Favre’s Return: What Kind of Homecoming?
GREEN BAY, Wis. - He's the iconic quarterback who, for 16 record-setting years, symbolized the grit of the storied Green Bay Packers franchise. But when Brett Favre returns to his adopted hometown this weekend wearing the purple and white of the Minnesota Vikings, will he be viewed more as a local legend - or as a traitor?
Favre will hear the high-decibel verdict Sunday from Packers fans shortly before the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff when he trots onto Lambeau Field with the Vikings. The highly anticipated NFC North showdown will be the first time Favre, 40, plays at Lambeau in a uniform other than the Packers' green and gold.
The fans will render judgment on Favre's messy divorce from the 91-year-old franchise in the summer of 2008, when he was traded to the New York Jets. Favre retired after a year with the Jets - then resurfaced with the Vikings, a bitter rival to the Packers. The soap opera has divided this town of 102,313, where Brett Favre's Steakhouse (located at 1004 Brett Favre Pass) continues to serve food to diners surrounded by Packers memorabilia.
"Are you kidding? Of course they're going to boo him," says Paul Hornung, 73, the Hall of Fame Packers running back from 1957 to 1966.
"There's Packers fans who are adamantly (ticked) off that he's in a Vikings uniform. We'll probably see some fans burning his jersey in the parking lot. . . . This guy has the guts of a burglar."
With Sunday's game being played the day after Halloween and the evening before a full moon, it's hard to imagine a more haunting image for Packers Nation than one of their legends returning in a Vikings jersey.
The return of the three-time NFL MVP and one-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback has churned conflicted sentiments in Green Bay.
"Last year when the Packers and Favre had their falling out, it was like watching your parents get divorced," says Rob Sax, 40, a marketing firm owner who will be at Lambeau on Sunday.
"One year later, they're divorced. And now you find out your dad married the really nasty neighbor lady across the street. Packers fans feel one of their own has turned on them."
Favre knows better than to expect a warm welcome. His Vikings (6-1) own a 1-and-one-half game lead on the Packers (4-2) in the NFC North. Oct. 5 in Minneapolis, Favre threw for three touchdowns to lead the Vikings to a 30-23 victory against the Packers in the first of two games between the teams this season.
"There will be a mixture of (cheers and boos), understandably so," Favre said Wednesday at Vikings headquarters. "What I have accomplished there and was a part of, you can't take that away. . . . From the standpoint of playing there with another team is obviously something new to me.
"Being welcomed there for so many years was special. It will always be special."
It was hard enough for Packers fans to watch Favre perform for the Jets last season after his return from his first retirement in 2008 led Packers general manager Ted Thompson to trade the winningest quarterback in NFL history that August.
Thompson and Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved on to Aaron Rodgers, the 24th overall selection in the 2005 draft, and opted to trade Favre to New York rather than send him to a rival such as Minnesota.
After a disappointing 9-7 finish with the Jets and an arm injury, Favre retired again after the 2008 season.
He reversed field a second time after having surgery in May to repair a torn biceps tendon, accepting a two-year, $25 million offer from the Vikings.
Signing with Minnesota made Favre "the ultimate traitor," says Krystina Engebos, 25, a bartender at Titletown Brewery Co. in Green Bay.
Even so, some here remember Favre for changing the outcome of games in the Packers' favor and for bringing new life to a franchise that fell on hard times after coach Vince Lombardi's Green Bay teams dominated the NFL for much of the 1960s.
"I'm still a Favre fan. He put us on the map. How can you not like the guy?" says Kent Preston, 50, a Green Bay resident and energy company salesman. "It's been a soap opera the last few years on whether he was going to come back or not. But he's great for the game."
Others aren't as solidly in Favre's camp.
"I love the guy, but I hate him at the same time," says Mark Hennes, 46, a season ticketholder and bricklayer from Freedom, Wis., who Tuesday took a tour of Lambeau with his 7-year-old son, Matthew.
"Management must have wronged him pretty bad that he'd come back after us this way."
Packers fans watched Favre mature from wild risk-taker - he spent 46 days during a 1996 rehabilitation stay for an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin - into a father and husband.
They watched as Favre fought through his grief to throw for four touchdowns in a 41-7 victory in 2003 against the Oakland Raiders, one night after the death of his father, Irvin.
They offered support when his wife, Deanna, overcame breast cancer in 2004.
Favre's boyish joy for the game and durability in starting a record 296 consecutive games captivated fans - until he sent a July 11, 2008, letter to the Packers seeking his unconditional release.
"We watched a young hell-raiser grow into a man. He was Green Bay's chosen son," says Dave Dushek, 45, a UPS driver from Rice Lake, Wis., and a shareholder in the Packers, the only community-owned big-time professional sports team.
