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Grieving On The Gridiron: Brett Favre’s Historic Game After His Father’s Sudden Death

Grieving On The Gridiron: Brett Favre's Historic Game After His Father's Sudden Death
Grieving On The Gridiron: Brett Favre's Historic Game After His Father's Sudden Death

Tom Lynn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

Brett Favre’s place in football history had already been established in December 2003. By then, he had become an unexpected college football star and gone on to play in the NFL for over a decade. 

He had a streak of consecutive starts for the Green Bay Packers stretching over 200 games, and had helped lead his team to a Super Bowl win.

When his father died suddenly just days before Christmas in 2003, some thought Favre’s football stats would suffer. Many assumed he’d need time off to grieve.

But Favre turned tragedy into triumph.

Just one day after his beloved father’s abrupt passing, Favre took to the field and delivered one of the best performances in his historic career.

In the midst of devastation, Favre honored his father the best way he knew how—by playing football.

Growing up a Favre

Upbringing

Brett Lorenzo Favre was born to Bonita and Irvin Favre in the prime of football season: October 10, 1969. Irv and Bonita were school teachers in Gulfport, Mississippi, where Favre and his three brothers grew up hunting and fishing. 

Their main pastimes, however, were playing football and baseball. In fact, their lives revolved around playing those sports.

The Favre family lived in a rural area, so there weren’t many other children nearby. This wasn’t a neighborhood of pickup ball games or walking over to a friend’s house. 

As a result, the Favre boys mostly played with one another, often engaging in their favorite sports and other rough-and-tumble activities. That helped to form a tight knit, albeit competitive, family bond.

The Favres and sports

Initially, Favre excelled more in baseball than in football. The high school team recruited him in the eighth grade to play for the varsity team, where he lettered five years. Although he led his team in hitting throughout his high school career, his arm took center stage. His older brother Scott considered him the second best on the team—when he was in eighth grade.

As he continued to grow, his height and shoulders prepared him for success in football as well. 

Irv Favre coached his sons in football as the head coach of the varsity team at the local high school, Hancock North Central High. Irv pushed Brett, like his other sons, into the quarterback position, for which he caught serious flack. 

His reasoning stood with his belief in his sons; he knew they would always show up to practice and put in the work. That was the expectation in the Favre house: You pull your weight, in sports and otherwise.

When Favre was not receiving snaps under center, he excelled as a strong safety or inside linebacker. Favre was known for his physicality and athleticism as well as the toughness he inherited from his father. Still, his father pushed him into quarterback to provide consistency for the team.

The quarterback position at Hancock was not a coveted one, though. Irv’s offense leaned heavily on the run game, and scouts never saw Favre’s arm. After returning from a football coaching clinic held by Alabama coaching legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Irv exclusively ran the ball, only throwing it when his offense needed to. 

And even if scouts did see one of Favre’s few passes in a game, they may not have been very impressed with his accuracy. Those around him, including older brother Scott, always viewed Brett as a better baseball player than quarterback; Scott was the better QB in the family.

Rocky Gaudin, who coached him from an early age through high school alongside Irv, found that Brett struggled when it came to accuracy. Even with the team’s limited number of passes, his performance could be unpredictable.

His leadership skills, work ethic and competitiveness, on the other hand, were unmatched. To Rocky Gaudin, it set him apart. Irv believed so as well, though he never told his son this. 

One day after a bad game, Favre overheard the coaching staff talking, expressing skepticism in him as the starting quarterback. Irv argued that he believed his son would bounce back and redeem himself, because that was foundational to Brett’s identity. 

His father never really shared emotion nor told his kids he was proud. He just pushed them to improve, expecting nothing short of perfection. 

And because of this, Favre pushed himself to be better—always. 

College recruitment

During his junior and senior years of high school, Favre strived for a scholarship to play college football. Irv’s playstyle, however, did not exactly mesh with that goal considering the Hancock North Central Hawks only threw the ball around five times a game. 

Nonetheless, Irv pushed his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi (where he had starred in baseball), to take a look at his son. After a couple of games and fewer than 15 pass attempts observed, USM told Irv a quarterback scholarship was not possible for Favre. 

They did offer Favre a scholarship for defensive back, which Favre quickly accepted. It was his only scholarship offer. 

