The Gunslinger, Unplugged

Brett Favre and friends—including Ted Thompson, Mike Holmgren and Steve Mariucci—look back on No. 4's career in Green Bay. The reminiscing includes tales of drinking beer, watching film and telling redneck jokes before title games
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SUMRALL, Miss. — Brett Favre will return to Lambeau Field on Saturday for the first time since he left football—for good; no, seriously—when the Packers will induct him into their Hall of Fame. It’s unlikely that anyone involved will delve deep into the summer of 2008, when Favre held his first tearful retirement press conference, only to later desire a return, forcing a trade to the Jets that reverberated throughout the NFL and started the Aaron Rodgers era in Green Bay.

For a Where Are They Now cover story, Sports Illustrated spent three days with Favre at and around his home in Mississippi between March and May. He addressed all of it—his last play as a Packer, an interception in January 2008 in the NFC Championship Game; his messy split with the team and city that once defined him; Ted Thompson; Aaron Rodgers; and what it will be like to return and join Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, Paul Hornung, Reggie White, Mike Holmgren and all the other Packers greats.

What follows is Favre on the Packers in his own words—and in theirs.

* * *

Ted Thompson (Packers general manager): I got there in 1992, same as Brett. The Packers had struggled to win. There was a certain amount of trepidation that it might take a long time to rebuild. When we traded for Brett, we didn’t know the impact at the time. I guess Ron Wolf [then the general manager] knew it. But the change that they made in the organization was profound.

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Holmgren (former Packers coach): I didn’t really know about Brett when he came out in the [1991] draft. At the time, I was with the 49ers, but I graded his college workout and conducted an interview and ran him through the paces. That was the first time I really met him. He seemed like a laid-back southern kid. I asked what he was going to do with the rest of his day. He said, I’m going to do a little fishing. And I’m going to drink a little beer. And I thought, That’s an interesting thing to say to a coach.

Favre: There’s no way that’s true.

Holmgren: The next year, Ron says he wants to trade one of our first-round picks with Atlanta for Brett. He thought Brett was the best player in the draft the year he came out. Brett had some problems in Atlanta. But we looked at his college film together. It was obvious he could adapt to our system of playing quarterback.

Thompson: Reggie White was a big fan of Brett’s. And quite frankly I don’t think Reggie would have come [in 1993] if not for Brett. He wanted to go to a team with a quarterback.

Holmgren: Gunslinger? That was accurate. I still remember one time when, we’re driving, close game, and I asked him during a timeout what kind of play he liked. I grabbed him to focus him as I would on occasion. All the quarterbacks are laughing, and I’m like, what’s wrong with you guys?

Mike, Brett says, You oughta see your mustache. There’s an icicle in there.

Everyone is busting out. Then he went out and did it. He went out and scored.

It didn’t always go that way. Another time we were playing against the Steelers. They had Kevin Greene at outside linebacker. I told Brett on a certain play to be careful and throw it away if he anticipated Greene from the blindside. Yeah, whatever you say. Sure enough, he runs the play, and Greene hits him in the chest, and he goes down. He’s bleeding. I’m mad. I knew this was going to happen.

Steve Mariucci (former offensive coordinator): I remember our 1995 team. We went all the way to the NFC Championship game. Lost to maybe the best Cowboys team ever. Anyway, we’re riding the bus to this game, and Mike [Holmgren] would always sit in the front right seat. I would sit behind him. Favre would come in last, after he finished signing autographs. So here he comes, and he pulls out a book. It’s from Jeff Foxworthy. You Might Be a Redneck If … So he starts reading it. You Might be a Redneck If … old yeller is your uncle’s front tooth. I was like, Shut up! But you could tell he was ready to play. He was relaxed. I have a million stories about how he loosened the team up.

Holmgren: When you think of his consecutive-games started streak, it’s one of the more remarkable things in sports. I mean, more than 300.

I remember a Bears game. Can’t remember which year. He had hurt his ankle. He couldn’t practice all week. But he said he could play. I told him, If you’re at risk out there, I’m going to take you out. So don’t get upset. Yeah, well he threw five touchdowns against the Bears that day. It was unbelievable. I told him afterward. See what happens when you can’t be a crazy man out thereGood things happen.

He says, Oh, sure.

Mariucci: I still remember when he broke a record, maybe the touchdown record, and the linemen carried him off the field on their shoulders. That reminded everyone that this is still a game, a game that kids play. That’s the thing about Brett. He was still a kid. He played football like a kid.

