GREEN BAY, Wis. — I have two talents in life.
One is the flipping and catching of towering stacks of quarters off my elbow.
The other is sneaking into places.
I’ve sneaked into some crazy spots. Back in 2003, while writing for Newsday, I somehow ducked through a police barricade, past a bouncer and into the MTV Christmas party in the Hammerstein Ballroom. Four years later, during the final reporting stages of my book on the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, I slid beneath a barricade, past two off-duty police officers and into Michael Irvin’s private post-Hall of Fame induction bash (musical guest: the Pointer Sisters!).
But as I stand here in front of the D2 Sports Pub on a Saturday morning, I find myself stymied. Inside, down a hall and in a small banquet room to the left, sits one Brett Lorenzo Favre, signing autographs at anywhere from $150 to $500 a pop. To be in the line that now numbers 312 people, you need to have acquired a ticket. I have no ticket. You also need an item for Brett to sign. I have no item.
What I do have, however, is a guy in a Clemson T-shirt with an approximately 2-foot-tall plastic Brett Favre doll. He is standing here, waiting with the others, and he is drawing tons of attention. Spectators pat the doll’s head, rub the doll’s belly, laugh at the doll, take photographs of the doll, take photographs with the do—
And I slide through.
Just like that. As the iPhones are snapping and the people are smiling and the half-dozen or so security guards are, well, twiddling their thumbs, I simply relocate myself onto the line. Nobody asks for my ticket or my officially licensed Brett Favre item. Nobody wonders why I’m holding a pen and notepad.
I once heard Barry Bonds explain the power of “walking like you belong,” and he was 100 percent correct. I am walking like I belong. Which is why now, about five minutes after sidling up behind plastic Brett Favre, I am inside, sidling up five feet to the left of the real Brett Favre, the quarterback Green Bay loved, then worshiped, then hated, then forgave and now—it appears—loves and worships again.
I hover there, debating my next move, when I opt to simply put down my pad and take in one of the weirdest/most unique spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. With the mere sight of Favre, struts turn into tiptoes and strong, burly men are transformed into puddles of wuss.
Planned statements (“Brett, I was at the game in ’96 when you...”) veer a sharp left at the tip of the tongue, replaced by “Um...” and “Er...” and “Welcome back.” A large guy in his 50s sobs. Another’s hands are quivering. From fear. From excitement. From too many synapses popping at once.
The man they are here to see is merely a man. Blue T-shirt, crappy baseball cap, shorts. His hair is silver, his features a bit softened with time. In Green Bay, however, the weekend of Brett Favre’s return to have his number retired and to be inducted into the franchise’s Hall of Fame is no mere weekend.
It’s a religious resurrection.
One I was able to witness firsthand…
Friday, 4:20 p.m.: Long day. Flew the red eye from Los Angeles to Chicago, drove three-and-a-half hours to Appleton, checked into Room 326 of the La Quinta Inn, then headed 30 miles up the road to Green Bay. Upon arriving, I made certain to dine at one of the city’s finest eateries.
Behind the cashier’s desk at Pizza Hut are three framed photographs of Brett Favre. I ask Karen, my waitress, whether the images were strategically placed for the big weekend.
“Nah,” she says. “They’ve always been there.”
“Do people comment on them?” I ask.
“Only sometimes,” she says. “Almost always asking us why we haven’t taken him down.”
Friday, 5:40 p.m.: I’ve walked a few blocks down to Lambeau Field and into what must be America’s most bountiful stadium store. Name a Packers item, any Packers item, and it’s here. Shirts, hats, masks, makeup, capes—all green and gold, (almost) all made in China, all overpriced.
This is actually my second visit of the year. When I came in May, my eight-year-old son, Emmett, requested I return home with a Brett Favre jersey. So I entered the shop to find…nothing. Tons of Aaron Rodgers, tons of Eddie Lacy and Clay Matthews and Randall Cobb. No Brett Favre. I asked an employee where the No. 4 section was located. She looked at me and, in a semi-hushed tone, whispered, “Your best bet is to try some local thrift stores.”
Twenty minutes later, I dropped $5 at the Bethesda Thrift Shop on a used Brett Favre No. 4, size 10 (I also snagged three packs of gum, two candles and a T-shirt for the Green Bay East High School Class of 1988 20th reunion—all for $7.23).
But now it’s retirement weekend, and the Packers store is overflowing with both shoppers and green-and-gold, made-in-China, overpriced Brett Favre merchandise. For $39.95, there’s a Brett Favre commemorative coin. For $6.95, there’s a Brett Favre foam hand. There are T-shirts for $25, Christmas tree ornaments for $8.95, a “limited edition” photograph for $124.95. Want a Brett Favre lanyard? Just $7.95. An authentic jersey? $129.95.
