The Ole Gunslinger.

It always begins as an awkward conversation when I am asked, “Why the Green Bay Packers?” But on a day like today I figured I would iron it all out for those that care to know. I was never much of a football fan as a child. It seemed odd. Lining up, looking right then left, hiking the ball and moving forward a yard or two and then resetting the entire dance only to do it all over again for three hours. There were always more important things to do and adventures to be had outdoors. Playing games with friends like hide and seek or climbing trees in the woods, imagining fighting off the cops and getting away with the money I had just robbed from the bank in my own “wild-west” reenactment.  I didn’t understand the strategy, the strength and the thrill of rooting a team to victory.

As I grew a bit I slowly came around, but it wasn’t football that initially peaked my interest. It was baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates were getting better. They were winning. People were comparing them to the teams of the 1970s, “We are Family” was making a comeback (odd that we are repeating this course as I write this today).  Unfortunately the success of the Pirates was limited. Shortly after their run and loss by a former teammate the club was torn apart and well, you know the rest of that.

I had learned what it meant to follow a team. I was talking about players, discussing with friends our hopes for a turn around. Together we were part of a community that enjoyed every win and worried about the losses. I was hooked on that feeling. Still, there was something missing within the dynamic of sports that I didn’t understand. Why was everyone rooting for the same team? I understood wanting success for your hometown team. I understood wanting to be able to support your city. But the majority of it seemed fake to me. It seemed forced. It was way too serious. Little did I know that while my beloved Pirates were plunging themselves into obscurity a young man from Kiln, Mississippi was being traded to the Green Bay Packers and my life was about to change.

With baseball season over, and virtually gone for the next twenty years, although there was a “team” that played in Pittsburgh, I decided to turn my sights to football. I didn’t just want to be a homer though. At first, in order to be a contrarian, I wanted to pick the team that the Pittsburgh Steeler fans hated the most. I thought creating controversy while watching the games with friends would be fun. But who should I choose to root for? Who could I get behind? Although I knew nothing about the game, other than watching an occasional game on TV or playing a pick-up game at the park, I loved the position of quarterback. This was the guy that was responsible for the success or failure of the offense. And with the recent success of teams like San Francisco, Miami and at this time Dallas, there were plenty of quarterbacks to choose from. But one of them caught my eye.

There was a wild man in a town I never heard of. On some days he was unstoppable, rolling out of the pocket and whipping the ball downfield for what seemed like forever. Other days he was laying up ducks to be returned the opposite way backfield for the opposing team. But he was out there, he was fun, and this guy was going to be my guy. Every time I stepped on the outfield grass at the local park to play I imagined myself as Brett Favre. I had absolutely no control. I found my receiver and threw the ball as hard as I could, every time, to make sure it got there. Even if it was a ten yard pass I threw it as hard as a fifty yard bomb because that was the way Brett threw it. The more I watched football and learned about the Green Bay Packers the more I fell in love. This was a team that set up shop in Nowheresville. They fell on hard times and the area paid to keep them afloat. We all know now that they are the only “publicly owned” team in the NFL. This was amazing to me! I was hooked.

 

Living in Pittsburgh, PA only fueled my passion for rooting for the Packers, but at this time mainly for Favre. Sports radio was budding and all people here talked about was how great the Steelers were. To steal a phrase from Pittsburgh radio’s Mark Madden “You think they were ordained by God to win everything, every year.” This only drove me more away from the Steelers and to the Packers. Brett Favre was starting his rise to prominence.

During the off-seasons, back in those days, there was a competition on television called the NFL Quarterbacks Challenge that showcased the talents of these offensive leaders in skills competitions. There were timed events where the players moved through an obstacle course throwing balls to cardboard targets, to receiver drills where the quarterbacks were scored on how many completions they could make. The event that peaked my interest the most was the distance competition where each quarterback had a number of balls to throw and was credited for the longest but it had to be within a defined area. From what I recall Brett didn’t win the competition because he couldn’t stay within the boundaries but what is clear as day were the few extras that he threw that eclipsed 100 yards. For those that don’t know, that is the entire length of the field. The other competitors just laughed as he tossed the ball seemingly effortlessly the ENTIRE LENGTH OF A FOOTBALL FIELD! What couldn’t this guy do?

