Favre returns: Packers welcome home a legend

Weston Hodkiewicz
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It's been almost eight years since Brett Favre threw his final pass for the Green Bay Packers, but the three-time MVP quarterback's legacy is as tangible as it's ever been inside the halls of Lambeau Field.

The accomplishments of his 16 years in Green Bay are forever tattooed in the team's record books and media guides. A generation of Wisconsinites grew up idolizing the canvas on which Favre painted a career worthy of a first-ballot selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

However, they weren't the only ones watching. All across the country, hundreds of future NFL players idolized Favre for his on-field heroics. As the Packers get ready to welcome Favre into the team's Hall of Fame, the memories easily come rushing back.

"That's how I knew where Green Bay, Wisconsin, was," Packers defensive end Datone Jones said, recalling when he was selected by the Packers in 2013. "I can tell his influence on the Green Bay Packers has definitely trickled down to some of the players we have now."

Brett Favre leaves the field after defeating the Seattle Seahawks on October 4, 2003.

Favre's induction into the Packers Hall of Fame starts a two-part jersey retirement ceremony this year. The second comes on Thanksgiving when Favre's No. 4 will join the team's all-time greats in the north end-zone façade during halftime against the Chicago Bears.

It's the final stages of a seven-year healing process for the Packers and Favre. For as ugly as things got in the aftermath of 2008's training camp, there's no denying Favre's contributions. His name fills the team's record books. His likeness is sprawled across Green Bay to this day.

The winning culture that's become commonplace in Titletown was on indefinite hiatus before Favre's arrival in 1992. Now, it's become a way of life with 19 winning seasons, 17 playoff appearances, 11 division titles and two Super Bowl championships in the past 22 years.

The 25 years prior to Favre's arrival? The Packers managed just five winning seasons, two playoff appearances and one NFC Central division title in 1972.

"As an organization viewpoint and I think as fans, (it's nice to) kind of get it finalized and bring it back under him because of what he did for this organization," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "I think there's been a handful of guys who have really impacted it through the history of it and change. You look at Reggie White with free agency and Brett even coming here from Atlanta.

"There's some monumental moments in this organization, and obviously he has quite a few of them. He deserves to be honored the right way. I think they've done it the right way to get it on everyone's good terms."

The franchise's turnaround started the day Hall of Fame general manager Ron Wolf made the gutsy decision to trade a first-round draft pick to the Falcons for an unproven first-year quarterback. The Favre trade, the signing of the future Pro Football Hall of Famer White and the hiring of coach Mike Holmgren brought the Packers back into the limelight.

Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett was the starting running back for the first five seasons of the Favre Era and returned as running backs coach for Favre's final three seasons in Green Bay.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to Andre Rison during Super Bowl XXXI.

It's difficult to single out one specific play to sum up a 20-year NFL career, though his performance against New England in Super Bowl XXXI and resolve in Oakland days after his father's death in 2003 immediately come to mind as definitive moments.

There's also his legendary durability. After taking over for an injured Don Majkowski in 1992, Favre didn't miss a start during his 16 years with the Packers. His consecutive regular-season games started streak of 297 (321 including playoffs) likely never will be matched.

"He was always there. That meant a lot," Bennett said. "Just being the tough guy that he was, the iron man that he was, stands out more than anything. Just his attitude and his passion for the game. He truly enjoyed playing the game. You had other guys kind of feeding off of that and enjoying being out there and competing at a high level."

Fullback John Kuhn is one of the four current Packers who shared a locker room with Favre. The others are quarterback Aaron Rodgers, kicker Mason Crosby and defensive lineman Letroy Guion, who played two seasons with Favre in Minnesota.

Kuhn's favorite memory is the 2007 season. Coming off an 8-8 campaign, little was expected from the Packers. However, Favre enjoyed a career renaissance in throwing for 4,155 yards, 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His 95.7 passer rating was his highest since his MVP years in the mid-'90s.

The Packers went 13-3 and advanced to NFC championship game before falling to the New York Giants 23-20 in overtime. The third-coldest game in NFL history also marked Favre's final one as Green Bay's quarterback.

"We weren't expected to be very good," Kuhn said. "We had a lot of young guys on the team, and Brett and (long snapper) Rob Davis. We had a lot of guys down here and a lot of guys up here. People didn't expect us to be good and we just came out and played very hard, physical football with a lot of intensity. We won a lot of games, surprised a lot of people and got pretty deep. We were really close to making the Super Bowl that year."

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre (4) celebrates with teammate Donald Driver (80) after Driver's 68-yard touchdown catch at Monster Park in San Francisco on Dec. 10, 2006.

The Packers' current quarterback contingent remembers Favre's game well. His playing style might not have been how coaches draw it up, but Rodgers believes Favre's fundamentals were a vastly underrated part of his game.

Now a two-time MVP himself, Rodgers credits Favre for his "phenomenal footwork" and always being in "in tune with body mechanics."

Scott Tolzien never played with Favre, but grew up watching him in Rolling Meadows, Ill. What stood out to the future University of Wisconsin quarterback was Favre's "toughness and just the way it seemed like he was a kid playing the game."

There's immense pressure involved with being the face of the franchise, but Favre never let on. No matter how bright the light shined on him, Favre never showed sweat on the big stage. He reveled in it.

"The thing I take away is sometimes I take the game too seriously," Tolzien said. "I just remember watching him play and he ultimately had fun. He was confident and he had fun. It's good to keep that perspective when you're too uptight about the game or a situation."

Guion, who is entering his second season in Green Bay, cherished the opportunity to play with Favre. His sense of humor was unmatched, whether it was playfully trying to draw him offside in practice or slapping him hard on the backside for a job well done.

And then there were the jaw-dropping plays. The moments where teammates and opponents alike stood in wonderment at how Favre did it. For Guion, it was his game-winning pass to Greg Lewis in the back of the end zone against San Francisco in 2009.

With a rusher breathing down his neck, Favre absorbed the hit and threw a 32-yard bullet past two defenders to Lewis in the 27-24 victory. It was the 43rd comeback victory of his career. His enthusiasm for the game was infectious. It rubbed off on every player he came in contact with.

"The best play I ever seen probably in the history of football, in my career," Guion said. "He always had high energy every day, whether he was hurting early in that day or whether he was feeling good.

"Leadership. Grit. The willingness to just win no matter what, whether we were down or whether we were up. Brett brought that spark that everybody needed, that everybody wanted to feel."

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, left, talks with Brett Favre on the sidelines during an Oct. 7, 2007 game at Lambeau Field.

Time will pass and those current players who competed with and against Favre will grow fewer in number by the year. However, no one will forget what he accomplished in his 20-year career. He brought a disheveled franchise hope and returned the Packers to prominence.

A year before he'll join the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Favre takes his definitive place among the franchise's elite.

"The one thing you always appreciate and remember about Brett is just his competitive nature, just the way he attacked the position of quarterback," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who first worked with Favre as quarterbacks coach in 1999.

"He played beating to a different drum sometimes. I know that was my first impression when I was with him in 1999. So that and the ability to play in every single game as a Green Bay Packer, I think that statement in itself is remarkable. Great player, and this will be a great weekend."

— or follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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