Brett Favre has never known how to let go, and as his concerned family watches, he's paying the price in a final (?) season of brutal hits, ugly picks and unseemly scandal
This is an article from the Dec. 13, 2010 issue
If you must witness an avalanche, do it from a distance. As Brett Favre's career plunges downhill, close family members are waiting in Mississippi, calling him, texting him and watching him lose, waiting for this season to finally, mercifully end.
Favre's mother, Bonita, hasn't attended a single Vikings game this year. His brother Scott drove from his home in Mississippi to the opener in nearby New Orleans, but that was it. His sister, Brandi, says, "Every other year I wanted him to come back and play. This season can't end quick enough for me. He's averaging a bad injury a game." Anyway, even if they flew up to Minnesota for a game, they wouldn't be able to console (or celebrate with) Brett afterward. He is so wiped out that he usually just heads home, eats a quick dinner and goes up to his room.
Deanna Favre lives with Brett near the team's training facility in Eden Prairie (along with their younger daughter, Breleigh) and still goes to every Vikings home game, but this has not been a fun autumn for her. For years Deanna has enjoyed having a famous husband. Now her marriage is being scrutinized and ridiculed.
Less than three years ago Favre was one of the most beloved athletes in America. In the fall of 2007 he broke Dan Marino's record for touchdown passes and John Elway's mark for wins by a quarterback, and, at age 38, extended his own record for consecutive starts by a quarterback to 253. Favre took the Packers to within one game of the Super Bowl that season, losing to the Giants in overtime at Lambeau Field.
Then he either forced his way out of Green Bay or was forced out, the first rumblings of the avalanche. "I hate that it ended the way it did," Bonita says. "It was such a wonderful experience, those years in Green Bay. It's just the way it ended ... and he should have stayed retired then. But we can't go back."
These are the people who have loved Brett Favre the longest and know him best. The Favres learned long ago that they can't talk Brett into or out of anything. And if he regrets these last three seasons—a 9--7 finish with the Jets in 2008; an '09 run with Minnesota that ended with an interception in the NFC Championship Game; this year's debacle—he has kept it to himself. He has not even told his family. (Favre declined to talk to SI for this story.)
Favre has said this is his last season— "I'm done, I'm done," he told reporters last week—and this time almost everybody believes him. ("If he goes back, he's really crazy," Bonita says. "I can't imagine what would drag him back.") He is, in every way, limping to the finish. He has been playing with a stress fracture in his left ankle and a fractured left heel. In a Halloween loss to the Patriots he took a shot to the chin that required eight stitches; some in the crowd in New England heckled him as he was carted off the field.
From that moment in August when three Vikings teammates took a private plane to Mississippi to talk Favre into coming back for the 2010 season, almost nothing has gone right. He has put up the worst quarterback rating and highest interception rate of his 20-year career, one season after having career bests in both categories. He has faced sexual-harassment allegations that have turned him into a national punch line. He clashed with coach Brad Childress, who was fired three days before Thanksgiving. On Sunday against Buffalo he was nailed in the back by linebacker Arthur Moats on the third play of the game, suffering a sprained shoulder. Favre's replacement, Tarvaris Jackson, threw two touchdown passes in the 38--14 win, but the 5--7 Vikings remain four games behind the Bears in the NFC Central, with little hope of making the playoffs.
Nobody envisioned Favre's going out this way. Nobody is quite sure where it all went wrong. But if you retrace his steps, you will find clues—signposts that can only be seen in a rearview mirror. To understand why Favre's football career is ending like this, you must go back to the beginning. As she sat in her kitchen in Kiln, Miss., recently, talking about the most famous of her four children, the first thing Bonita Favre said was, "He would have been a good only child."
Start there, in the town the locals call The Kill. "It was his way," Bonita explained. "He was gonna do whatever it took or whatever he wanted. His competitiveness just kept him working on his own."
Brett would come home from high school football practice, do sit-ups in his room and run on the dirt road outside his house. He lifted weights every day with such vigor that by his senior year he was as strong as some of his linemen. Alcohol? Forget it. He wouldn't even touch soft drinks. He just couldn't do one thing he really wanted to do: pass.