Brett Favre lifted Greg Jennings onto his shoulders after breaking Dan Marino's touchdown record in 2007. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated)

Brett Favre lifted Greg Jennings onto his shoulders after breaking Dan Marino's touchdown record in 2007. (John Biever/Sports Illustrated)

Holmgren: I think about this on occasion. I left Green Bay for Seattle in 1999. I wonder what would have happened had I stayed in Green Bay, where I’ve got one of the best quarterbacks of all time in his prime.

Mariucci: The Packers took Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Brett told me he was going to be a good one. For Brett to hang on for three years with Aaron sitting there patiently, that was like Steve Young and Joe Montana. Those situations are never comfortable.

Favre: You can imagine all the quarterbacks I’ve been with. He was the first first-round pick. And we got along fine.

I knew right away he had a tremendous amount of talent. He had a great arm. He was mobile. Really, he just needed an opportunity. As we all do. And I had gotten that opportunity myself.

We watched film together. He would ask from time to time, hey, you mind if I watch film with you? Because I had heard stories that I didn’t help and didn’t spent time with the younger guys. That’s not true. Did I go out of my way and say, I want everybody to come over? No. But if you said, hey, can I watch film with youAbsolutely. What happens is, and he’s no different, a couple years in the league, you’re not playing, you just go with the flow. I don’t care where you’re drafted. You’re just kind of going through the motions. And you kind of feel like, even though you’re making good money, it’s like, I want to feel like I’m doing something. And I’m sure he probably had that feeling. I had it. And wanted to play. But we got along fine.

Mariucci: When it was clear that Aaron would take over, Brett felt like he could still start for somebody. When he retired, he didn’t want to do that. He felt like they wanted him to. He did it reluctantly. That’s why you saw the tears. It wasn’t really his decision. They wouldn’t let him change his mind. He told me, Mooch, I’m not ready to retire.

Favre: After the 2007 season, I just went about my normal routine. I let the rest take care of itself.

I was, yeah, maybe angry. To me it looked like I was not good enough to play there. This is just my perception. Not to rehash, but I shouldn’t have retired, and in July, if I chose to play again, great. If I didn’t that was it. I didn’t owe them an answer, and that was where I was wrong, to give one early.

I felt pressure to give them an answer. I was hearing that every day. Give them an answer. It was about this time of the year [March]. From their standpoint, that’s what you do. You want to know. I understand that. So you can see both sides.

What bothered me wasn’t the fact they didn’t want me to play. It was that they didn’t want me to play against them. I felt like they should have let me go rather than dictating where I went. They probably felt like my best years were behind me. That didn’t hurt my feelings.

Mike [Holmgren] and I talked about it. Retiring. He told me that later in your career you’ll have five good wins and one loss ruins them all. If you play long enough, if you’re in this business long enough, that happens. You can do everything right and the loss is going to stick with you. You’re going to dwell on one bad play.

The things I couldn’t control worried me sick. Like, I wonder if this guy is studying his playbook. Heck, I can’t control that. At 25, believe me, I didn’t care if the other guy studied his playbook, and that served me well. Do what you can, and that’s it.

“Both times we played Green Bay [in 2009], Ted Thompson sent me a simple text message afterward. And I responded,” Favre recalls. “It went a long ways.”

Holmgren: It seemed like every time he was going to retire, we played them. One time he came onto our plane. He walked on. Everyone, they don’t know what to make of it. He sat down next to me. I think I’m done. You’ve been great. He leaves the plane.

Years later, he calls me at my summer cabin in Santa Cruz. He’s in Minnesota at that point. He’s going, I think I’m done. I said, we’ve had this conversation before. You sure? I told my wife, Kathy, I think he’s finally done. That’s when all those Vikings went down to his house and got him to come back.

I used to tease him. When they give you a TV when you retire, and you come back, do you have to give all those TVs back?

Mariucci: I know people in Green Bay really wished he didn’t go to their rival, the Vikings, after he left the Jets. I mean, other Packers went to the Vikings. But the quarterback?

He showed he could play at a very, very high level. He just loved the game that much.

Holmgren: I remember asking, Did you have to pick Minnesota? That was always a tough thing for me. He laughs, of course. That kind of thing is always hard. I lived it in San Francisco. I’m glad the dust has settled.