“Or you can go to the store across the way,” a local tells me, “and get the s--t at half the price.”
Friday, 8:30 p.m.: I am sitting at a table inside Brett Favre’s Steakhouse, with a handful of past employees enjoying an evening of remembrance. Two of the women served in managerial capacities. Another was a freelance photographer. They’re all laughing and drinking and having a fine time, but a gray cloud seems to hover above the proceedings.
Two decades back, Packers players made the steakhouse a home away from home. They’d eat here, drink here, hold christenings and baptisms and all sorts of holiday shindigs. Some of the players were famously wonderful (Robert Brooks), some were notoriously rude (Mark Chmura)—but they came. And came. And came.
Now, the magic doesn’t feel the same. It’s still a nice steakhouse, but not a home.
“I don’t think players stop by any longer,” one of the revelers says. “The camera phone changed everything. Times are just so different.”
Saturday, 10 a.m.: Before sneaking into this morning’s autograph signing, I talk with people on the D2 Sports Pub line. It’s, at best, a quirky scene. Take Comic-Con and sprinkle in some football, and you’ve got the wait to meet Brett Favre. There are 1,001 different genres of Brett Favre jerseys, Brett Favre photos.
Several men I speak with insist upon wanting to “just shake Brett’s hand and look him in the eye”—but the fantasy dialogue (Brett looks up and says, “[FILL IN THE BLANK NAME], I really appreciate that. Let’s grab a couple of cold ones later.”) sort of ends there.
I try to pry a bit more—“Do you want to thank him for the Super Bowl title? Ask about the 2003 Monday night game in Oakland? Find out what Na’il Diggs smells like?”—but no one bites. The mean demographic: 40-year-old white man with an affinity for sports jerseys and an apparent nervousness when placed in the presence of celebrity.
Then, I spot…her! Candace Seib from Farmington—long blond hair, perky cheeks, decked out in, of all things, a purple Favre Vikings jersey. Now this is someone different! “I just love Brett,” she says. “All I want is to look him in the eye and thank him for…”
I once had coffee with Na’il Diggs.
Terrific guy. Smells like lavender.
Saturday, 10:41 a.m.: I am standing against the wall, watching Favre sign expensive items for speechless fans, most of whom have lost 98.7 percent of the color in their faces. Suddenly, Aaron Popkey, the Packers director of public affairs, spots me and walks over. “Hey, Jeff,” he says.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Well, I sorta snuck in.”
An awkward pause.
“OK.” He hands Brett his final draft for the night’s big speech and walks off with a smile.
Saturday, 11:22 a.m.: “We invited Brett and Deanna to our wedding,” the man says.
“Ah,” I reply. “They’re friends of yours?”
“No,” the man says. “We don’t know them. We just…”
I start backing away, slowly. He stops me. His name is Chris Weis. His wife is Nicole. They love the Packers. Like, love, love, love, love the Packers. He’s wearing a green No. 4 jersey. She’s wearing a We Love Brett tank top. So, back in 2009, Chris and Nicole sent an invitation to the Favres’ Mississippi home. Just on a lark. A few weeks later, they received a reply: THE FAVRES REGRET THEY WILL NOT BE ABLE TO ATTEND.
That card is framed and on display in the Weis’ house. That, in a sense, is why they waited two hours and paid a couple of hundred dollars to get an autographed thingamajig.
“He means something in our life,” Chris says. “Bigger than you might think.”
Saturday, 11:54 a.m.: A security guard spots me. He is now wondering how the guy with the notepad sneaked through. I suddenly pretend I have a phone call and exit the room. I neither bid Brett Favre farewell nor return.
Saturday, 2:22 p.m.: My wife often complains that being married to a sports writer has brought her 13 years of non-perks. My rebuttal is, admittedly, pretty thin. “Thanks to my career,” I say, “you’ve answered the phone when James Carville and Ed Hearn have called. You attended bull riding at Madison Square Garden. You went to a Sports Illustrated Christmas party. You stood next to Derek Bell’s boat…”
At long last, a perk has arrived—albeit for me. Tickets to sit in the Lambeau Field atrium for this evening’s Brett Favre celebration were insanely hard to score. They sold out within a couple of hours, many going to corporations that purchased full tables.
Thanks to a friend of a friend, however, I was able to land one seat—for $180.
The good: Huge night in football history.
The bad: I have to wear a suit. I won’t know anyone at my table. I have to wear a suit.