Hancock North Central High coach Irvin Favre won a lot of games running the wishbone, the power I and the wing T. He wasn't going to change just because the quarterback was his son. Especially if the quarterback was his son. Brett rarely threw more than eight times in a game.
Scott, the older brother, had a way to deal with his father: acquiesce. "If [Irv] told him to stand on his head and stack BBs, he would have done it," Bonita says. By giving in, Scott neutralized Irvin. If he didn't argue there was no argument.
But Brett needed to win. He stood his ground with Irvin. The back-and-forth was endless: Go cut the grass. I don't want to cut the grass. You read that play wrong this afternoon. No, I didn't. Yes, you did. Well, why can't we throw more? I told you to cut the grass....
Bonita told Irvin, "When the other kids leave the football field, they go home. Our kids never leave it." But Brett didn't want to leave it. He wanted to own it.
Once, Bonita says, Brett changed one of Irvin's play calls, and the coach blew up. Father and son went nose-to-nose on the sideline. It didn't matter to Irvin that the play went for a touchdown. Another time Scott sidled up to his father during a blowout win and asked, "Why don't you let Brett throw a little bit?" Irvin shot back, "Why don't you get your ass back in the stands with your mom?"
Nobody recruited a quarterback whose own father wouldn't let him pass. Southern Mississippi came in late and asked Brett to play safety, with a vague hint that he might get to try quarterback. Then practice started, and coach Jim Carmody couldn't believe his ears. "I could hear a noise, a whoosh," Carmody said of Favre's passes. "I turned around: What was that? He was 17 years old."
Away from his father's offense and his father's house, Brett was unleashed. He started as a true freshman and started drinking heavily. Every pass had to be a bullet, and every night had to be a party.
For all his tough love, Irvin taught his boys that when you lose, you lose. It's over. As a result Brett didn't fear failure as much as most quarterbacks do. As the pocket collapsed around him, Brett saw opportunity: a seam here, a tight window there.
Irvin would coach on Friday night, then drive to wherever Southern Miss was playing on Saturday. When he got there he'd ask Brett's coaches: Are we going to throw a lot today? Are you gonna let him sling it?
"He wanted that boy to air it out!" says Curley Hallman, who succeeded Carmody in Favre's second season.
In the stands Irvin would jump up and down and elbow Bonita: He's goin' in the game! He had to sit on the aisle because he was so animated. Then the game would end, and Irvin would tell Brett, "Boy, you threw off your back foot on that interception."
The Falcons drafted Favre in the second round in 1991, and he partied his way into disfavor. Atlanta shipped him to the Packers, and he became a superstar under coach Mike Holmgren. Favre completed passes nobody else would even try—sometimes to the other team, but that was a small price to pay for all those touchdowns. After the games Irvin would tell Brett he made the wrong read in the second quarter and threw to the wrong receiver in the third. Brett would roll his eyes or defend himself or go for humor: "Dad, we're going to suit you up for this game." But he was always respectful.
Irvin became a regular guest on Packers postgame radio shows. I don't know what Brett was thinkin', throwin' that ball, he'd say. Says Scott, "That used to piss Brett off."
After Favre won Super Bowl XXXI, he gave Irvin a Super Bowl ring for Christmas. Irvin was so overwhelmed that he walked out of the room and called a friend. You're never going to believe this! A Super Bowl ring, just like the players have! To Brett, he just said thank you.
In late December 2003, Irvin's friend Mark Kelley asked him, "Do you ever tell your kids you love them?"
Irvin said, "They know I do."
Kelley was insistent: "No, they gotta hear it from you!" Irvin finally conceded that he should tell them. A week later he had a heart attack at the wheel of his car, veered across the road into a ditch and died. Brett got the news while playing golf in California. The Packers faced the Raiders the next night, and there was some question of whether Favre would even play. Of course he played. He always plays.
In that brief period before the grief set in, Favre put on the most remarkable performance of his life: 22 completions in 30 attempts, 399 yards, four touchdowns. Then he flew home to Mississippi for the funeral, and reality hit. "Brett just had a blank look on his face," says former Green Bay tight end Mark Chmura, who attended the funeral with his Packers teammates. "Almost like: What do I do now?"
