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From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, December 10, 2007
THERE IS NO HAPPIER PLACE THAN GREEN BAY, WIS., ON A SUNDAY evening after the Packers have won. The beer tastes better, the girls are even prettier, and no one seems to notice the bite in the air. In a town defined by its team, civic temperament can be quantified on a scoreboard. On Nov. 18, in the moments after the Packers had defeated the Carolina Panthers 31-17 at Lambeau Field, the parking lot was alive with merriment. Kids in number 4 jerseys and GOT BRETT? sweatshirts chased footballs with abandon, tailgaters handed out bratwurst right off the grill, and one optimistic gent tried to sweet-talk the more attractive passersby into adding to the impressive collection of donated bras he had strung up on a flagpole.
The epicenter of Green Bay's game-day good cheer is adjacent to Lambeau, just across Holmgren Way, a block over from Lombardi Avenue: Brett Favre's Steakhouse, located at 1004 Brett Favre Pass. The restaurant ("Where you are the MVP!") is a 20,000-square-foot temple to the Packers' quarterback, and following the Panthers game Favre's extended family had gathered in a private back room for a celebration of its own.
Brett's wife, Deanna, was there, looking glamorous in a long coat and high-heeled boots. Even before her memoir about beating breast cancer hit The New York Times's best-seller list, she was the second-biggest celebrity in Green Bay. Favre's mother, Bonita, was holding court at one of the half-dozen tables, her throaty laugh audible over the din. Brett's sister, Brandi, was cooing over her newborn daughter, Myah, while his brothers, Scott and Jeff, were busy refereeing their young sons, who were creating a ruckus by playing tackle football with an empty water bottle. Also enjoying the spread of steak and crawfish and all the fixings were various cousins, neighbors and hangers-on. In this loud, lively gathering only one person was missing—the man for whom the restaurant and the street are named.
In his 16th winter in Green Bay, Favre has turned into Gatsby, throwing a party he no longer enjoys. While his family and friends were reliving every detail of his three-touchdown performance against Carolina, Favre was at home a couple of miles away, stretched out on his couch, watching that day's NFL highlights and cuddling with his lapdog, Charlie. By the ostentatious standards of modern-day celebrity, Favre's house is modest, but it suits him fine. On this Sunday evening it was dark and quiet, giving him some precious hours to decompress. There was a time when Favre never skipped a chance to celebrate—"Hell, I always had to be the life of the party," he says—but now solitude is what he thirsts for.
"As I've gotten older, I've become more of a loner," he says. "You've just been out there in front of 80,000 screaming people, everyone watching every move you make, the pressure of all that—it's fine and dandy for three hours, but afterward...." Here Favre takes a big, billowing breath. "I used to thrive on that adrenaline. I never wanted it to end. Now I need to get back to reality. Like sitting on the couch with Charlie."
If Favre is weary, it's only because he has given so much of himself to Green Bay through the years. "He means everything to these people," says Donald Driver, who caught Favre's passes for nine seasons. "He's not only our leader—he's the symbol of the franchise, of the whole town. There's a generation of fans in Green Bay who don't know this team ever existed without Brett."
When Favre decided to return for the 2007 season, even die-hard Cheeseheads must have been hoping only that he would not tarnish his legacy. What no one expected was that Favre would reinvent himself yet again, enjoying one of his best years at age 38 while cajoling a talented but callow team to a stunning 10-2 record. [The Packers would finish the season 13-3 and reach the NFC Championship Game. Along the way Favre passed three significant milestones for quarterbacks—touchdown passes (442), passing yards (61,655) and victories by a starter (160).]
But one achievement above all others speaks to what Favre is made of: his Ripkenesque streak of 253 consecutive starts at quarterback—more than five seasons ahead of the next player on the list, Peyton Manning. Favre has rarely been flawless (after all, he leads the NFL in lifetime interceptions, with 288), but he's always shown up. Through pills and booze, through cancer and car crashes and heart attacks, he has played on. Once reckless on and off the field, Favre matured before our eyes while never losing his boyish love for the game. Every weekend the whole of Green Bay may have lived and died on Favre's rocket right arm, but his greatest legacy lies in how many people he has touched between Sundays.
THE INTENSITY of Favre's relationship with Packers fans goes far beyond mere longevity. Since his arrival in Green Bay in 1992 (by way of a trade with Atlanta), his success on the field has been dampened by personal setbacks and heartache, including his two stints in rehab; the death of his father, Irvin, in 2003, and of Deanna's younger brother, Casey Tynes, in '04; and then, just four days after Casey's funeral, Deanna's learning that she had breast cancer. Always the Favres were overwhelmed by the outpouring in Green Bay—bags of letters, innumerable prayer circles and kind wishes murmured in the grocery aisle.