'Dude, this is America': The man responsible for Favre's return

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With those four words, we've been told, retired Green Bay Packers center Frank Winters set in motion the runaway train that will bear down on the Metrodome tonight when his old buddy, Brett Favre, stares across the line at their old team for the first, improbable time.

Or maybe Winters only gave it a shove, since it's hard to imagine that Favre, owner and resident of the biggest waffle house in Hattiesburg, Miss., would have been as quick to heed his pal's advice had the burly snapper instead said, "Dude, give it up."

"I basically told Brett, the most important thing about his decision to come back was if he physically was able to compete for the next six months and complete the season,'' Winters said in a phone interview Monday morning. "If he could do that, then why not do that? You've got a right to work in this country and if someone is willing to pay you huge money, why not?''

Winters, 45, a native of Hoboken, N.J., was home in Overland Park, Kan., heading back Monday to his in-laws home of Chicago, and said he wasn't sure where he would be watching the game. But he'd already seen enough from the likes of Mark Schlereth, Solomon Wilcots and other former players who were or still are critical of Favre, the serial un-retirer, for allegedly putting his wants ahead of team unity and past allegiances. So I asked Winters how many of those guys, given the chance to play another year or three and earn an extra $10 million or $20 million, would do exactly what his pal has done.

"A hundred percent,'' said the veteran of 16 NFL seasons. "That's the problem. I watch TV and all these guys say, 'Just retire.' Look at the end of their careers -- how many of them had teams knocking on their door, offering them a bunch of money to come back and play? Probably zero. There are very few select people who have that opportunity. He has the God-given abilities to do that. The only other guys who come to my mind are John Elway, who probably could have kept on playing, and Barry Sanders.''

Never mind the skill positions -- it was Winters, mistaking Favre for a budding linebacker back in 1992, that soldered their friendship. They both had joined the Packers prior to the 1992 season, Favre in a trade from Atlanta, Winters as a Plan B free agent. At a Green Bay hotel, Winters took one look at the unknown quarterback's then-252 pounds and grizzly beard and, well, assumed.

From that point on, they were inseparable. From road roommates for 11 seasons to Winters' exit, through assorted nasty and hilarious practical jokes. From the highlight of both their playing careers -- the 35-21 victory over New England in Super Bowl XXXI in January 1997 -- through the sudden death of Winters' brother John (of a heart ailment at age 35) in the days between that game and Green Bay's NFC title game vs. Carolina two weeks earlier.

Winters, in other words, knows Favre as few others do. But when the others get a real inside glimpse -- as in last week's highlight of the quarterback completing a pass to Bernard Berrian, then sprinting downfield to throw a block into San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis -- Winters wonders how anyone can seriously question the man's motives in still playing, and coming back however many times he wants.

"Who goes around slapping his coach on the ass in a nationally televised game? Or the block? Or tackling his receiver in the end zone after the first touchdown?'' Winters said. "There aren't a lot of guys who could get away with that or would even intend to do that. It seems like he's a kid inside. Here's a guy who's played 18 years in the NFL and he's having fun doing it, and then you watch a kid who's played one or two years and he's moping on the sideline if things don't go well.

"Those young guys [in Minnesota] look at that and ... I bet they talked more about that block in meetings than they did the pass at the end of the game.''

You think? "Just amazing that he's been around for so long and been productive, and he hasn't lost his love for the game,'' Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson said. "I respect it more so because I play the game the same way, and I see guys right now, to this day, that don't play with that energy and that excitement and that love for the game. He's still playing with that passion. That definitely makes him who he is. Brett Favre. I love it.''

Schism, anyone?

Winters doesn't even buy the schism talk between Favre and his old teammates, much less his new ones. Or between Favre and his old fans. Denying revenge and extra adrenaline for this game and the Vikings-Packers clash on Nov. 1 at Lambeau Field is about as believable as Iran's nuclear shrugs, but Winters doesn't think the rush of those emotions is what drove Favre's latest return.

"Brett has nothing against the Packer fans or the Packers,'' he said. "He still has friends within the building that he talks to on a regular basis. He doesn't have any bones to pick with the Packers. It all stems from them wanting to go about their business their way, they wanted to use somebody else, and he went in another direction. When it's all said and done and he's enshrined in the Hall of Fame, he'll go in as a Packer. Deep down inside, he knows his career was great as a Packer. People, I think, should respect that. Maybe it didn't work out with a fairy-tale ending, but he gave them 16 great years and the Packers gave him 16 great years.''

Besides, there is a respect beneath the surface of any rancor from Wisconsin, right? It means Favre still is a threat and so is the team he plays for. "If he were broken-down and washed-up and the Vikings were maybe not very good and didn't have a great running back and a good defense, maybe it would be different,'' Winters said.

Or consider this alternative: Favre still is back home in Mississippi, a restless consultant to the teenaged gridders at Oak Grove High. It's Aaron Rodgers vs. Tarvaris Jackson at the Dome in Minneapolis. The Vikings are 2-1, just like the Packers, because there's no way Jackson finds Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone with two seconds left against the 49ers. Head coach Brad Childress' job already is on the line, media outlets running weekly Chilli-meter graphics on his job security. The Packers don't have the focus they'll bring into this meeting and the next, and the alumni of both franchises aren't hanging on the outcome of this game as if they were a bunch of old '72 Miami Dolphins. The Monday Night game is just a big, fat inconvenience for major league baseball, pushing the Tigers-at-Twins AL Central playoff game back a day for a much less compelling reason.

Someone saved us from that snoozy fate. Does Winters and his "Dude, this is America'' advice deserve the credit? Or, depending on one's outlook, the blame?

"I just figured, you've got to look at the way he plays the game. It's not about the money and stuff, it's about him going out there, competing,'' Winters said. "Who knows? He might get to the point later in the season, get to that mental mind game where he says, `Well, maybe I should have stayed retired.'

"Right now, it looks like he's having fun winning. But that's a question you'll probably want to ask a month down the road, seeing how things go.''

Because after all, dude, this is Brett Favre.