Along with the $180 ticket, I’m gifted with a pass to the pre-banquet VIP shindig at Club 1919 inside the stadium. As I dash through the parking lot in my suit, sweating like Shaq at the foul line (one of Favre’s old jokes) in the 95-degree Green Bay heat, a thought crosses my mind: If I’m a VIP solely because I have a friend of a friend, who the hell isn’t a VIP?
Then I meet him. His name is Kurt Groshek, and he’s dressed in a green Favre jersey, yellow Packer game pants, high green socks, game shoes, wide receiver gloves and a hat with the G logo.
“You look like a pretty big fan,” I note.
“You could say that,” he replies. “What do you think my son is named?”
I don’t even venture a guess, though “Phillip Epps Groshek” crosses my mind.
He smiles. “Brett Aaron…”
I back away.
Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Not all that long ago I had a conversation with Basil Mitchell, a former star running back at Texas Christian who had spent some time with the Packers. I asked him what it was like being an African-American athlete in a town that’s nearly 80 percent white. “There was always a joke,” he said with a laugh. “If you’re black in Green Bay, everyone knows you’re either a Packer or straight out of the penitentiary.”
Mitchell’s words enter my head as I wander through a VIP party that, for the most part, feels like the hors d'oeuvres period at Brett Farvowitz’s Bar Mitzvah. There are free drinks and free finger foods and a crowd of subdued, well-dressed white people.
Suddenly, with nary a word spoken, former Packers defensive back Charles Woodson joins the party—and everyone notices. Woodson is neither particularly tall nor particularly magnetic, but for a spell he’s the only African-American in the area, and word of his presence spreads like a Southern California blaze.
Before long, he’s posing for a nonstop stream of pictures (I counted 37 before giving up). At one point, I tap him on the shoulder, introduce myself and begin to ask what it’s like to pose for a nonstop stream of pictures. However, I am interrupted by a gray-haired woman’s request that Charles Woodson pose for a picture.
Saturday, 5:10 p.m.: An announcement is made: We are to proceed to our tables inside the atrium. I proceed to my table inside the atrium.
It’s No. 55, and I am placed alongside Brett Favre’s banker, Brett Favre’s banker’s wife, Brett Favre’s old local golf pro and Brett Favre’s older local golf pro. Every guest receives a bunch of gifts, including a Brett Favre coin, a Brett Favre glass and a bottle of Brett Favre special-label beer—somewhat ironic in that Favre no longer drinks alcohol.
The room is spectacular. The food is scrumptious. Over the next hour or so I jot down a list of random observations...
• Bonita (Brett’s mom) in black dress; looks lovely.
• Ahman Green has world’s coolest goatee.
• Chicken undercooked.
• Who’s the ex-Packer in jeans and T-shirt?
• Why is the corporate guy from the local supermarket being allowed to speak for 30 minutes?
• Awesome invocation line from priest—“Lord, we thank you for great brats and cold beer…”
• Donald Driver looks like he can still play.
• Why is Antonio Freeman wearing sunglasses indoors?
• Why is Antonio Freeman’s son using an iPad at the table during a $180 dinner?
Saturday, 7ish p.m.: I have lost track of the exact time, because, quite frankly, I am blown away. With no warning inside the atrium, Favre has left to walk out onto Lambeau Field, where more than 67,000 fans paid $4 a pop to sit and watch the proceedings on a giant screen. Now we’re the ones watching on a giant screen, and the emotion leaps through the pixels. Favre looks to be crying. Half the people around me look to be crying. I later talk with Brandi Favre, Brett’s younger sister, and I’m pretty sure she was crying.
It’s during this period that I grab about six cookies from the dessert tray.
Saturday, 9 p.m.: Brett Favre is sitting with his family toward the front of the room. The speeches are becoming a bit endless, and I can’t help but wonder how he feels. He’s wearing a dress shirt and jacket—Brett Favre famously hates dress shirts and jackets. The affair is a bit stuffy—Brett Favre famously hates stuffiness. It’s entirely about him—and I’m pretty sure Brett Favre doesn’t love things being entirely about him. He’s still a country boy from Mississippi.
And, as that thought fades, Brett Favre rises to give his speech. He receives a standing ovation that lasts a solid five minutes, then another one. He looks a bit nervous and somewhat overwhelmed—hard to blame him, when the stadium is still packed with fans watching from their seats.
Then, with the room quiet, Brett Favre starts to talk. And talk. And talk. And talk.
It’s a bad speech by most standard speech measures—long, rambling, unfocused. And yet, it’s perfect. Over his 46 minutes behind the podium, Favre makes certain to mention seemingly every employee who worked for the Green Bay Packers during his 16 seasons. Equipment managers, trainers, public relations staffs. On and on and on.
