Bart Starr gritted and smiled as he stepped off the golf cart. Both arms around human crutches, serenaded by familiar cheers, he stood on Lambeau Field’s grass one final time.
This night belonged to another Green Bay Packers legend. Brett Favre’s name and number was retired at halftime of the Packers 17-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. It was the final piece of reconciliation for a quarterback who had a nasty divorce from the franchise eight years ago.
Standing at midfield, Favre was happy to share his night with Starr.
“I really wanted him to be here,” Favre said.
It took a tiny miracle for Starr to make this Thanksgiving trip from his home in Birmingham, Ala. Over the past year, his health has been failing. Strokes and a heart attack stole his memory and damaged his motor skills last fall. He’s endured not one, but two stem-cell treatments since then.
Favre said he wasn’t sure whether Starr could make it onto the field. He saw Starr on Thursday morning, and the 81-year-old looked different than he remembered. Favre could tell health issues had taken a toll on his mind and body.
“I was worried,” Favre said.
But, yes, Bart Starr made it to Green Bay. He walked on Lambeau Field. Nothing was getting in the stubborn quarterback’s way. Not even frigid, spitting rain.
“I talked to Bart Jr. right before,” Favre said. “I saw him here, but I didn’t get to see him up close. It was right before (we went onto the field), and I said, ‘Is your dad ready?’ He said, ‘Oh, he’s ready.’ So you think, ‘Oh, OK.’ But he was gritting his teeth. It was awesome.
“I got more of a thrill out of that than what I was here for, and I mean no disrespect to anybody. To see that excited at 81 years old was pretty awesome.”
Favre was at Lambeau Field to become only the sixth Packers player with a retired jersey. In yellow lettering, his name took its rightful place beside Reggie White, Ray Nitschke, Don Hutson, Tony Canadeo and Starr on Lambeau Field’s north façade. One day, current Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will join them.
Rodgers said he got a chance to talk with Favre before kickoff Thursday. The two also hugged on the field.
“It was good to see him,” Rodgers said.
For Favre, he said, it felt good to be back. It was Favre’s first time at a Packers game since his final retirement in 2010. The cheers he received Thursday were boos five years ago. Back then, he was a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
Favre said the memories rushed back when he arrived at Lambeau Field. He thought of the good times, and there were plenty. Three MVP seasons. Consecutive Super Bowl trips. A title in 1996. His career lacked for nothing.
He also thought about the monsoon game
On Halloween, 1994, the wind and rain made conditions borderline unbearable at Soldier Field. It was similar to the weather Thursday night in Green Bay, with two significant differences. This time, the Packers lost to the Bears, and Favre wasn’t playing.
“I was 20 years younger,” Favre said. “My hands were frozen out there tonight. I think that was actually worse. That night, that was actually worse. It might not have been as cold, but of course I wasn’t playing tonight.”
Favre said it felt different not being able to play. He was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, no pads. When he arrived at the gate Thursday afternoon, security checked him in.
For a quarterback who was the face of the franchise for more than a decade, it felt weird.
“I was a normal person,” Favre said. “When I played, I just drove on in. I could run over the curb if I wanted to. I got to see what it’s like to watch a game from a box. You can’t see anything. Food, people talking to you, it was a different way to see this experience.
“But I’ll tell you – and, obviously, I played at other places – there’s no place like Green Bay. There’s no place like Lambeau Field. I encourage anyone – fan or not – to watch a game here at least once.”
Favre was expected to attend a Packers game last season, but any plans were delayed after Starr’s health problems. The night wouldn’t have been the same without him, Favre said. He was glad they waited.
“Obviously, time is not on his side,” Favre said, “but we held out hope. Bart Jr. and Cherry and their entire family was determined to get Bart back. I think it was the right way to do it.
“I think that was a special way to send him off.”
So Favre watched as Starr rode that golf court out the tunnel. After rounding the end zone where he famously plunged 1 yard for the winning touchdown in the Ice Bowl, Starr’s chariot turned for midfield. Starr waved to the crowd. He pumped his fist. He stepped out of the golf cart, took a couple steps.
Then the two legends hugged near the 50-yard line.
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