Ken Ruettgers (former Packers teammate): I mean, if you love this game, and he LOVED this game, it becomes your identity. To stop playing is like pulling the plug on yourself. It was not surprising to see him come back a few times. Maybe three times? I can’t remember.

Former Packers Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre reunited in different uniforms in 2008. (Al Peirera/Getty Images)

Former Packers Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre, in 2008 (Al Peirera/Getty Images)

Holmgren: I stayed out of it in regard to the Packers stuff. I know Ted, and Ted is a good man. Ted is the best. I know Brett, too, and we have a lot of history together. I’ve spoken to Ted and the Packers many times but not about that. When I went into the Hall of Fame in Green Bay, they asked me to call Brett and ask him if he was going to come. I understood what they were trying to get done, but I wasn’t going to get involved. I told Brett that.

He said, Mike, I can’t. Not right now.

Favre: The first year in Minnesota [2009] was an outstanding year. I try never to let one play define me, but I threw the pick right before overtime of the NFC Championship Game.

Man, that was a magical year. It just seemed like on that drive, I remember thinking, I was beat to hell, but I remember thinking, This is meant to be. Because I grew up a Saints fan, and here we were, driving down to beat them. That pass was obviously a dagger in the heart. Like fourth-and-26 against Philadelphia. I was thinking, There’s no way they’re converting this. They did. We lost. That was one of those years.

Both times we played Green Bay [in 2009], Ted Thompson sent me a simple text message afterward. And I responded. It went a long ways. Like when I met with Ted prior to leaving, when all that was going on, I felt like Ted was really sincere. But he was in a tough spot. I get that. Now, that doesn’t mean I can’t say, What about me? It’s a two-way street. But I do believe he was sincere in that he really wanted the best for me, but he had to run his team the best way he knew how.

When he was saying, They’ll remember you here for a long time, a long time after I’m gone and you’re gone, at that time I didn’t want to hear all that. I’m like, whatever, let me go, just let me go. At least give me my release. Don’t you think I deserved that? But I see where he was coming from.

Did I really expect the fans to cheer for me when I came back? I don’t know. I mean, it would have been nice. But I’m not surprised. I went to a big rival. I felt like it would be just as easy to get back into their good graces with more positive attention that came from not only me saying the right things but the Packer organization, too. You just have to put all that to rest and move forward. Next thing you know, people have forgotten about it.

I knew that time would be a determining factor in how all this would play out. I wasn’t waiting by the phone.

In the back of my mind, I knew this was going to happen. Whether it was 30 years or five years, I knew it was going to happen. Even if I didn’t want it to. I could have done it via satellite. I really felt like it was going to happen with the timing that it has happened now. And I just remember thinking, boy, things have to get better in a hurry. Well, it was amazing how quickly things went back to normal.

We’ve had so many conversations. Hey, we want to do this. And we just want you to be on board. It was my idea last year to go up to a game. Really, to break the ice. Oh, Favre’s here. To do nothing but just be there. And they were like, OK, that’s not a bad idea. I really wanted Bart Starr to go. To be honest with you, I kind of wanted him to hold my hand. Then he got sick and had a stroke, and we thought about doing it without him, but I was like, I’d rather have Bart go.

I thought I would miss football. I didn’t know what to think, to be honest with you. There was some fear. Some nervousness. This is all I’ve ever done. Will I be able to go from, you know, a hundred to zero? The answer to that is yes. And much easier than I would have expected. The way I look at it now, I kind of like the nothing.

Eventually, some Packers fans forgave Favre for playing for the rival Vikings, as this sign showed at a November 2014 game at Lambeau Field. (Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images)

Eventually, some Packers fans forgave Favre for playing for the rival Vikings, as this sign showed at a November 2014 game at Lambeau Field. (Brian D. Kersey/Getty Images)

The fan outpouring is proof enough of the relationship between myself and Green Bay. That’s where it should start and finish. Without the fans, you wouldn’t have an NFL. You definitely wouldn’t have a team like Green Bay. That’s what makes it so special. It gives me goosebumps.

My youngest daughter, Breleigh, she said, They must really like you, after the lower bowl at the stadium sold out for the ceremony. That was the first time she’s reacted like that.

Holmgren: You just knew it was going to happen, and it was just when. Time has a way of healing most things. You just need time.

Thompson: I think it will be wild. I means a lot to the people here, and it should. Brett has always been a Packer. You can say a lot of different things, but I don’t think in his heart Brett has ever left here, or in their hearts, the fans have ever left him. There’s a genuineness to that relationship.

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