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They came almost 30 strong on Sunday and filled a suite overlooking the field at the indoor stadium in downtown Minneapolis formerly known as the Metrodome. There were Brett Favre's wife, Deanna, and their two daughters. There were his two brothers and his sister and all their kids. There were his mother, his aunt and his mother-in-law. There were old friends from back in Green Bay and some others from Minnesota and, by god, it could just as well have been a wedding (or sadly, a funeral) down home in Mississippi as a football game up north, except for the more than 63,000 others in the house, half of them, it seemed, wearing purple or white number 4 jerseys.
Deanna will tell you the family and friends came out like this because it was playoff time and you just never know when her 40-year-old husband might do something epic, like dropping four touchdown passes on the Cowboys in a 34--3 elimination victory. Like faking Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears off his feet and then throwing a second-quarter touchdown pass to Sidney Rice, as if they were playing backyard ball in one of Favre's Wrangler ads. Like finding Rice from 45 yards out in the fourth quarter for the receiver's third touchdown catch and then running full-out into the end zone and jumping onto guard Anthony Herrera's massive shoulders before hoisting Rice into the air. Because nobody would want to miss any of those things.
Brett will tell you, yeah, it's all of that and something more, too, something closer to the bone. "Because they never know if it might be the last one," Favre said following Sunday's game. And then he shrugged that famous Favre shrug because, he said, he doesn't know either. But after 19 years, 308 consecutive starts, two retirements and the accumulation of almost every significant NFL passing record in a career that reads like an epic novel, nobody would want to miss that either.
For now, the end is on hold. Favre and the Vikings will play in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in New Orleans against the Saints. They will play in a building less than 50 miles from Favre's native Kiln, Miss., and less than two hours from his home in Hattiesburg. It's the stadium in which Favre won his only Super Bowl, 13 years ago as a member of the Green Bay Packers. A story that began crazily in August rolls on through January. "One of those incredible years," says Deanna. "One of those special years you never forget."
Vikings All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson to Brett Favre upon returning to practice from the bye week: "I've never had a chance to ask: Have you had fun this year?"
Favre: "Oh, yeah, it's been a ball."
The whole thing seemed so absurd. After 16 seasons in Green Bay, Favre spent 2008 with the Jets; they started 8--3, finished 1--4 and missed the playoffs. Favre looked shot at the end and, making things worse, was criticized after the season by teammates who said he was aloof. The Vikings had gone 10--6 in 2008 but lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs. They were perceived as a respectable team that was a quarterback short of serious contention.
Favre retired in February and underwent shoulder surgery in May; a torn biceps tendon was repaired, a small rotator cuff tear left alone. The Vikings tried to sign him in midsummer, but Favre declined; eventually, though, he agreed to a two-year, $25 million contract, and on Aug. 18 he arrived at Vikings practice as a passenger in coach Brad Childress's black SUV. From the outside, the team and the quarterback both looked vaguely delusional.
Favre didn't see it that way. He had been uncomfortable in New York on several levels. Jets coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense was descended from that of Don Coryell, in which pass routes are identified by numbers; Favre had always played in a Bill Walsh--style West Coast attack, in which routes are given names. It is not unlike two different languages. "There were times when I called a play and I was still figuring it out while I walked up to the line of scrimmage," says Favre, "sort of translating it back to West Coast language in my head. Eventually Schotty started meeting me halfway, because he had some experience in the West Coast offense earlier in his career."
Off the field, metropolitan New York life jarred him. "Things were real simple in Green Bay all those years, and I took that for granted," says Favre. "Even something like travel. I'm in New York, and it's an hour bus ride to the flight, and most of the flights are long." Perhaps most damaging of all, Favre's arm gradually went dead.