only shake his head. "It's pretty hard to fathom," he says of his impact. But he does much more than just raise money and inspire others from afar. At a fund-raiser for Green Bay's Brian LaViolette Scholarship Foundation, Favre came on stage to play drums with the house band. "When that happened, a bunch of us old ladies in the crowd started screaming," says Sue LeTourneau, who helps run the scholarship program named for her late nephew, who died in a swimming accident.

Many athletes give time to the Make-A-Wish Foundation; for Favre it's a regular part of his workweek. So strong is the demand to meet the Packers' quarterback among Make-A-Wish kids with life-threatening medical conditions that Favre schedules a visit nearly every Friday when the Packers are not playing an away game. "It's an honor to be asked," he says, "but I'm not going to lie—it's hard. There are times when it takes a lot out of me. These kids are so cool, but you can't ignore what they're up against and what their families are going through."

In September 2004 Favre met with a six-year-old from Neenah, Wis., named Anna Walentowski. She was suffering from Alexander disease, an extremely rare type of the degenerative brain disorder called leukodystrophy, for which there is no known cure. By the time her visit was arranged, Anna was on a feeding tube for 20 hours a day. In the preceding months she had repeatedly been rushed to the hospital with spasms of her upper respiratory system, which made breathing nearly impossible. "It was a dark, dark time in our lives," says Anna's father, Jeff. "Our little girl was deteriorating pretty rapidly."

Anna's parents feared she would not be strong enough to make the trip to the Packers' practice facility, but she rallied for the big day. Favre had recently been banged up, and the first thing the little pixie in a Packers cheerleading outfit said to him was, "How's your thumb?" The two bonded instantly. Anna's mother, Jennifer, remembers Favre giving her daughter hug after hug and gently helping Anna get in and out of her stroller, so the two could play catch with a Nerf football and later eat lunch with the team.

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