Up Close with Brett Favre
Of all the deserving inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, there is one whose career intersected mine for nine years. I have so many memories of Brett Favre not only for his exploits on the field, but also for the person he was off the field. Here are some up close and personal thoughts on a comedian from southern Mississippi who happened to be a pretty good football player to boot.
Rock star in the Hinterland
By the time I arrived in Green Bay in 1999, Brett had already won three MVPs and his stardom was well-established. Knowing of him as a household name in sports from afar was one thing; seeing it firsthand was something to behold.
Wherever we traveled there were lines of people straining to get a glimpse of Brett, who always wore a T-shirt, faded jeans and a baseball cap. (I can’t imagine Brett and a dress code.) And when I traveled separate from the team and told people I lived in Green Bay, there were two universal reactions: (1) “Brrr,” and (2) “Really, have you ever met Brett Favre?” Whoever the “it” star in the NFL is today, Brett was that guy—pre-social media—10-15 years ago. As the signature player for a legacy franchise he moved the needle locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. There were times I would just watch people as they got a glimpse of Brett or even got to interact with him. Their beaming faces remained long after Brett moved on.
Despite the adulation, Brett could sometimes display a naive innocence about what the fuss was all about. I remember one afternoon when we were sitting alone in the locker room and he thanked me for being so nice and accommodating to his agent and best friend, Bus Cook. (Bus is a good friend of mine as well.) I just looked at him and said, Brett, you’re pretty important around here. We enjoy having Bus around, but your agent could be Charles Manson and we’d treat him well too. He then looked at me like I had three eyes, not really sure what to say, responding, Well alright then.
Speaking of Bus, he and Brett were (and still are) a successful business partnership disguised as a comedy act. They were full of off-color jokes and one-liners that would regularly have coaches, players and staff cracking up and gasping for air. When it came to business, though, they sandbagged their counterparts—Bus using the “I’m just a country lawyer” card; Brett playing the hayseed—while slyly making shrewd and favorable deals.
The largest contract negotiation I ever did was Brett’s $100 million-plus deal, a deal stressful not for its amount (although that certainly was staggering to write) but for its implementation. At the time we were right up against the Cap with other players lined up to extend. I pleaded with the others’ agents to be patient, as we needed Brett’s deal to get done to align our Cap. Although Bus and I had largely agreed on the parameters, Brett was hard to find, off in the woods hunting, fishing or golfing somewhere. There were some harrowing moments as the Cap deadline approached and our impending free agents were close to leaving before Brett finally (and perhaps strategically) focused on the deal. And when he did, the key for him was not so much the number, but rather the importance of making more than “those guys,” which, at the time, were players such as Drew Bledsoe, Steve McNair and Troy Aikman.
Speaking of Aikman, Brett was a well-known favorite of national television commentators, and with good reason. When we traveled, the production crew of the network covering the game would request meetings with the usual suspects: our coach, a couple of key players and, of course, Brett. Since Brett could not leave the hotel due to his celebrity, he would always come in last to the production meeting and end up just hanging out talking about football and life for hours with guys like Aikman, John Madden, Phil Simms, Matt Millen, Dan Fouts and more. I remember walking by these meetings seeing producers and directors looking at their watches and packing up to try to make their dinner reservations while Brett went on about his Uncle Rube or some other character in his life. (I smiled during one broadcast when John Madden, filling time in a blowout victory, talked about Brett’s Uncle Rube, who I’m sure he heard all about the day before.)
Brett also was popular for his press conferences, which went longer and usually were without the common clichés, even opening up at times about the team and his feelings. And Brett had an innocuous way of criticizing other players and coaches that few picked up on, with comments like “I’m not saying he ran the wrong route, but…” which, of course, meant “He ran the wrong route.”
Our public relations staff would always implore media, especially the national media, to spend more time on the rest of the team and not focus so much on Brett. But he was like a shiny object; the media couldn’t turn away.
There are some people you meet in life who genuinely are just fun to be around; Brett is one of those people. Here are just a couple small examples. He and sidekick Frank Winters would reprise the same joke on every team flight as they did their crossword puzzles, with Frank yelling out “Hey Brett, how do you spell Mississippi?” and Brett responding “The river or the state?” I remember a time I wore a suede jacket to a game that caught his attention. He ran up to me on the field during warmups and said “Andrew, sweet jacket! What is it made of?” Before I could answer, he rubbed his hands all up and down my back and said “Felt” and ran away. He had a way of defusing every situation with humor.
One thing I always admired about Brett, throughout all the changes in our management teams and coaching staffs—I was there for three of each in my nine years—was his devotion and friendship to the “backroom guys.” He was in his element and most comfortable just hanging out with our employees in security, maintenance, equipment, training, facility management, etc. And I know how much they deeply appreciated him and everything he did—and still does without fanfare—for them. Interestingly, when Brett came back to the team during the messy divorce days in the summer of 2008, he avoided the coaches and management and went right to the bowels of Lambeau Field to greet these guys. As one of them told me, “We all cried together, we cared so deeply about him.”
Durability and availability
Brett’s extraordinary availability and durability was invaluable to us in the front office, far beyond his exhilarating skills. His reliability allowed us to focus player acquisition on other positions, never worrying about the most important position on the field. (We joked that we could carry just one quarterback on the roster with him on the team. Brett played through injury, illness and, of course, his father’s death. He just always played.