College years

From the bench to the starting spot

Favre’s college years started off rocky. 

Ranked seventh in the quarterback depth chart, Favre fought an uphill battle. He received no playing time in the season opener against Alabama and expected to be redshirted. His roommate, Chris Ryals, felt the same.

The night before the game against Tulane, Favre and Ryals stayed up late drinking and sharing woes of not receiving any playing time in the game they loved. Together, they finished off 36 beers. 

The following morning, both students felt hungover, with a young Favre throwing up on the sidelines. Favre might have felt miserable, but the coaches believed in his ability to perform and burned his redshirt.

Early in the third quarter, Coach Jim Carmody switched a young and ill Favre into the game. The crowd, recognizing Favre, roared for the local phenomenon to the bewilderment of older teammates. They had seen him throw at practice, but confusion arose as to why this young, hungover kid was causing such an uproar.

It did not take long for all of his dad’s training to come rushing back and for the confusion to dissipate. 

He led the team to a come-from-behind victory to win 31-24.

After that game, no ambiguity existed in who held the starting quarterback position: Favre was at the helm. From that point forward, Favre led USM’s Golden Eagles to success.

Senior year and continued success

After Favre took the reins in 1987, the football program at USM encountered some personnel changes.

In the first year after transitioning from Coach Jim Carmody to Coach Curley Hallman, the Golden Eagles reached success, winning the Independence Bowl against the University of Texas at El Paso with a final record of 10-2.

The year after, however, finished with Favre and USM at 5-6. Despite the losing season, he maintained similar stats to the previous year, recording over 10 touchdowns and passing for over 2,200 yards. 

Favre aimed to improve for his senior year, but weeks before returning to campus, he was injured in a serious car accident. The damage required multiple surgeries and involved a bad concussion, cracked vertebrae and severe internal damage. 

A month later, Favre showcased the toughness his dad had instilled in him and upset Alabama in his first game back. The coaches considered redshirting Favre, allowing him to maintain a year of eligibility, but he allowed no talk of it. He wanted to play.

Unfortunately, his season did not ultimately turn out as planned, as he only accounted for a portion of his previous season’s milestones. However, the team performed well, achieving an 8-3 record and losing by eight collective points over the regular season. 

Though the team lost in the All-American Bowl to North Carolina State University, Favre still won the MVP award. Favre was then given the honor to play in the senior bowl, the East-West Shrine Game, in which he was awarded MVP honors as well. 

At the time, Irv and Bonita still stressed the importance of getting a degree. They didn’t want Favre to place all his bets for the future in a possible athletic career.

After moving from defense to quarterback, recovering from a serious car accident, receiving MVP awards and setting multiple school records, Favre did as his parents wanted and graduated with a degree in teaching, just like Irv and Bonita. 

At the same time, however, Favre had managed to turn a defensive back scholarship into a starring role as quarterback. By topping school records and setting himself up to be drafted in the 1991 pro football draft, he seized an opportunity and ran with it.

Turning pro

Atlanta Falcons

In the 1991 NFL Draft, the Atlanta Falcons selected Favre with the 33rd pick.

Favre started third on the depth chart behind Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver. On both of his first pass attempts, Favre threw two picks

Reasonably, the Falcons front office and coaching staff were not enamored with him. Falcons coach Jerry Glanville vocalized his displeasure with Ken Herock drafting Favre in the second round by not playing him unless they had “two plane wrecks and four quarterbacks go down.”

Glanville later defended his treatment of Favre, alluding to the fact that Favre’s excessive drinking made it necessary to trade him from the team. With the newfound freedom and lack of oversight due to his position on the depth chart, Favre had been taking advantage of his time in a big city. 

The Falcons arranged for a trade at the offseason: a first-round pick for Favre. Ron Wolf, in his first year transitioning from the New York Jets, helped the Packers get away with a steal. 

Starting off with the Green Bay Packers

For Favre, the Packers were an entirely different experience from his time with the Falcons. 

Don Majkowski started the first two games, with Favre gaining the opportunity under center for the second half of a blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His first pass attempt was a completion—to himself. Over the course of the half, he threw for 75 yards and a pick. 

During the third game of the season, a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Majkowski was injured with an ankle sprain, and Favre ran onto Lambeau Field in his place.

