Okay. So the pack is back, the legend lives and all is well in Titletown. That much we know after Brett Favre sent chills through Lambeau Field on Sunday, doing that thing he does so well in leading the Green Bay Packers to a 34-31 last-second victory over the Minnesota Vikings that fully resurrected their championship hopes. Fighting through fear, grief, illness and pain, Favre coped with his problems the best way he knows how, providing 3 1/2 hours of escapist pleasure for a community that devours it like chunks of cheddar. The 35-year-old quarterback's magic touch was never more transcendent than it has been during Green Bay's four-game winning streak over the past month.
Consider how twisted things got after the Pack dropped four consecutive games, including three at Lambeau, to fall to 1-4: Free safety and social butterfly Darren Sharper canceled his annual birthday bash because he was afraid it would look bad, nine offensive linemen drove half an hour to devour sushi in the middle of Wisconsin, and coach Mike Sherman's teenage kids waited up for him on several consecutive school nights. "I'd get home around midnight and my son Matt and daughter Emily would be half asleep on the couch," Sherman said last Friday, "just waiting up to make sure that all the sharp utensils were put away."
The coach was kidding, but he wasn't smiling. Even before the leaves change, Green Bay is a cold and forbidding place when the Packers are losing, and when the home team gets humiliated on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field--as the Pack was in a 48-27 loss to the sub-.500 Tennessee Titans on Oct. 11--the most fervent of Cheeseheads is liable to curse up a bleu streak. "We had no motivation, no enthusiasm, and the fans were letting us hear it," recalled kicker Ryan Longwell, whose 33-yard field goal as time expired provided Sunday's winning margin. "They were screaming about Coach Sherman, even yelling things about number 4, saying it was time to move on."
If the man who wears that jersey, the most famous in franchise history, heard the disparaging words, he wasn't particularly fazed. The graying gunslinger had bigger worries, having lost his brother-in-law, Casey Tynes, in an ATV accident on Favre's property in Mississippi just five days before the Tennessee debacle--and 10 months after the death of Favre's father, Irvin. Three days after the Monday Night Massacre, Favre learned that his wife, Deanna (Tynes's older sister), has breast cancer.
Favre feels no need to campaign for the sympathy vote. "We've received lots of cards, letters, phone calls and flowers, but life goes on, and at some point nobody really cares," Favre said on Sunday night as he sat on a table in the Green Bay training room. "It's a production-oriented business, and if you don't produce, they don't want to hear excuses. I never ask, Why me? because so many great things have happened to me and my family. But, man, when the bad things come, they come in bunches."
Every team experiences its share of heartache, but the Packers have been hit particularly hard. In May 2003 Ray Sherman II, the 14-year-old son of Green Bay's receivers coach, accidentally shot and killed himself. "This is definitely a close-knit team because of all we've been through," says Mike Sherman, who is no relation to Ray. "Adversity can divide you or unite you, and it has united us."
Viewed by some players as detached, a perception that might have something to do with the other half of his dual job, as the team's general manager, Mike Sherman opened up to his team in a speech the night before their Oct. 17 road game against the Detroit Lions. Though he has come under fire recently for several personnel decisions--including trading up in the third round of last spring's draft to select a punter (B.J. Sander of Ohio State) who has yet to appear in a regular-season game--Sherman believes he has a roster of players with character, and he spoke about some of their trials. Then Sherman told his players, "Guys, we're in a giant hole, and the only people who can get us out of it are in this room. We're going to have to fight our way out, together."
The Packers routed the Lions 38-10, and they were on their way. Of course, it helps when you play in the NFC, which features two good teams (the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles and the 7-2 Atlanta Falcons) and nine that are either a game above or below .500, including all four in the NFC North: The Packers and the Vikings, losers of three straight, are tied for first place at 5-4; the Lions and the Chicago Bears are 4-5.
There was precedent for the Pack's resurgence: Last year Green Bay sputtered to a 3-4 start before a 30-27 road victory over the Vikings sparked a 7-2 finish. The Pack won the division because the Vikings, who started 6-0, dropped seven of their last 10 games. "If we want to end the perception that the same thing is happening all over again, we have to do something about it on the field," Vikings coach Mike Tice said last Saturday night as he sipped a glass of red wine in his Appleton, Wis., hotel room. "One of the things I plan to tell our team is not to worry if some calls go against us in this game--it's Brett Favre and Lambeau Field, and that's just the way it is."