I will never forget the game where Brett stayed on the ground after a fierce sack by LaVar Arrington in a game against Washington. The crowd gasped, you could have heard a pin drop at Lambeau; it was as if the President was shot. As it turned out, Brett had torn his LCL—rather than the more worrisome PCL or, of course, ACL—and as luck would have it, we had a bye the next week and he never missed a start. Even more memorable was our doctors’ reaction after reading the MRI of Brett’s knee that week. They shook their head at the image: his ligaments and tendons were pristine, devoid of any of the usual damage to longtime veteran NFL players. He was a physical marvel.
Brett was well aware of how he got the job of starting quarterback for the Packers; the guy in front of him—Don Majkowski—got hurt, Brett took the job and never let go. Knowing that, he had a certain fear of being on the other side of that, a Wally Pipp Syndrome that many players have. I saw it first as agent for Matt Hasselbeck, who earned the nickname “Mr. August” for his preseason success, and later when we drafted Aaron Rodgers. Brett was neither mean nor aloof to either of these guys (the Rodgers relationship was not as frosty as advertised); he just wanted to protect his turf as long as he could.
Like so many, fear of failure drove Brett. I’ll never forget one time seeing him at the facility on Labor Day weekend, that time of year where we (ironically) reduced the labor force. Since Brett was the king of practical jokes, I thought I would try one on him. I looked at him and said, with as straight a face as I could, that I was sorry but that we were releasing him. He stopped and stared at me, neither smiling nor laughing nor smirking. Nothing. Now I was scared, and started to laugh; he told me in no uncertain terms not to do that to him again. I remember walking away thinking this was the signature player of the franchise, a future Hall of Fame player at the top of his game, and he thought I was serious? Wow.
Spirit in Oakland
Leaving frigid Green Bay in December, it was a welcome road trip to play the Raiders late in the 2003 season, and we took an extra day in the Bay Area. I was sitting in our iconic hotel, the Claremont, watching Sunday afternoon football when Bus called. He usually started every call with a joke (mostly dirty ones) but this time he was very different. “We gotta find Brett,” Bus said in a panicked voice, “Irv died.” My heart sank, as I knew what a major presence in Brett’s life that his father was, as well as a favorite of so many around the team.
The players were off until later that evening, but we found out that Brett was out golfing (without his phone of course) in his regular threesome of Doug Pederson and Ryan Longwell. We reached Doug and he handed the phone to Brett, where Brett’s wife Deanna gave him the news. They returned to the hotel; Brett was sad but immediately clear that he was going to play. He addressed the team and talked about his father and how he would have wanted Brett to play and not let his teammates down. There was not a dry eye in that room. And Brett played magically that next night, with an energy in the air that night in Oakland that seemed, well, spiritual.
Later that week a group of us flew down to Mississippi for Irvin’s funeral, where I saw a side of Brett I had not seen. No longer was he the superstar quarterback; he was simply a member of the community: a son, a brother, a father and a friend. It was at that moment I realized why he was so quick to return to Hattiesburg every chance he got (and why he is so reluctant to leave there now); he was just Brett, one of the Favre boys, no more and no less.
In the offseason before 2008, Brett had been courted to return by our coaches and management, often including visits to Mississippi imploring him to return. However, after a home loss to the Giants in the 2008 NFC Championship Game, the message was different. Rather than “we really want you back,” it was now “we’ll let you decide,” with the caveat that an answer was needed prior to the new league year and free agency in March. Brett, sensing indifference and a lack of warmth from management compared to what he had been accustomed to under previous regimes, decided to take what he thought was a hint and (tearfully) retired. And, as could have easily been predicted, his mind would change.
I remember that day—June 20, 2008—when, while hiking in Oregon, I received calls from both Brett’s camp and Packers’ representatives, with both sides venting after a highly emotional conference call where Mike McCarthy had told Brett three stinging words: “We’ve moved on.” Those three words then started a process resembling a divorce proceeding: failed negotiations towards an amicable resolution, lashing out, showing up unannounced at the workplace, etc. As all things, time has healed the wounds but it got really bitter for a bit.
A guy like us
In my nine years around him, I witnessed breathless chatter about almost anything associated with Brett: his games played streak, his playing through injury and pain, whether he would retire or not, fawning praise for his heroics, biting criticism for his interceptions, etc. Beyond the noise and behind the stardom, however, I saw a regular guy—or as close to regular as one could be in that spotlight—with the same insecurities and frailties that we all have.
He was, on the one hand, a guy’s guy—burping and farting on cue—but also a sensitive friend, doting father and a caring husband to Deanna, a true gem of a woman he has known his entire life. He understood the magnitude of what he brought to the franchise yet he was largely unaffected by it. He loved being around people and bristled about being alone yet opened up to only a select few. He had a history with alcohol and an addition to painkillers before I arrived, yet what I saw was a boring dad who was in the facility at all hours, sometimes with his daughter and even his dog. And although once a reluctant participant in the weight room, he became an avid workout fanatic and student of proper nutrition and conditioning.
Now in retirement, he appears to be doing what we all want to do: whatever he finds interesting and fulfilling. He works out with Deanna and supports her in triathlons, he makes limited media appearances and does a few selective endorsements that don’t require much travel or meet-and-greets. As it now seems natural, he is just living the life of that guy from Hattiesburg who I saw at his father’s funeral.
As he now enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame after years of making life good for Packer fans far and wide, life is deservedly good for Brett Favre.
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