Favre fumbled four times in that outing and was booed by the fans. He also threw 22 completions on 39 attempts for 289 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner with 13 seconds left on the clock. His long last drive to win the game with just over a minute left solidified his spot in the starting lineup.

The Packer’s 1992 season ended with a 9-7 record, barely losing out on a playoff berth due to its NFC North rivals the Minnesota Vikings. The next season, the Packers repeated its humble success, receiving a wild card birth and achieving a playoff win against the Detroit Lions. Over these two years, Favre threw for 37 interceptions to accompany his 37 touchdowns, but was still selected to the Pro Bowl. 

Favre’s toughness and belief in himself shone through his playstyle. He could take hits and still get up, ready to start the next play. Team doctors would help him keep moving; all he wanted to do was keep playing.

In 1994, Favre cleaned up his passes and bolstered his accuracy, throwing for 33 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while the Packers once again went 9-7. 

MVP seasons

Packers fans know the period from 1995-1998 as the golden years for Favre. He led the team to win its division three times in a row, culminating in two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl ring. He was elected NFL MVP three times in a row, the first and only to do so in NFL history. 

In the midst of this success, Favre addressed his prescription pill addiction. In February 1996, less than a month after leading the Packers to the NFC Championship game, Favre voluntarily entered the league’s drug abuse recovery program. The year after his return from rehab, he led the Packers to their Super Bowl win.

Over these three seasons and despite his drug abuse challenges, he amassed 112 touchdowns, 12,179 passing yards, and only 42 interceptions, averaging over 37 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions a season.

In response to his son’s incredible string of seasons, Irv wrote a touching article about his pride and belief in Favre. He expressed joy in being able to watch his son succeed in the football world. 

Post-1997 Packers

The Packers’ 1998 season concluded a streak of six playoff appearances. Coach Mike Holmgren, who started with the Packers the same year as Favre, moved on to the Seattle Seahawks. 

In the years transitioning from one coach to the next, the Packers fell from the level of success it previously experienced. The team did not return to the playoffs until the 2001 season and never made it past the divisional round. 

At this point in Favre’s career, he had already established himself as a Hall of Fame quarterback. 

Leading into the 2003 season, he had accumulated 11 winning seasons in his 12 years as a starter. Favre was the epitome of toughness, making over 200 consecutive starts, never sitting out a single game for injury or illness.

That streak came into question in late December 2003.

Irv’s passing

On Sunday, December 21, 2003, Irvin Favre passed away from a heart attack while driving near Favre’s hometown of Kiln, Mississippi. 

Favre received a call from his wife Deanna while driving in San Francisco with teammate Doug Pederson. The Packers had already arrived in the Bay Area in preparation for their Monday night football game against the Oakland Raiders. 

Deanna informed Favre of the news of his father’s passing and flew out to be with him early the next morning. 

News quickly spread within the Packers organization. Teammates opted not to speak about it out of respect for Favre, but tried to be there for him when he called on them.

Tight end Donald Driver spoke with Favre for about an hour. Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who had lost his mother the year before, also helped Favre process the news through his own emotions going into the game.

Favre had a decision to make.

Would he continue his streak of consecutive starts, or would he take time to grieve his father?

The decision to play

To face such a hard decision so quickly after experiencing loss, the average person would have shut down and backed out of the starting position. In fact, that would be expected based on the wealth of psychological research on trauma and loss. 

Favre, however, had another idea.

He wrestled with the idea of whether to compete the next day, but only for a short time. Within a matter of minutes, he felt strongly that the right thing to do was to play.

Favre reflected on his father and his childhood, realizing that football united his family. He thought his father would have wanted him to play.

Favre told his teammates that he had no intention of leaving his football family that night. While one member of his biological family had passed, his football family surrounded and uplifted him, supporting him in his decision to play.

Favre’s historic game

On December 22, 2003, Favre ran onto the field at Oakland Coliseum for his 205th consecutive game. Normally, Favre would arrive early to get extra throwing repetitions before each game, but on this occasion, he emerged from the locker room shortly before kickoff. 

The entire stadium felt the electricity in the air and knew what this game meant to him and the Packers program. Beyond the emotional importance, the game also held playoff implications. The Packers had to win in order to have a chance to receive a playoff berth. 

