Less than three minutes remained in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday when Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre jogged triumphantly to the sidelines, his first trip to the Super Bowl a done deal. As 60,790 fans shook Lambeau Field to its icy core, Favre received a wool cap, a 1996 NFC Champions hat and a bear hug from defensive end Reggie White, whose smile could have melted the most frozen tundra. "Congratulations, you deserve this," Favre whispered into White's ear, and the big man lost it. Steam rising from his head and tears running down his cheeks, the 35-year-old, 300-pound White turned into a bundle of mush.
This was Favre and White's moment, but much of a football-watching nation shared in their emotion. In a season marred by drug suspensions, trash talk and nine coaching casualties, the Packers restored sentiment to the game. With their 30-13 thumping of the spunky Carolina Panthers, they extended one of the most compelling feel-good sports stories of recent years for another two weeks. On Jan. 26 in New Orleans, the Packers will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, and their celebration of that fact featured a glorious blend of cheers and tears. From strong safety LeRoy Butler's impromptu Lambeau Leap to wideout Andre Rison's chest-thumping histrionics to Favre's silent prayer for his deceased best friend, the Packers made the postgame festivities more dramatic than the game itself.
An hour after the win Favre stood in the Green Bay weight room and reflected on the Packers' first Super Bowl appearance in 29 years. "It's the biggest story in a long time, really," he said, stroking his shaggy goatee. "We've had to overcome so many obstacles, and I think people were moved by our quest. This team has been kind of like potluck, a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. I've done a lot of thinking, crying, cheering and hugging over the past year, and it all began that day in Dallas."
On Jan. 14,1996, Green Bay lost to the Dallas Cowboys 38-27 in the NFC Championship Game. On the flight home Butler, Favre, White and other veterans roamed the plane, discussing their pain and making a pact with their teammates: If we ever get to this point again, we'll do what it takes to win. On Nov. 18 Favre had a bad flashback when the Cowboys slammed the Packers 21-6 in a Monday-night game for their seventh consecutive victory over Green Bay during the last four years. Redemption was supposed to come on Sunday, but the Panthers spoiled the story line by bouncing Dallas from the playoffs on Jan. 5. Still, the scandal-ridden Cowboys, winners of three of the last four Super Bowls, had a presence at Lambeau, a reality driven home during the trophy presentation when Green Bay president Bob Harlan referred to the Pack as "the real America's Team."
In the locker room, veteran defensive end Sean Jones took an even more pointed swipe at Dallas, saying, "We're a humble football team. We're not flashy. We don't have national commercials. You don't see us on the front page of the newspapers doing this, that and the other. I know we're not sexy enough for everybody, but that's O.K. When you wear a Super Bowl ring on your finger, there's a whole bunch of people who think you're sexy."
Two days before the game against Carolina, as he talked with several teammates and former Green Bay cornerback Vinnie Clark, Rison had shown that the Packers are not completely lacking in flash. Rison was waiting for a limousine to take him to the Milwaukee Bucks' game against the Chicago Bulls, and the notion of watching the reigning NBA champions moved him. Sipping on Tanqueray gin, smoking an El Producto cigar and grooving to a rap tune by Westside Connection, Rison looked at two of the Pack's young receivers, Antonio Freeman and Derrick Mayes, and pounded his right fist into his left palm. "Yeah, this is our time!" he screamed. "We're gonna blow up; we've gotta lock down. We've gotta do like the Bulls, like the Yankees—the champions of the world. That's the level we're on. All that stuff that happened to Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman when they won those Super Bowls, that's ours now. I'm thinking we smoke Carolina, then we win the Super Bowl, 56...56 to 3. That's what dynasties do." Rison turned up the volume on the stereo and, as animated as Rod Tidwell in Jerry Maguire rapped with Ice Cube, adding his own twist "Bow down when you come to our town Bow down when you're Green Bay bound."
It was that same type of behavior that Rison says caused Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin to release him in November—and it was inspirational as hell Claimed off waivers by the Packers in the wake of their loss in Dallas, Rison had become more and more comfortable with his new teammates, who had embraced him like a wayward stepbrother. Still. Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren's jaw dropped when Butler came to him before the game against the Panthers and said, "Coach, let Andre talk. He's got the fire. Our young guys need to feel that."
Though Butler is a trusted leader, Holmgren was a tough sell. He had spent the week displaying more paranoia than any play caller since Richard Nixon, warning his players not to go out on the town and ordering them not to do one-on-one interviews. He and other club officials told them not to cooperate with ESPN because they were angered by a story the network aired last month on the Packers and the citizens of Green Bay. Holmgren nearly had a coronary last Friday when he read comments from Rison ripping the Jaguars and their quarterback, Mark Brunell. But Holmgren allowed Rison to give the pregame speech, and Rison served up a pep talk that Butler described later as "hip-hop Lombardi."
First, Rison thanked his teammates for accepting him with open arms despite his controversial reputation. Then, as Butler and Rison recalled it, he turned nasty: "I wasn't here for the Dallas game last year, but I hear a lot of y'all talk about the bitter taste it left in your mouths. Well, f—that taste. This isn't the Super Bowl—it's bigger. There's no way we can let the media intimidate us, telling our offense how it has to handle the zone blitz. To hell with that. They've got to stop us. We've got too many weapons. So let's go out there, run our offense and kick their ass."
The Packers came out fired up, but the offense misfired. With 5:37 left in the first quarter Favre dropped to pass from his own six and threw a short slant in the direction of wideout Don Beebe. However, Sam Mills, Carolina's 37-year-old line-backing wonder, stepped in for an interception and returned the ball to the two, setting up Kerry Collins's three-yard touchdown throw to fullback Howard Griffith.