Easygoing Favre kept Packers teammates loose

Quarterback's easy-mannered tone served a purpose in the locker room

Down-to-earth QB

Favre was far from a diva

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The stink bomb smelled liked rotten eggs, only worse. Two decades later, Antonio Freeman can't forget. A wicked stench filled the receivers' meeting room at Lambeau Field one morning in 1995, waiting for its victims like a sucker punch.

Freeman was no stranger to a good prank, but this wasn't his. He knew better, even as a rookie with the Green Bay Packers.

"There was a jolt of laughter amongst the linemen and quarterbacks," Freeman said in a recent interview. "I remember the coaching staff and everybody being pissed, like, 'Man, if we find out who did this, we're gonna …' "

This prank demanded punishment, coaches promised, if they ever found the culprit.

Nobody came forward. Freeman didn't know who would take the fall.

Then the quarterback raised his hand.

"Turns out," Freeman said, "Brett Favre laid the Spencer's egg fart oil somewhere, and it stunk up the whole hallway. Then it became a laughing matter again.

"It was real eye-opening to see, 'Hey, this guy is close to being untouchable. So I better listen to what he says.' "

Before arriving in Green Bay as a third-round draft pick, Freeman admits now, he didn't know what to expect from his new quarterback.

He was excited to play with Favre, but also nervous. In other locker rooms, on other teams, he'd heard stories about quarterbacks misusing their star power. Celebrity bloated their egos, made them distant.

Freeman remembers the stink bomb, and that first impression stuck. Gagging over the smell, Freeman learned exactly what to expect with Favre as a teammate.

"I didn't know if I was getting a diva," Freeman said, "or a down-to-earth quarterback. Luckily for me, I got a truly down-to-earth quarterback, and it helped me immensely."

***

Turning Point

Brett Favre replaces Don Majkowski

That easy-mannered tone served a purpose in the locker room.

Before games, safety LeRoy Butler remembers, teammates huddled around Favre in the training room. They listened to stories of life growing up in the south, tales from hunting expeditions.

There was no anxiety. No nerves. Not with Favre under center every Sunday.

"Let's be honest," Butler said, "some quarterbacks are suiting up, and you see them coming, and they ain't got a chance. So if you were a defender on his team, you're thinking, 'I've got to play over my head for us to win today.' With the Packers, it didn't happen.

"As No. 4 was getting dressed, I knew I had a chance at victory. That's all I knew. All I had to do was my job. If he was getting dressed, we had a chance. That's all we ask."

Favre arrived as a mystery in 1992. All Packers fans knew was their team spent a first-round pick to pry him away from the Atlanta Falcons.

When Favre arrived, Frank Winters remembers, the young quarterback was hell-bent on getting his shot after being buried during his rookie season on the Falcons' depth chart. There was just one problem. His name was Don Majkowski.

Favre couldn't beat out Majkowski in training camp. He was the Packers' backup in his first three games. But starting with Game 4, he wouldn't miss another start in Green Bay in his 16-year career.

Winters, the Packers' longtime center, still recalls Sept. 20, 1992. When Favre replaced Majkowski early, and found an open Kitrick Taylor down the right sideline with 13 seconds left, the 35-yard touchdown gave the Packers more than their first win of the season.

It gave them a franchise quarterback.

"That was the turning point," Winters said. "What he did on that drive, and what happened at the end when he threw that touchdown pass, the rest was history."

Butler wasn't impressed with Favre's pass, he said. Most NFL quarterbacks can drop a football between a beaten cornerback and late safety from 35 yards.

The surprise, Butler thought, was seeing a 22-year-old who'd never made an NFL start have the "gumption" to go for broke with the game on the line.

Still, there were no hot-take reactions. Nobody dubbed Favre a Hall of Famer in 1992, 1993. He was good, sure. So were a lot of quarterbacks in the 1990s.

Then, Butler said, came Jan. 8, 1994. Favre rolling to his left. Receiver Sterling Sharpe streaking open down the right sideline. One minute left in the Packers' wild-card game at the Detroit Lions.

When Favre found Sharpe for the 40-yard, game-winning touchdown, Butler said, there was no denying his greatness.

"That's when I said, 'That's a Hall of Fame-type quarterback right there,' " Butler said. "It was just everything you're taught not to do. You don't throw it across your body, you've got to go through your progressions, never go for the home run — all those clichés. I played safety a long time. If you're on one side of the field, most guys figure you don't have the arm strength to do that.

"When he made that throw, I said, 'Man, this guy is going to be something.' "

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***

Nobody Tougher

Favre starts 321 consecutive games

Favre had all the physical tools. Arm strength. Velvet touch. A keen sense of fundamentals. His footwork, Freeman said, was better in the pocket than any quarterback he'd seen.

When things clicked on the field, it was special.

"Just an all-time quarterback," Freeman said. "Guys would cut their hand off and find another way to catch to play with a guy like Brett Favre. I walked into a great situation in Green Bay, already having an established quarterback in place. I think that had a direct effect on my career and the success I was able to have."

Freeman knows his legacy is tied to Favre. Nobody caught more touchdowns from the future Hall of Famer, 57 in all. Yes, Freeman knows the number.

What made their connection so special? Freeman doesn't hesitate.

"You want to know the truth?" he said. "I listened to what my quarterback said."

