The Green Bay Packers were Super Bowl champions, but that wasn’t enough for Brett Favre.
No, there was one more box the NFL’s reigning MVP needed to check before putting the 1996 season to bed. So one week after beating the New England Patriots 35-21 in Super Bowl XXXI and bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay, Favre hopped on a plane for Honolulu, Hawaii.
Today, the NFL is trying everything in its power to make the Pro Bowl compelling. More recently, it’s done away with the traditional NFC versus AFC match-up in favor of NFL legends drafting fantasy teams in snazzy-looking uniforms. Such measures weren’t necessary when Favre took the field on Feb. 2, 1997.
Favre, in what would be the final Pro Bowl he’d play in, came out firing. The NFC coach was current Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, whose Carolina Panthers had been dispatched by the Packers in the NFC title game 30-13 only three weeks prior.
It was the closest Capers ever came to coaching Brett Favre. The opportunity gave him a front-row seat to what made the NFL’s original gunslinger tick. Favre played the first three series and completed 6-of-11 passes for 143 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown guard Randall McDaniel.
The AFC ended up winning the game 26-23, but Capers always will remember the passion Favre played with in an otherwise meaningless game.
“During the game, you could tell he wanted to win the game,” Capers said with a laugh. “I think probably all the greats had that. I think anytime they go on the field they want to win no matter what they’re doing.”
It didn’t matter what the circumstances were. Brett Favre wanted to win. It’s what teammates and contemporaries remember the most about him, as the organization prepares to honor the three-time MVP quarterback during halftime of tonight’s Thanksgiving game with the Chicago Bears.
Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr will also be on-hand when Favre’s No. 4 joins Starr’s No. 15 and the rest of the organization’s retired numbers on the north end-zone façade of Lambeau Field.
Current offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett was teammates with Favre from 1992-97 and then worked with him for seven additional seasons as a coach and administrator with the organization from 2001-07. Favre’s demeanor and love for the game left an indelible impact on Bennett, who has spent 21 of his 23 NFL seasons with the Packers.
Asked for one word to describe Favre, Bennett doesn’t hesitate.
“Iron man,” said Bennett of the NFL’s record-holder for consecutive regular-season starts (297). “For me, it’s always rare when you get an opportunity to play with a special player like that, a guy that inspires you. It was unique. It was unique. I feel truly blessed for having an opportunity to play with a teammate like that who gives you an opportunity to make plays. You go back and you look, he was the ultimate iron man. He always showed up.”
Packers quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt faced off with Favre once in his nine-year NFL career. It came in the 1997 regular-season finale between Green Bay and Buffalo. Van Pelt threw three interceptions that day, including one returned for touchdown.
“Had a heck of a day for the Packers that day, I did,” Van Pelt joked this week.
Still, Van Pelt always cherished his opportunity to compete against Favre, who threw for two touchdowns in the 31-21 win to cap his third consecutive MVP season. To this day, what sticks with Van Pelt is the velocity with which Favre could throw a football.
Only a few gifted players could throw a football that hard and still be accurate enough to put it where only his receiver could catch it. Favre certainly made mistakes – his 336 career interceptions were a testament to that – but every week he gave his team a chance to win.
The most impressive part to Van Pelt is Favre did it for 20 NFL seasons. The fact he never missed a start for the Packers after taking over as starting quarterback for Don Majkowski in 1992 only increased his legend.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever see it again,” said Van Pelt of Favre’s consecutive starts record. “That’s tough to do, especially at the quarterback position. The shots that you do take can be very violent and physical in nature. For him to show up every week, I think it’s a tribute to his toughness and his tenacious ability to get out there regardless. Not to let the guys down and that’s one of the things you love to see in your leader, your quarterback.”
Only four current Packers had a chance to play with Favre: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, fullback John Kuhn, receiver James Jones and kicker Mason Crosby. Growing up in Texas, Crosby used to watch Favre all the time and took a lot of pride in kicking the game-winner in his first game with the legendary quarterback in 2007.
The Packers, who came into that season with little expectations, finished the year 13-3 and within a game of the Super Bowl. In what turned out to be his final season with the Packers, Favre ended up having his best statistical season in a decade.
“We had a good team — didn’t end the way we wanted it to — but he did some Brett Favre things,” Crosby said. “I remember the Seattle game in the playoffs and he was falling, stumbling and he pitched the ball off to (tight end) Donald Lee. Just stuff like that. From watching him on TV at the beginning of his career to playing with him that year, he was always having fun, playing the game like he’s on the schoolyard and having a good time.”
Bennett learned a valuable lesson from Favre – the importance of relationships and accountability. For all of Favre’s faults, he always was available for his teammates on Sundays. He knew the “expectations of wearing that ‘G,’” Bennett explains, and what it mean to play quarterback in Green Bay.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy served as Favre’s quarterbacks coach for one season in 1999. He recalled earlier this year his father, Joe, telling his son he’d be foolish not to coach Favre shortly after McCarthy returned from another interview with Jeff Fisher, the then-head coach of the Tennessee Titans.
McCarthy was fired with the rest of Ray Rhodes’ staff after the 8-8 season, but he’d get another chance to work with Favre seven years later. Even at 36 years old, Favre’s passion never wavered when McCarthy returned as head coach in 2006.
“He was obviously a little older in our second time around, but his ability to run the full scope of the offense still existed and frankly it existed in the three years that he didn’t play here,” McCarthy said. “There’s very few players that are able to retire on their own teams, and those are the great ones – and he’s definitely one of them.”
Favre was among the 25 finalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week and is expected to be a first-ballot selection next year. As the Packers get ready to cement his place in franchise history, everyone who came into contact with Favre is reminded of what made him extraordinary.
Those who competed against him also have their own memories of the fearless gunslinger. Every time the Packers came up on the schedule, defensive coordinators knew they were in for a long day.
“It obviously was a nightmare,” Capers said. “You always knew going against Brett you could never relax. … All of a sudden he gets hot and when he got hot, he was as tough as there was to defend. He can make certain throws other guys couldn’t make because he had such arm strength and threw the ball with such velocity.
“He didn’t give the defensive backs as much time to react to it. He had that gunslinger mentality so he’d take shots in there where other people wouldn’t. It looks like you have him covered and then all of a sudden he’d stick the ball in there.”