Give Tice points for clairvoyance, for the game may have hinged on a questionable call by the officials. After Daunte Culpepper (27 of 44, 363 yards, four touchdowns) threw a 17-yard scoring pass to halfback Moe Williams with 1:20 remaining, completing a 14-point comeback in the closing minutes that tied the score at 31, Green Bay's Robert Ferguson busted a long kickoff return up the right sideline but fumbled near midfield after being stripped by Antoine Winfield. Minnesota's Derek Ross appeared to fall on the ball, but after a lengthy pileup officials ruled that the Packers' Ben Steele--whom the Vikings had cut in training camp (ouch!)--had recovered, setting up Favre's game-winning drive.
When the call went Green Bay's way, at least one visitor from Minnesota was ecstatic--Gunnar Frerotte, the seven-year-old son of Vikings backup quarterback Gus Frerotte. Clad in his prized number 4 Packers jersey, Gunnar declared before the game that even if his father were to start for the Vikings, he would still be rooting for Favre. "Clearly, I've done a hell of a job raising him," joked Gus, who shouldn't feel overly dissed. After all, Favre still skips across the field with a little boy's enthusiasm, and with whispers of his possible retirement perpetually in the air--he's noncommittal on the subject--each of his Sundays at play should be appreciated. So should the pranks of this first-ballot Hall of Famer who, last Thursday, left a bagged deer hide in the locker of cornerback Al Harris. "Al didn't know what the hell it was; he threw it halfway across the locker room," says Sharper.
Football, Favre acknowledges, is his sanctuary in times of distress. And so Favre's pain is a Packers fan's gain. Just as he played one of the finest games of his career in a Monday night victory over Oakland last December less than 48 hours after his father's death, Favre has been brilliant since learning of Deanna's illness. On Sunday, beginning with a 50-yard scoring strike that third-year wideout Javon Walker, an emerging star, snatched away from Minnesota cornerback Brian Williams on the game's eighth play from scrimmage, Favre was in complete command (20 of 29, 236 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions). At times it seemed like 1996 again, with Todd Rundgren's Bang the Drum All Day blaring as various players took turns doing the Lambeau Leap.
As in those glory days, the Pack is blessed with a balanced attack. Some of the credit goes to Sherman, who took over play-calling duties when offensive coordinator Tom Rossley underwent an angioplasty before the Detroit game; Green Bay has averaged 35.3 points in the four games since. And some goes to the fabulous linemen who opened holes for Ahman Green (21 carries, 145 yards) and kept Favre from being sacked. The linemen are brave, too. "We all have dinner together every Thursday, and we've been going to this sushi place in Appleton ever since we started our streak," says left guard Mike Wahle, one of the league's most underrated players. "It's the only sushi place around, and come to think of it, it isn't very crowded."
Call them Hamachiheads, though it's tough to imagine many Packers fans showing up with raw-fish replica headgear. The 70,671 zanies at Lambeau on Sunday were treated to one of the season's best matchups, despite the absence of Minnesota's star wideout, Randy Moss, who missed the second game of his seven-year career with a strained right hamstring. Favre, who made his 198th consecutive start, was impressed by Culpepper's refusal to throw up his hands and yell, "No Moss!"
"Hey, I'm a huge Randy Moss fan," Favre said, "but Daunte has gotten better with him being out. Now he doesn't just kill you with his arms and his legs; he's killing you with his head, too."
In the end, though, Favre, as he so often does, fired the fatal shot. On second-and10 from the Green Bay 46 with 1:05 remaining, the Packers came out with an empty backfield, got the two-deep zone they were seeking and sent Walker in motion to the left side, where he joined fellow wideouts Ferguson and Donald Driver. The logical target was Driver, who ran a streak down the middle of the field, but when has Favre ever been burdened by percentages? Counting on the element of surprise, he lofted a pass along the right sideline toward backup running back Tony Fisher, who made a leaping catch for a 25-yard gain. Three plays later Longwell drilled the game-winner, and Favre looked to a luxury box behind the Packers' bench and waved to Deanna and their daughters, Brittany, 15, and Breleigh, 5.
Brett says doctors expect Deanna, who is scheduled to start chemotherapy later this month, to make a full recovery. Her illness has forced the quarterback to keep his own ailments in perspective--he played on Sunday with a sinus infection, for which he'd been taking antibiotics for several days, and he'd been kept awake for much of the previous night by nasal congestion and neck pain.
"The bottom line is I am old," says Favre, still devoid of pretense after all these years and MVPs. "I'm slower, heavier and more broken down"--he raised and flexed his right arm--"but this...."
Favre didn't finish the sentence, but he didn't have to. The boyish grin said it all.