Irvin had never told Brett he wanted him to retire, but he said to others that he was worried about the beatings his son took on the football field, that Brett was "aging before my eyes." Perhaps if Irvin had expressed that sentiment to Brett, it would have been the approval Favre needed to walk away. But he never heard it.
In Green Bay, Favre was known for "playing like a kid out there," and for never missing a start. Even now people conflate the two. They think he plays every game because he loves it. They don't realize that Favre doesn't want to give up his position even for a day, because he fears giving it up for good. "Part of the thing he has always thrived on, part of that streak, is that if you go down you give somebody else an opportunity," Scott says. "If you don't go down you don't give somebody that chance."
In March 2008, Favre finally announced his retirement. His words that day read like self-parody: "I'm not going to sit here like other players and say I won't miss it, because I will. But I don't think I can give anything else, outside from the three hours on Sundays. And in football you can't do that. It's a total commitment."
Go ahead. Laugh. In each of the past two summers Favre waited until August to turn up at Vikings camp. But his problem is not that he can't commit. It's that he obsesses over it.
Almost every NFL player takes painkillers at some point. Favre became addicted. Most players try to play every Sunday. Favre drags himself onto the field no matter what. Most players enjoy the social whirl. Favre drank his way out of Atlanta, then quit drinking and became a homebody. He used to play golf every day in the off-season. Then he got the yips, took a few days off and discovered he didn't miss the stress. Now he rarely plays.
Every winter Favre tries to kick his football habit, and every summer he decides he can't. In August three Vikings flew to Mississippi with the mission of bringing Favre back. Kicker Ryan Longwell, Favre's best friend on the team, said, "If we were down there a total of 15 hours, I would say 141/2 hours into it we still thought he wasn't coming back." When Favre finally decided to play he got on the plane and immediately started talking about tweaking the offense.
All the waffling didn't seriously damage his standing in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But in New York, Favre was just another celebrity. And inside the Jets' facility some players did not take kindly to the media attention and superstar treatment for Favre. He hadn't earned it there. So perhaps it's not surprising that the most embarrassing incident of Favre's career spilled out of his time with New York. In October the website Deadspin reported that when Favre was a Jet he left solicitous voice-mails for Jenn Sterger, then a game-day reporter for the team, and sent her photos of his genitals. The site also reported that Favre sent lewd text messages to two of the team's massage therapists. Because the women were associated with the Jets, the NFL is investigating Favre for sexual harassment. He reportedly admitted leaving Sterger messages but denied sending photos and has not commented on the masseurs' allegations.
"I was real concerned," Bonita says. "I said, 'Do you want me to come up there? Or Scott? One of us will come up there.' He kind of hee-hawed back and forth: 'No, I'm going out of town for the game....'"
"I mean, no matter what they do, they're your children," she said. "And you never stop loving them or worrying. And you're going to be there for them no matter what."
In church that week, one of Bonita's friends told her, "This hymn is for y'all," and Bonita started crying. "I had to get up and leave," she said. "I was so embarrassed."
Brett apologized to the Vikings' players, with tears in his eyes. But he has kept his poise publicly. When Minnesota visited the Jets the following week and the media pummeled him with questions, Favre never got defensive. He turned every question into an answer about football, and as the clock wound down on his media availability, he kept talking ... slowly ... until it was time to go.
When Brad Childress was in high school in Aurora, Ill., he moved in with his football coach. Childress was angry about his parents' divorce and had been getting in fights at school. He wanted discipline, and he knew he could find it in Chuck Dickerson's house.
If Favre's conflict with his father spurred him to challenge authority, Childress's relationship with Dickerson inspired him to become an authority figure. It's as essential to Childress's existence as Favre's independence is to his; for the two to truly get along one would have to change his core.
Childress's coaching style is about system. He worked under Favre's old QB coach, Andy Reid, in Philadelphia, and believed his system would take care of his new quarterback. "Some people told me, 'You'll be perfect for him,' " Childress says. " 'You'll be like Holmgren, like Andy—you'll make him do the right things.' That's what he needs. He doesn't need to run over the top of you."
