For Love of the Game
JACKSON, Miss. — He hurried from the coaches’ box to the stadium elevator holding a piece of pepperoni pizza in his right hand, the first thing he’d eaten in two days other than some Pedialyte. Brett Favre had a bad case of the flu, and it didn’t help that it was 35 degrees outside. But we all know this about Favre: He answers the call of football, and last Friday night, that call was the Class 6A Mississippi high school state championship game.
Oak Grove and Tupelo were scoreless at the half when Favre, Oak Grove’s offensive coordinator, hustled down to the locker room to deliver a pep talk. A stadium staffer offered him a ride after he stepped off the elevator. No, Favre said. He preferred to jog, and he took off running.
“Look, I know what it’s like to be in a championship game,” Favre told the players. “I know what you’re feeling.”
They had 24 minutes left in their season, and for many of the seniors, their football careers. For Favre, this was one more night he could still hold onto the game.
The future Hall of Famer had spent the last several summers of his 20-year NFL career working out at Oak Grove, a convenient basecamp near his home in Hattiesburg as he notoriously cycled between retirement and un-retirement. He once broke an assistant coach’s finger with a zinger of a throw; sometimes Favre was joined by Steve McNair when McNair’s son played for Oak Grove. Where else could you find two NFL quarterbacks throwing route trees to high school receivers? It was Favre’s way of giving back while also staying in shape.
Since last fall, Oak Grove has offered something to Favre: a way back into the weekly routine that defined most of his life. “I really didn’t need it,” says Favre, his blooming gray beard making it seem as if all those sacks have actually aged him beyond his 44 years. “But if I was going to do it, I was going to be all in.” He’s been at practice every weekday from 2 to 5 p.m., at games on Friday nights and in Sunday film sessions after church. Only one or two of his players teased him when reports surfaced in October about the Rams’ reaching out to Favre regarding another comeback. “They know I’m not coming back,” he says.
Favre doesn’t feel anywhere near the same stress coaching as he did starting 298 games in the NFL. “That’s one of the reasons I quit playing,” he says. “The stress to perform at a high level week in and week out.” You’d believe him, if not for his sprinting down the bleachers at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in the third quarter, flu and all, refusing to let a malfunctioning headset interrupt his play-calling.
Plus, Oak Grove had won six state championships within the last school year, even one in archery. But it had never taken home a state title in football. It was also a missing honor for Favre, who “didn’t even come close” to a championship while running his dad’s wishbone offense at Hancock North Central in Kiln, Miss.
Until he sprinted down the bleachers like an undrafted free agent hoping to make a practice squad, Favre lorded over Oak Grove’s offense from a cramped booth high above the field. He worked off memory, not a play sheet, sounding like an excited kid ordering ice cream as he urgently sent in play calls. Let’s go, uh… let’s go, uh … let’s go Bull! Bull, bull, bull! Then he watched to see if his quarterback, senior Kirk McCarty (picture atop page), would make the play work. Favre’s eager cheers could be heard from behind the booth’s closed door: There he is! He’s open!
I can’t say it’s the Super Bowl,” Favre said of the Class 6A title game, “but it’s pretty close.
A lefty pitcher headed to Southern Mississippi on a baseball scholarship, McCarty gushes about Favre’s having taught him everything he knows about playing quarterback. “He played so tough, and he’s kind of brought that out in me,” McCarty says. “If we miss a block, well, you should have gotten the ball out earlier. If a receiver runs the wrong route, you should have thrown it somewhere else; you should have made a better read.” On Friday, Favre passed along wisdom about keeping hands warm on a bone-chilling night: make a fist around a heat packet and keep blowing on it.
Favre considers himself to be a low-key coach, which holds true until McCarty improvises and checks out of the play call. “Run the play I called!” Favre always bellows. Yes, Mike Holmgren, Favre sees the irony. “I realize how much of a pain I was [as a player], thinking I knew it all,” the gunslinger admits. “Of course, I still think I knew it all. But all the things the coaches said to me, I’ve said the same thing: Don’t force it into coverage, take what they give you, keep it simple.”
Oak Grove runs an up-tempo spread offense that head coach Nevil Barr installed 13 years ago. “Totally foreign” says Favre, a West Coast aficionado who still made his mark as a volunteer coach. He changed the terminology, converting strings of numbers into play calls that are just a word or two, to make the tempo faster. Under Favre’s tutelage, McCarty threw for 44 touchdowns and more than 4,000 yards this season.
The Warriors’ offense was the best in Mississippi, but Tupelo had the state’s best defense, leading to the halftime stalemate. Coming out of the break, Favre mixed it up and ran the ball, going back to the same simple draw play as long as it worked. Oak Grove then scored a 5-yard touchdown, on a play called “Race,” when McCarty lofted the ball toward the back pylon and the receiver outran his defender for a 7-0 lead.
A few minutes later, Favre was racing down to the field—“The sensors went out!” he explained, bursting out of the coaches’ booth—and made it to the sideline in time for the next offensive series. He sprinted back up at the start of the fourth quarter, when the headsets were working again, and then back down again for the final seconds of the game.
Favre stands out more than he’d like. Packers fans, including one couple celebrating its 50th anniversary, have shown up at Oak Grove practices. He chooses his spots carefully, opting not to attend the team’s march through the school hallways on Friday afternoons. Nor does he ride the team bus. He was assigned a state trooper for security last Friday night, but the officer eventually drifted away, letting Favre be like any other high school coach trying to help his team win.
They did win. Final score: Oak Grove 14, Tupelo 7. The game-winning touchdown was a play for which Favre made sure not to take any credit. Special teams coach Bobby DeLeon was behind the gutsy fake field goal, on which McCarty, also the holder, threw to a receiver who lined up uncovered on the outside of the formation. Favre celebrated like a high school kid, leaping on top of at least two other coaches.
“I can’t say it’s the Super Bowl, but it’s pretty close,” Favre would later say. You could see what he meant by the way he proudly embraced the heads of the jubilant teens surrounding him.