"Now, it's like Brett went from the Hatfields to the McCoys."
Rodgers, the league's second-rated passer who was named NFC offensive player of the month for October, thinks he knows where the fans' loyalties will lie Sunday.
"There's obviously a lot of emotions involved because of the time he spent here," says Rodgers, 25.
"I'm confident that once the ball is kicked off, the Green Bay Packers fans will be cheering for the Green Bay Packers."
'He was dead to us'
Packers fans have found a variety of ways to express their feelings about Favre's return.
Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt selected four "tasteful" suggestions from among 1,000 to mark the occasion.
Schmitt declared today "Flip-Flop Friday," when city employees can wear flip-flops, a barb at Favre's on-again, off-again retirement.
Titletown Brewery will host a Saturday tailgate party featuring waffle fries with green and purple ketchup, tweaking Favre's Jets and Vikings incarnations.
Schmitt will rename Minnesota Avenue "Aaron Rodgers Drive" for Sunday.
"Some people wanted to change Brett Favre Pass to Brett Favre Interception. Others wanted to take the P off Pass," he says.
Playing off the quarterback's uniform number, an Appleton, Wis., radio station will hold a mock "Funeral-4-Favre" at a Green Bay sports bar Friday with hearse, casket, pallbearers and a mannequin corpse.
"As soon as Brett became a Viking, he was dead to us," says WAPL disc jockey Rick McNeal, 51. "We felt the reason we lost to the Vikings was because we didn't have closure."
A sarcastic "We'll Never Forget You, Brent " T-shirt produced by a Madison, Wis., store provides a popular anti-Favre expression.
Sax came up with "Mourn4" black armbands, which are being sold for $5, with all the proceeds benefiting the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Coalition. He expects to sell 4,000 to 5,000.
"Brett's been like a family member here," says Schmitt, 50. "At the end of the day, he's still family. This just so happens to be one of those family reunions where it may take a couple of years to patch up what was done."
'You want to win it more'
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana can relate to Favre's situation.
Montana beat his former team after the four-time, Super Bowl-winning quarterback was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1992 following two injury-plagued seasons that opened the door for Steve Young.
Montana beat the Young-led 49ers 24-17 in a 1994 matchup. Montana was 38.
"Yeah, you want to win it more than any game," Montana says. "But if you focus on that part of it, you lose sight of what you're trying to accomplish. . . .
"(Favre) brought a lot of it on himself, the way he strung that whole situation out in Green Bay. He knew he wanted to play."
Favre is playing as well as ever, throwing for 12 touchdowns and three interceptions this season. His late-game heroics were key in two of the Vikings' six wins.
If Favre could play what teammates considered the game of his career in honoring his late father, it seems he should be able to keep his composure Sunday in Green Bay.
"This game is way different than when his dad died; that was more a personal dedication," says Packers wide receiver Donald Driver, a Favre favorite from 2002 to 2007. "I think he'll be able to handle this one. We'll see."
Favre remains an elite quarterback. But for how long?
Over his last five games of his last four seasons, Favre has totaled 13 touchdowns and 34 interceptions.
Former NFL head coach and Monday Night Football analyst Jon Gruden was a Green Bay assistant coach from 1992 to 1994, which coincided with the start of Favre's career with the Packers.
"I don't think there's any vendettas," Gruden says. "He still thinks he can play and wants to prove it to you, me and everyone he can do it at a high level."
Can he do it at a Super Bowl-winning level?
"He's the most courageous guy who's ever played the position," Gruden says.
"The arm is still there. If the Vikings get in the playoffs inside (the Metrodome, their domed stadium), I'd take my chances with (league rushing leader) Adrian Peterson, that defense and Brett Favre to win it all."
It's too early to look ahead to the playoffs, but Favre's impact on Green Bay's economy is clear.
"The Packers are a flagship company in this community," Schmitt says. "You look at the $3-and-one-half (million) to $4 million they'll bring this weekend. They bring in a great deal of tourism. They are part of who we are."
"We felt the tsunami drop-off of Favre leaving Green Bay last year throughout the local hospitality industry," says Doug Warpinski, 57, general manager of the Best Western Midway Hotel near Lambeau. "It was a 10 percent to 15 percent drop-off (in business) for games when he left."
Will Favre be troubled by a negative reaction from fans in his longtime home?
"Packers fans, as you know, are like no other," Favre says.
"But if you're a true Packer fan, you want the Packers to win.
"If you're a Brett Favre fan (in Green Bay) this week, you obviously don't want me to win.
"But for the most part, you hope the guy does well - but hope that the Packers go all the way."