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Reckless rookie: Inside Brett Favre's strange season with the misfit Atlanta Falcons

A footnote in a historic career, Brett Favre’s rookie year in Atlanta was a strange, outrageous season with the NFL’s most dysfunctional team.

The following is excerpted from Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre by Jeff Pearlman. Copyright © 2016 by Jeff Pearlman. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Traditionally speaking, the days that follow the draft serve as a period of mental adjustment. Young players come to grips with relocating to foreign cities, and organizations start the process of figuring out who fits where, and how. There are press conferences to attend and papers to sign and jerseys to hoist and pose behind. Although Falcons coach Jerry Glanville was far from enamored with the addition of a quarterback he didn’t want in the spring of 1991, he had no choice in the matter. Brett Favre was coming to Atlanta.

Before bread could be broken, though, Bus Cook—Favre’s naive agent—committed a classic rookie mistake. Having watched his client’s heartbreak over being a second-round pick, and also seeing Raghib Ismail, the presumptive first overall selection in the draft, take big money from the Canadian Football League, Cook reached out to the Toronto Argonauts and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Then he informed the media. “That Canada stuff, it’s just us talking right now,” Cook told TheAtlanta Journal-Constitution on April 23. “Brett wants badly to play in Atlanta, but we have to explore all the options.”

The resulting freeze between player and franchise involved Glanville uttering the phrase “F--- that kid” inside the Atlanta offices 2,762,211 times. During his stretch not under contract, Favre remained home in Kiln, kicking back in his childhood bedroom, casually throwing the football around with friends and watching New Jack City, his all-time favorite movie, on a near-endless loop. At long last, on July 17, Favre and the Falcons agreed to a three-year, $1.4 million deal that included a signing bonus somewhere between $350,000 and $400,000. He placed 70% of the money in stocks and bonds, and used the rest to purchase a $30,000 maroon Acura. Favre reported to Suwanee, Ga., the next day for the opening of training camp, commencing his one-year apprenticeship at the strangest and most dysfunctional shop in the National Football League.

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Gunslinger

by Jeff Pearlman

More than 500 interviews tell the story of Brett Favre and his remarkable, improbable, iconic life.

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Beginning with the Falcons’ debut season in 1966, the team forged a reputation for spirited ineptitude. The franchise was owned by Rankin Smith, a former U.S. Army combat pilot who made his money in his family’s life insurance business, and run by Taylor Smith, the fourth of his five children. “In public they were called the Clampetts,” says Terence Moore, a longtime sports columnist for the Journal-Constitution. “They were nice people who couldn’t figure it out.” Upon Favre’s arrival Atlanta had but one double-digit-win season, but some around the league felt the team was turning a corner. The roster featured a slew of young, exciting players, including quarterback Chris Miller, receiver Andre Rison and a dynamic defensive back from Florida State named Deion Sanders. And while Atlanta finished 5–11 in 1990, fans seemed to believe in the vision of the coach. Glanville was loved by a few in the NFL and abhorred by the majority. Sometimes he told the truth. Oftentimes he stretched it. “You can listen to 100% of what Jerry said,” says then team president Taylor Smith, “and believe 30% of it.”

At his previous job, in Houston, Glanville had called himself “the dark prince” and issued a challenge to his players—break 100 facemasks per season. He spoke of developing “trained killers.” His Oilers were a dirty team that specialized in late hits and illegal shots. Were Glanville unhappy with a player, he’d let him know. When a defensive lineman held out for more money, Glanville ripped the nameplate from above his locker and stuck it over the entranceway to the bathroom. Glanville dressed in all black, drove Harley-Davidsons, listened to rock ’n’ roll and left tickets at the front gate for Elvis and James Dean. But by the time Houston lost to the Steelers in the first round of the 1989 playoffs, the Oilers’ front office had tired of his antics.

The Falcons swooped Glanville up. In his introductory press conference, he was asked about the terms of his contract. He had no idea. The uniform and helmet colors went from primarily red to primarily black. He encouraged Rison and Sanders to dance. “He was the ultimate players’ coach in many ways,” says Ken Herock, then Atlanta’s VP of player personnel. “He bulls---s with the players, he has fun with the players. But if he didn’t like you, or he didn’t want you around, it was a different thing entirely.”

From the day he checked into camp, Favre was an object of Glanville’s derision. Their opening exchange said it all.

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Glanville: “Hey, Mississippi!”

Favre: “Hey, Coach, how are you doing?”

Glanville: “Call me Jerry.”

Favre: “O.K. Hey, Jerry.”

Glanville: “What school are you from, Mississippi?”

Favre: “Southern Miss.”

Glanville: “Aw, damn, we drafted the wrong guy. We wanted the guy from Mississippi State.”

“I was standing next to Brett,” says George Koonce, a rookie free-agent linebacker, “and I remember the look on his face was devastation.”

To Glanville, Favre projected an unjustified cockiness. The coach liked bravado, only not from rookies. There were other quarterbacks in camp—Miller, the established starter; Scott Campbell, a veteran backup; Gilbert Renfroe, a CFL refugee; Mike Rhodes, a former Arena League star—and Favre made it clear he thought he was the best of the bunch. “I’d played in six Pro Bowls by that point, and this kid comes up to me in camp and tells me he has the strongest arm in the NFL,” says Chris Hinton, an offensive lineman. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’”

“Every week, if I was there on Friday, Brett would find me and start bitching,” says Herock. “He would always say, ‘Mr. Herock, I’m better than the guys you have here. I’m better.’”

