I've covered Brett Favre throughout his pro career, and when people ask, "What's Favre really like?" I might tell a story about his dead-on imitation of Billy Bob Thornton's character in Sling Blade, or about the time on a hunting trip that I heard him tracking his prey by cooing, "Here grousy-grousy-grousy." Or I might tell this story.
Ten years ago Green Bay was preparing to play Denver in Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego, and the seven previous times that I had covered the Packers, I had either dined or visited with Favre the Friday before each game -- and Green Bay had won every time. On the Monday before the big game, I reminded him of this. "Well then, we've got to go out Friday night," he said. "Find a good place." Then he thought for a second. "Do me a favor. Can you find a girl you might know, around Brittany's age? She'd hate it, being the only kid at a dinner with all the adults." Brittany Favre, his daughter, was almost nine.
It just so happened that my best friend from college, Dan Squiller, lived in San Diego and had a nine-year-old daughter, Brooke, and the Super Bowl was the biggest thing ever to hit town in her young life. Would she like to go to dinner with Brett Favre and his family? "Yeaaahhh!!!" she said, and even skipped a friend's birthday party to go. When the Favre party of 20 assembled at a La Jolla restaurant, Brooke and Brittany started chatting like new best friends, and Brett couldn't have been more pleased.
"Hey, Brooke," Brett said, "what'd you do in school today?"
"Studied Spanish, I guess. Lots of Spanish," said Brooke, who attended a bilingual magnet school. "Everybody's talking about the Super Bowl, though."
"What do you want to do with your life?" he said.
"Be a marine biologist, I think."
"You have a boyfriend?" he said.
No reply. Just a lot of blushing.
And so Brooke, who'd arrived very nervous, was part of the extended family now. She and Brittany giggled a lot, talked about how they'd redecorate their rooms if their lame parents would only let them. They got a kick out of Brett's ordering the sliced ostrich, along with tenderloin of Texas antelope. "I can just hear the announcers on Sunday," Brett said. "Favre's a little under the weather today. Must be antelope poisoning."
As we got up to leave, Brooke got a mischievous look in her eye and asked me for a penny. "Hey, Brett," she said, "here's your lucky penny for Sunday. You know, 'Find a penny, pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck.' Carry this with you, and you'll win." He thanked her and put the penny in his pocket. Brooke asked for only one thing: to have her picture taken with Brett and me.
Fast-forward 48 hours. Denver 31, Green Bay 24. In the postgame interview area, Favre, still in uniform, spotted me, and when he was done answering questions, he reached inside his high right sock. He pulled out a very sweaty penny. "Tell Brooke sorry," he said with a wry smile. "I guess it wasn't very lucky for me today."
"You're kidding!" I said. "You had that penny in your sock all game?"
"Of course," he said. "She said it'd be lucky."
Don't ask me how I could forget, but I never told Brooke what happened to the penny -- until I phoned her last week.
"No way! Oh my God, that's insane!" said Brooke, now a sophomore at Cardiff University in Wales. I asked Brooke (double majoring in Spanish and philosophy, by the way) if she remembered much about that night. "Are you kidding? I was sooooo stoked! One of my 10 most memorable nights ever! Do you know what I have on my bulletin board here? That photo of me, you and Brett! I look so tiny!"
Then she turned serious. "Before that night, I thought famous people were different from regular people. I thought they were a level above us," Brooke said. "But Brett was so normal. How many times can you say you were accepted into a family you'd never met before in a matter of minutes, and such a famous family? It may sound corny, but that night changed the way I look at people forever."
I told Brooke, who doesn't follow the NFL much in Wales, that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED would be naming Favre its Sportsman of the Year. And I told her I was watching him on TV at that moment, against Dallas, and he was running around just like he did that day 10 years ago in her hometown.
"He is amazing!" she said. And then she paused.
"If he ever retired, how would the NFL replace him?"