Favre wasn't just the most talented player on the field, he was the smartest. Few things ruffle Butler more than hearing critics speculate that Favre didn't prepare like other great quarterbacks. The reverence teammates held for their quarterback was unparalleled, he said.

In team meetings, coaches addressed the players. Then Favre got a turn.

Butler remembers the practice battles. Favre would call plays during the Packers' 2-minute drill; Butler adjusted the defense accordingly. He loved matching wits with his quarterback. Nobody had Favre's knowledge of the playbook, or the game.

"A lot of people don't know this," Butler said, "but he didn't throw a lot of interceptions in practice. He really didn't. I know people say, 'He leads the world in interceptions.' He didn't throw a lot of interceptions in practice.

"He just made it very competitive. This was the type of guy that would throw a touchdown over you, then see you in the locker room and say, 'Hey man, we've got a 2:30 tee time. Meet us out there.' "

Favre's pass to Sharpe in Detroit was the springboard to one of the best stretches in NFL history. Over the next three seasons, Favre became the only quarterback to win three straight MVPs. It's an impressive streak, Butler said, but not the streak teammates appreciated most.

Nobody was tougher than the man who started 321 consecutive games, including playoffs.

Butler remembers the injuries. A broken thumb. Elbow tendinitis. Bruised ribs. One time, Butler said, Favre's ankle looked like a rainbow — purple, green and bloody.

Didn't matter. Favre went out, week after week, playing through all kinds of pain.

"We used to joke," Butler said, "the best job in Green Bay is the backup quarterback. You can get paid for nothing. We used to joke about that all the time. We'd put 'wanted' posters up. 'Wanted: a backup quarterback that's willing to make a half-million dollars for five years because he's never going to play.' We'd put Ty Detmer's picture up there, Mark Brunell's picture up there, you name it.

"That's what I admired. The guy would literally never miss practice and never miss a game. Never. He just had to be there."

***

Reconciliation

Favre returns to Green Bay

Seven years after Freeman's career ended, he met his former quarterback in the nation's capital.

Freeman was a television analyst covering the Washington Redskins. Favre was a Viking. It was a little awkward, Freeman admitted, interviewing his former teammate before a game in 2010. But Freeman was the furthest thing from angry.

"I was proud of him," Freeman said. "I was happy because so many times general managers force you to cut your career short when you get a step slower, or blow a knee out, or you're not as effective as the pay tag demands. So many times, they run us out of town. They sign you to a four-year deal, keep you a year and a half. Nobody gets upset.

"That's his livelihood. He should be able to control that. Yeah, just don't go to Minnesota, but, hey, when your girlfriend quits you and dates your cousin, you've got to find a way to get back at her. You just want to get back at her super, super bad. You want to hurt her as much as you can. That's kind of the way I looked at it was, a relationship gone bad. 'I'll show her she chose the wrong person.' "

Eventually, the marriage had to end. Favre wasn't going to play forever. Still, it's hard to say goodbye for good.

Each time Favre unretired, Freeman understood. A football player spends his entire career waiting for the day they can be home with their families, Freeman said. No workouts. No early-morning wake-ups. No team meetings.

The idea of retirement is appealing.

The reality, Freeman learned, presents many new challenges. Washing dishes. Lawn work. Taking out the garbage. These are the new repetitions once the whistle stops and there's no more football.

"A lot of time when you get out of this game," Freeman said, "you don't have any structure. You're sitting around wondering what to do because all your good friends, guess what they're doing? They're still at practice. They're still training. So you're at home by yourself, really. When you get home, you're an outcast. You're somebody who's hardly ever there because you were at work. You're a nuisance to your former teammates, because they're in training and you're not.

"That's a reality check. Do I really want to be retired? Do I really want to be home? I love my wife, I love my family, but where's all the fun? It's a big life change for an athlete."

For every fond memory, Butler can't forget the separation. It was a dark day in August 2008 when the Packers traded Favre to the New York Jets, he said. Much darker when Favre signed with Minnesota the next season.

Butler remembers Wisconsin in 2008, 2009. There were Packers fans, and there were Favre fans. The state was split.

"You had people asking, 'Just pick a side. Are you a Favre fan, or are you a Packers fan?' " Butler said. "It shouldn't have to be like that. You should just be a Brett Favre fan, and that'll make you a Packers fan. If you're a Packers fan, you're a fan of everybody in the green-and-gold. But for some reason, it got all divided."

The divide is why Butler has been looking forward to this reconciliation. He'll join many teammates and coaches at Lambeau Field when Favre is inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. Finally, Butler said, the down-to-earth quarterback will be where he belongs.

Freeman also will be there. Eventually, he knew this day would come. Favre and the Packers, together. Freeman said it's time to celebrate the past, in all its imperfection.

"Sports is a game of emotion," Freeman said. "Sometimes you're playing out back, playing football with your cousins and your brother, and a fight breaks out. You know you still love the guy, but you're both just trying to win. You take a little time, and you let tempers settle down. You and your cousin or brother are back friends again, and that's kind of what I'm hoping happens with Brett.

"That's what Brett is. He's that brother that you got mad at when you played, but you realize that he just wants to play. He just wants to play hard, and he wants to play all the time. That's who he was. He was a competitor, he wanted to win, and he wanted to prove people wrong. Part of his whole story is proving people wrong, so why wouldn't it end that way?' "

— rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.

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