Favre's playing style is about feel. He hates meetings but loves studying tape by himself. Sometimes he watches it at home, and sometimes he drives to the Vikings' facility at odd hours, says hello to the janitor and goes off to study. He is so obsessive that Childress would tease him: "That's the first step toward mental illness: repetitive thought."
The little battles began as soon as Favre showed up in 2009. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Vikings were running a drill early in camp and Favre was supposed to throw a short pass. Instead he threw a bomb. When Childress asked why, Favre said the safety fell. There was no defense on the field at the time.
Childress fundamentally misunderstood Favre. "There's times you have to let Brett think he is running the show, even though he's not," Chmura says. "Mike [Holmgren] had designated 'yell' guys. He had guys he could yell at and rip, and guys you couldn't yell at and rip because they would go in the tank. Brett was the latter."
Still, Childress and Favre appeared to have struck a balance—after all, Favre had his best season in 2009, and the Vikings came within a game of the Super Bowl. This year, though, when Favre struggled, Childress seemed determined to remind the quarterback who was in charge. At a moment when Favre was at his most vulnerable—after a 28--24 loss in Green Bay in Week 7, when he threw three interceptions to his old team in his old stadium—Childress called him out. "You can't throw it to them," he said to reporters. "You've got to play within the confines of our system."
If Favre is restrained, he pushes back. If given control, he is empowered. He proved it again in a game against the Cardinals in early November. Trailing 24--10 in the fourth quarter, the Vikings had to go to their two-minute offense—and let Favre call some plays. He led Minnesota to a 27--24 overtime victory, finishing with a career-high 446 yards.
Afterward someone asked Favre, "Did you feel like you were playing for Brad's job?"
He said, "I felt like I was playing for mine."
The Vikings fired Childress on Nov. 22, after a 31--3 home loss to the Packers. So in a sense Favre won his last standoff with a head coach. Soon, though, he will be out of a job as well. "I'll be so glad when the year is over," Bonita says, "because 10 years from now he's gonna pay for this."
She has reason to be concerned. Almost every part of Favre's body has been listed on an NFL injury report: hand, neck, toe, hamstring, head, elbow, back, side, chin, thigh, shoulder, forearm, hip, ankle, heel. In the game after Irvin died, Favre played with a broken thumb on his passing hand. Once he was on crutches until Friday with a badly sprained his ankle. He played on Sunday.
Then there are the dozens of injuries that did not end up on an official report, more sprains and bruises and nicks and tweaks. This doesn't even count the time he was wrestling with a teammate in college, caught his ankle in the bed frame and nearly broke it, or the pieces of him that have been removed: bone spurs and bone chips and 30 inches of intestine from a car accident in college.
Favre's friends and family can't imagine him putting on a coat and tie and goofing around on some TV network every week. He hates traveling, and those studios are usually in big cities. Once he's done, he's done: back to Mississippi for good.
Then what? The obsessive mind does not choose to obsess, and it cannot stop obsessing on demand. Brett is three years younger than Scott but looks 10 years older, and Scott has a simple explanation: "He really doesn't seem to enjoy life like he probably should."
If you can measure a man's priorities by how he spends his money, then Favre's heart is on his estate outside Hattiesburg, Miss. He was happy hitting golf balls he found on the course, and even now his wardrobe is out of the Top of the Pile collection. But on his property he spares no expense. The place is filled with tractors, mowers, edgers and blowers. In the off-season Favre wakes at dawn and spends his morning planting, mowing and clearing brush. He'll down a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch and get back to work.
Nobody thinks Favre will be happy working on his property for the rest of his life. Scott hopes Brett gets serious again about golf. Favre is an avid hunter, and not long ago he brought in deer from Texas for his estate. But he can't bring himself to shoot them. Last spring, Bonita says, Brett found a fawn on his property with no mother in sight, and he kept it in a stall and bottle-fed it—she was a fickle fawn, and she would only take the bottle from him.
But Favre still loves to go on hunting trips away from his property, and once in a while he'll shoot a huge buck and give it to somebody. Most of the time, though, he doesn't even fire a shot. It is hard to tell if Brett Favre is hunting or just sitting alone in the woods.