THERE IS NO HAPPIER PLACE than Green Bay, Wis., on a Sunday evening after the Packers have won. The beer tastes better, the girls are even prettier, and few seem to notice the bite in the air. In a town defined by its team, civic temperament can be quantified on a scoreboard. A few weeks ago, in the moments after the Packers had defeated the Carolina Panthers 31--17 at Lambeau Field, the parking lot was alive with merriment. Kids in number 4 jerseys and got brett? sweatshirts chased footballs with reckless abandon, tailgaters handed out bratwurst right off the grill, and one optimistic gent tried to sweet-talk the more attractive passersby into adding to the impressive collection of donated bras he had strung up on a flagpole.
The epicenter of Green Bay's game-day good cheer is adjacent to Lambeau, just across Holmgren Way, a block over from Lombardi Avenue: Brett Favre's Steakhouse, located at 1004 Brett Favre Pass. The restaurant ("Where you are the MVP!") is a 20,000-square-foot temple to the Packers' quarterback, and following the Panthers game Favre's extended family had gathered in a private back room for a celebration of its own.
Brett's wife, Deanna, was there, looking glamorous in a long coat and high-heeled boots. Even before her memoir about beating breast cancer hit The New York Times's best-seller list, she was the second-biggest celebrity in Green Bay. Favre's mother, Bonita, was holding court at one of the half-dozen tables, her throaty laugh audible over the din. Brett's sister, Brandi, was cooing over her newborn daughter, Myah, while his brothers, Scott and Jeff, were busy refereeing their young sons, who were creating a ruckus by playing tackle football with an empty water bottle. Also enjoying the spread of steak and crawfish and all the fixings were various cousins, neighbors and hangers-on. In this loud, lively gathering only one person was missing—the man for whom the restaurant and the street are named.
In his 16th winter in Green Bay, Favre has turned into Gatsby, throwing a party he no longer enjoys. While his family and friends were reliving every detail of his three-touchdown performance against Carolina, Favre was at home a couple of miles away, stretched out on his couch, watching that day's NFL highlights and cuddling with his lapdog, Charlie. By the ostentatious standards of modern-day celebrity, Favre's house is modest, but it suits him fine. On this Sunday evening it was dark and quiet, giving him some precious hours to decompress. There was a time when Favre never skipped a chance tocelebrate—"Hell, I always had to be the life of the party," he says—but now solitude is what he thirsts for.
"As I've gotten older, I've become more of a loner," Favre says. "You've just been out there in front of 80,000 screaming people, everyone watching every move you make, the pressure of all that—it's fine and dandy for three hours, but afterward...." Here Favre takes a big, billowing breath. "I used to thrive on that adrenaline. I never wanted it to end. Now I need to get back to reality. Like sitting on the couch with Charlie."
If Favre is weary, it's only because he has given so much of himself to Green Bay through the years. "He means everything to these people," says Donald Driver, who's in his ninth season catching Favre's passes. "He's not only our leader—he's the symbol of the franchise, of the whole town. There's a generation of fans in Green Bay who don't know this team ever existed without Brett."
When Favre decided to return for the 2007 season, even die-hard Cheeseheads must have been hoping only that he would not tarnish his legacy. What no one expected was that Favre would reinvent himself yet again, enjoying one of his best years at age 38 while cajoling a talented but callow team to a stunning 10--2 record. Along the way he passed two significant milestones for quarterbacks, overtaking Dan Marino atop the alltime list in touchdown passes (436 at week's end) and victories by a starter (157). He trails Marino by 449 in passing yards, another mark that should soon fall.
But one record above all others speaks to what Favre is made of: his Ripkenesque streak of consecutive starts at quarterback, which stands at 249—more than five seasons ahead of the next player on the list, Peyton Manning. During last week's 37--27 loss at Dallas, Favre was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, when on the same play he separated his left shoulder and took a helmet to his right elbow, causing numbness in two fingers on his throwing hand. Afterward, to no one's surprise, Favre said he expected he would not miss a game. He has rarely been flawless (after all, he leads the NFL in lifetime interceptions, with 283), but he's always shown up. Through pills and booze, through cancer and car crashes and heart attacks, he has played on. Once reckless on and off the field, Favre has matured before our eyes while never losing his boyish love for the game.
It is for his perseverance and his passion that SI honors Favre with the 54th Sportsman of the Year award. But there is more to his story than on-field heroics. On game day the whole of Green Bay may live and die on Favre's rocket right arm, but his greatest legacy lies in how many people he has touched between Sundays.
THE INTENSITY of Favre's relationship with the Packers faithful goes far beyond mere longevity. He arrived in Green Bay in 1992 through a trade with the Atlanta Falcons, and in the third game of the season came off the bench to lead a madcap comeback against the Cincinnati Bengals, throwing the winning touchdown with 13 seconds left. He has refused to leave the starting lineup ever since, harnessing his hair-on-fire style to win an unprecedented three MVP awards (1995, '96, '97) and lead Green Bay to a Super Bowl triumph following the 1996 season.