And he doesn’t simply name them. He tells a colorful story. Or drops a nickname. It may well be the most inclusive Hall of Fame speech of any type ever given, and when it concludes, Favre is, again, granted an ovation.
For a few seconds, my inner cynic arises. I turn to the banker’s wife at my table and say, "So what’d you thi—"
She has tears streaming down her cheeks.
Saturday, 10:56 p.m.: Someone has stolen my Brett Favre glass. Which is OK, because the facial etching looks more like former Dodgers first baseman Greg Brock than it did Brett Favre. I’ve also misplaced my Brett Favre coin.
The good news? Matt Hasselbeck, veteran NFL quarterback and Favre’s former backup, is standing alone near an elevator. As I approach, I hear him explaining to someone that, yes, she’s excellent but, no, Elisabeth Hasselbeck is not his wife. “She’s married to my brother, Tim,” he says unenthusiastically.
“Does that happen often?” I ask.
“Man,” he says, “you have no idea…”
Hasselbeck is a trip. Boston accent, talks with his hands, loves the three years he spent in Green Bay. “I’m sure I learned some things from talking to Brett,” he says. “But the real lessons came from watching. The way the guy did things—always having fun, but always professional—that rubs off.”
I leave, then turn moments later to see him speaking with a stranger. “Thanks,” he tells the man, “but she’s not my…”
Sunday, 10 a.m.: I check out of the Appleton La Quinta to drive two hours to Madison for the Brett Favre Legends Game—a flag-football clash between a bunch of ex-Packers and a bunch of ex-NFLers.
Now, there are those in Green Bay who think Favre’s 2008 departure was entirely his fault, and those who assign the blame to Ted Thompson, the team’s stoic general manager. Some have been slow to forgive Favre; some have been slow to forgive Thompson.
All, however, seem to agree that there’s something truly off in the Packers' not allowing this game to be played at Lambeau. The official team excuse: Fear that the players will rip up the field. The reason the official team excuse is lame: Last month Kenny Chesney held a concert at Lambeau, and he and his fans did rip up the field.
So the game is being played in Madison, a cool college town with a big college facility (Camp Randall Stadium). And despite the $34-to-$55 ticket prices, people seem genuinely excited. A good six hours before kickoff, the streets are packed with folks in green-and-gold garb.
I am minding my own business on a sidewalk when I run into John O’Neill and Mary Beth Johnson, who have been married for 34 years. John calls himself “Saint Vince” and dresses in a Packers-themed cardinal outfit. Mary Beth is “Cheese Louise.”
“We did this the first time at Super Bowl XXXI, but just as a lark,” says John. “It was just supposed to be a tribute to Vince Lombardi. But everyone loved it—so here we are.”
Sunday, 3:20 p.m.: So the game is supposed to pit a team of Packer “greats” against a team of NFL “greats.” And, indeed, “greats” are in attendance. The Packers squad includes Favre, Andre Rison, Frank Winters, Dorsey Levens. But it also has, well, Craig Nall. And someone named Steve Warren. The Greats, meanwhile, are quarterbacked by Donovan McNabb (great) and Sage Rosenfels (not so great). The running game is bolstered by ex-49er Roger Craig (great) and ex-Bronco Reuben Droughns (not so great).
The crowd, meanwhile, is just OK. In Green Bay, everyone agrees the game would have sold out in a couple of hours. Here, however, in 80,321 capacity Camp Randall, the building feels quiet and largely empty. Someone puts attendance at 21,000. Later, I’m told 17,000. A local reporter says it’s the same sort of crowd big high school playoff matchups draw.
As soon as Brett Favre is introduced, however, no one cares. He is the last player to run onto the field, and the moment is, simply, electric. In his press conference from a day earlier, Favre explained how he didn’t miss playing, he missed the experiences. The jokes. The bus rides. The companionship.
Now, he was being blessed with one final taste. He hugged Javon Walker, high-fived Chmura, laughed at Winters and told stories to Nall. Some of his passes were sharp and crisp. Others were not. One team won, one team lost—nobody particularly cared.
No, this was about Brett Favre.
Afterward, those of us in the assembled media were promised a “solid five minutes with Brett.” Indeed, it was five minutes. Surrounded by a sea of cameras and miniature recorders, he talked about throwing the ball and seeing old friends and feeling fulfilled with a nostalgic and emotional weekend. Then, with his concluding word, the most famous quarterback in Green Bay history jogged off toward the locker room, where his teammates awaited.
For the final time.