When Herock responded that Miller was the established starter, Favre snapped, “I’m better than him!”

For the first two weeks of camp, Favre could not throw a spiral. He would drop back, release, and—wobble, wobble. A man known for his fastball was suddenly Phil Niekro. He chalked it up to nervousness. Then a lack of reps. When seven-on-seven drills commenced after a few days, June Jones, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, increased Favre’s reps. He hoped more passes would equal more comfort. “Throwing a football’s something I never had to think about,” Favre said at the time. “But, man, there’s some ugly ones, aren’t there?”

Glanville ran the NFL’s least-disciplined training camp, as well as the most colorful. No team featured more beer drinkers, more trash talkers, more larger-than-life personalities. Sanders, brash and outspoken, bought Favre his first dressy outfits, two garish suits straight out of Pimp 101. Rison purchased luxury cars as if he were buying cups of coffee.

There was also a dark side on the team. His name was Bill Fralic.

A 1985 first-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh, Fralic was a four-time Pro Bowler and one of the locker room’s more sadistic ringleaders. If his No.1 goal was to win games, it often felt as if a close second was teaming with his fellow offensive linemen to make life miserable for young Falcons. Sympathetic veterans warned rookies to steer clear, and with good reason. The linemen lived to humiliate.

In 1990, for example, members of the unit grabbed a young player as he was showering, taped his arms to a metal bench and carried both (the man and the bench) onto the field. “He’s out there naked, in front of people, and he can’t move,” says one Falcon. “The fans watched it all."

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Favre’s draft class included a 10th-round pick named Pete Lucas. A 6'3", 320-pound tackle, Lucas had graduated from high school and spent several years working at Swaggart Furniture, a Wisconsin-based family business. When his grandfather sold the company, Lucas enrolled at Wisconsin–Stevens Point and became a Football Gazette All-America. By the time he was picked by the Falcons, he was 25 and unusually mature for a rookie.

Fralic and several of his linemates made Lucas the target of their aggressions. “I was threatened to have my knees taken out in practice if I didn’t do as I was told,” Lucas says. “And that was basically to take my clothes off, sing, dance, perform—naked, any time, any place. I don’t know if it was because I intimidated them with my size and strength, but it happened to me all the time. On airplanes, on buses. You expect some hazing from time to time. But when the coaches stop meetings so guys can force you to strip and do something, it’s a different level. In offensive-line meetings the coach would call for a break and I’d take my clothes off.” (Fralic declined comment.)

One awful night Lucas and another rookie lineman, Mark Tucker, out of Southern Cal, were commanded to strip naked in front of the entire offensive line, hold each other tight and sing “Ebony and Ivory,” the Stevie Wonder–Paul McCartney ode to racial unity. Lucas is white, Tucker African-American. “It was always the same thing: ‘Do this or your knees are taken out,’” says Lucas. “There were times I’d be on an airplane sleeping, and I’d get knocked in the head and told, ‘Guess what? It’s time to get naked.’ I felt sexually violated and humiliated. There was one night where they made all the rookies get up and do a song and dance. I drank as much as I could beforehand, because I was told, ‘I better see nuts hanging out, or your knees are gone.'"

Lucas’s accounts are confirmed by other Falcons players. Bob Christian, a rookie fullback who roomed with Lucas and went on to a 10-year NFL career, calls that offensive line “perverted” and says members of the unit threatened to shave off his pubic hair if he didn’t sit for a veteran-administered haircut. “Pete is not lying,” says Christian. “Something was really wrong with them.” Says Tucker: “I hate that he was so scarred.”

The Falcons eventually released Lucas, ending his NFL career before it ever began. “It was,” he says, “the greatest relief of my life.”

Not yet 22 and naive to the world, Favre was in no position to step in and help a battered teammate. Not that he would have. Much like when he arrived at Southern Miss out of high school, the offensive linemen (and Fralic in particular) took a liking to Favre. He was one of them—a drinker, an airplane poker player. His shower routine involved bending over, naked, and pretending to chat with his butt crack. “It sounds gross,” said Scott Fulhage, the punter, “but it was hilarious.” As other rookies had their hair cut into mortifying clumps and unimaginable angles, Favre bribed his way out of the same fate. “He came and asked us whether he could avoid a Mohawk in exchange for a dinner for all the linemen,” says Hinton. “We went for it.” Favre took the entire unit to Bone’s, a steak house on Piedmont Road in Atlanta. It cost him a couple of thousand dollars, but his shaggy brown hair went untouched. “He ordered fish and drowned it in ketchup,” says Hinton.

Even though he didn’t want Favre, Glanville knew he had to keep him. After a couple of bad weeks of camp, the quarterback started to find his groove. Miller’s arm strength was terrific, but Favre’s throws were events. As was the case in college, his power left many a training camp wide receiver wounded. “He didn’t make many right reads,” said Naz Worthen, a free agent receiver. “But, boy, he could sting your fingers.”

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Favre presumed he would wind up the No. 2 quarterback. Sure, he struggled to grasp Jones’s complex red-gun offense, but things were starting to make sense. The Falcons’ 1991 regular season was scheduled to open at Kansas City on Sept.1, and Favre told family and friends that barring an alien invasion, he would be playing behind Miller.