A usually raucous Oakland crowd instead cheered for Favre when he was introduced as a starter, holding signs showing their solidarity and sympathy. 

John Madden and Al Michaels called the game for the Monday Night Football broadcast. Before the game, the announcers discussed the uniquely difficult position Favre was in. They marveled at his determination to play and wondered how he’d handle the pressure. 

Brett’s performance

For a game in which it would be completely understandable to struggle on the field, Favre blew it out of the water. 

In the first half alone, Favre threw for 311 yards and completed four touchdown passes.

His first nine possessions he completed for 184 yards, connecting with Wesley Walls and Javon Walker for touchdowns. His 10th was an intentional pass out of play. His next three attempts were all completed, including another touchdown pass to Walker. 

Favre finished the second quarter with another touchdown, bringing the halftime score to 31-7. 

The referees remember that game as if the stars had somehow aligned for pass after pass completion. It seemed as though the ball kept finding its way to the receivers—almost every pass from Favre, regardless of coverage, was caught. To the referees of the game, it seemed like he could not make a mistake.

Even the Raiders players did not play in their normally rowdy style. They pressured Favre, but their physicality resulted in minor penalties compared to their status quo.

Part of the reason for the exemplary performance could be the laidback defense. Perhaps another contributing factor could be the rest of the team playing with a bit more spark than usual. After all, teammate and friend Donald Driver had encouraged the receiving core to catch every ball thrown their way.

But Favre, after the game, thought it could be something else: “I know he was watching tonight.”

One night after the death of his father, Favre put on a performance for the ages. His final stat line read 22 completions on 30 pass attempts for 399 yards and four touchdowns, with a passer rating of 154.9.

Because of this game, Favre continued his streak for most consecutive starts while also bolstering his position in NFL history for touchdown passes. 

Postgame emotions

After the game, Favre told reporters that he felt his dad would have wanted him to compete that night. 

Football had been such a meaningful part of their relationship, from the time his father encouraged him as a child, to coaching him in high school, to cheering him on in college and the NFL. The game was an integral part of their family’s bond, so he played to honor his dad.

Favre and his wife Deanna embraced on the field and left to board a flight home to Mississippi. Others around him watched in awe and gratitude for the performance—one that some might call the best of his career—after an event that all would call a horrible tragedy. His teammates, especially, marveled at what he had just accomplished and felt inspired by his performance.

The influence of Irv Favre carried well past those he coached or spoke to. His toughness, character, perseverance, and legend lived on through his children, especially Brett. Favre passed on that success and love for the game for which his dad felt pride. 

Those at home felt a similar impact.

Future star and Wisconsin native J.J. Watt watched as a kid. He remembers what he referred to as a “magical” performance by Favre and the Packers.

The NFL also felt it was magical, as they ranked this game as the 52nd best game of all time.

Life after Irv’s passing

In the years after, tragedy continued to follow. Ten months after Irv passed, Brett’s brother-in-law passed away after an ATV crash on the Favre’s property. Soon, doctors diagnosed his wife Deanna with breast cancer. And later, friend and teammate Reggie White died suddenly. 

With all of this hardship, Favre continued to perform well in the NFL, albeit not at the previous levels, and the Packers were not in playoff contention much in the years that followed. The management drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005 and traded Favre away soon after. 

However, after a brief stint with the New York Jets, Favre found success with the Minnesota Vikings for a few years before retiring at the age of 41 after his 20th season.

Before his passing, Irv had shared with Deanna how excited he was for Brett to be elected into the Hall of Fame. He told her he couldn’t wait to see it, and the part he was most excited for was presenting his son.

Deanna shared this memory with Brett on the plane on the way home from Irv’s memorial. From that point on, Brett wanted to make it happen to honor his late father. 

In 2016, Favre was elected into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot he was eligible.

Now, Favre honors his father’s memory by coaching at a high school in his town. Though their approaches might vary slightly, and the younger Favre may opt to throw the ball more, the Favres’ toughness, resilience ,and heart continues to be passed on through the younger Favre’s team. 

Though the Favre men did not discuss much or share many affirmations to one another, they did share the common language of sports.

By putting on the performance he did on December 22, 2003, Favre was able to honor his father by playing football, the game they both loved.

 

Sources:

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