Enough back story though, let me tell you what this is really about. I see in Brett Favre a human being that loved doing what he did. Every day he laced up, he was out there to have fun. He played the GAME like none other. Sure there were mistakes on and off the field. He is human. All athletes are. But in Brett you have a guy that loves the game like we as fans love the game. 3rd and 40? Let’s do it. 4th and 25? No problem. Pain? It’s football. Get up. Rub some dirt in it. Go to work. Live life. In Brett Favre I learned emotion.  In a single game I would go from friend to foe. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Every snap of the ball could be triumphant victory or gut wrenching defeat. As a fan of the Packers I rode a roller coaster with Favre that places like Cedar Point and Kennywood Park could only dream of building.  Sadly there was only one Super Bowl victory under Favre but sometimes it isn’t about winning. It really isn’t. It’s about the journey every season.

For the duration of Brett Favre’s career my life took a lot of awkward turns. I graduated high school and moved away to college. The Packers won one Super Bowl and lost another. I met the love of my life and got to share many Packers games with her. Brett Favre become the NFL’s first three-time Most Valuable Player. I graduated college and enlisted into the United States Army. On a cold Monday night in the middle of the woods while performing maneuvers I saw Antonio Freeman catch a Brett Favre pass that deflected off of Freeman’s back and he ran in for a game winning touchdown in overtime. I came home from the Army to face the “real world” as former friends and colleagues shipped out to Iraq after 9/11. Brett Favre’s dad passes away in 2003 and he has, in my mind, the most spectacular game for an individual I have ever seen. My mother passes away. The Packers draft a new quarterback signaling the end of an era.

Knowing that he was getting long in the tooth and wouldn’t be playing much longer with the Packers, I convinced my wife to take a trip with me to Lambeau Field to see Brett play before it was done.  Going to Green Bay for me was like a trip to Disneyworld for a child. I was sick with anticipation before leaving. When I got there I was completely overwhelmed. We toured the stadium and got to walk on Lambeau Field. To do this requires you to cross a small row of bricks from the field’s original construction that all of the great Packer players have walked on; Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Reggie White, and Brett Favre. To know me is to know that I am not the silent type. During football games my dog hides in a different room or by my wife’s side as I scream and cry and pace. Man, do I pace. But in Lambeau I couldn’t do any of it. I was frozen.  As the crowd roared the entrance of the team I could only stand and watch silently. It was him, ole number 4, trying like hell to lead our Packers to victory. Sadly the game was an absolute failure. Brett was knocked out of the game in the first half and didn’t return. The rookie Aaron Rodgers came in and broke his foot. He would finish the game but would miss the remainder of the season. The Packers lost 35-0 to the Patriots. I would have liked a different outcome but would never change the experience. I just wanted to sit there and be in that spot forever. It was home.

Then came the retirement problems. Will he or won’t he? What will the team do? Like most things, ESPN made way more of this than they should have. They created a circus, but that is their job. I guess. Brett was painted to be the bad guy for stringing the team along. I stood in the middle and still do today. Brett wanted to play. The team wanted to move forward. Aaron Rodgers was nearing the end of his rookie contract and would never resign to sit the bench. He has too much talent to waste as a back-up. So what happened, happened. By now I am a die-hard Packers fan, a shareholder, but still love Brett Favre. What do I do? Luckily it lasted only three years and I was able to root for both, with the exception of four games while he was with the Vikings. I believe that Brett would have played another year if “Bounty-Gate” had not destroyed his aging body. And into the books he went. I enjoy the fact that Brett Favre at one time was both statistically the best and worst quarterback in the game. He had the most touchdowns and the most interceptions. This means the man played the game with everything. HE gave it all to the game and took us all with him for the ride.

To me Brett Favre epitomizes what the game of football and life are both about: learning, loving, living, wining, losing and having fun. You only get to do it once, so do it for as long as you can as fun as you can. Sure there will be missteps along the way, but that is life. Take each day with the people around you and try like hell to make it your best. Learn to laugh at yourself and the dumb things you sometimes do. Play the game to the fullest and you will be surprised with the results. Smile. We are lucky to be here and lucky to have players like Brett to show us that along the way.

 

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