CANTON, Ohio - Though they are 14 years apart in age, Brett Favre and Steve Mariucci were at similar junctures in their careers when a series of improbable circumstances laid them smack dab in the middle of a football renaissance.
As part of a brand new Green Bay Packers staff, Mariucci was expecting to develop at least one young quarterback, but he didn’t know then-general manager Ron Wolf was going to deal a first-round pick for Favre, the farthest thing from a finished product a coach could be handed.
And he didn’t know that three games into the season, the young quarterback would be rushed into duty after Don Majkowski injured his ankle.
The rest may be history, as they say, but here at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Favre will be inducted Saturday evening, it’s part of the lasting memories of a special relationship. Though Mariucci and Favre only worked together for four years, Mariucci has been a teacher, confidante and No. 1 supporter for the last 25.
“We’re family,” Mariucci said Friday after a town hall-style interview with Favre that is running on Sirius XM. “We are. I was close with his entire family, Big Irv, Bonita, Mee-Maw. Brett babysat my kids. My wife, Gayle, decorated Brett’s house over on Park Place.
“We grew up together in the NFL ranks. We were both starting our careers and it brought us together.”
Both of their NFL careers are over now, but as a guy who was part of the “team” that stripped Favre of almost everything he knew as an option quarterback at Southern Mississippi and a run-and-shoot third-stringer in Atlanta and built him into a West Coast artist, Mariucci was front and center in Favre’s life.
Mariucci, an Iron Mountain native, followed the typical circuitous path to a full-time NFL assistant’s job, bouncing around the college ranks and the USFL and working quality control in the NFL. It wasn’t until Mike Holmgren plucked him from Cal-Berkeley in 1992, that he got his foot in the door in the pro ranks.
Shortly thereafter, Wolf sent the first-round pick to Atlanta for Favre, whose dedication to the game had waned while in coach Jerry Glanville’s doghouse.
“He was 250 pounds when he reported,” Mariucci said
“I was on a different diet,” Favre said. “Barley and hops.”
As part of a brand-new staff, Mariucci thought he’d be able to help Majkowski learn a new offense and spend the season having Favre and rookie Ty Detmer learn from the veteran. When Majkowski got hurt in the Cincinnati game and Favre threw a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds, everything changed.
Mariucci had to attach himself to Favre’s hip. When Holmgren couldn’t yell at his young quarterback anymore, he yelled at Mariucci. During the four years that Mariucci spent on Holmgren’s staff, he took on a mission that almost made him an outcast because he was constantly in the position of defending Favre even when the quarterback made the most egregious mistakes.
There was a time when the staff discussed benching Favre in favor of Mark Brunell and Mariucci made it clear it was a mistake.
"Coaches were wondering if we should make a change and players were wondering, but he was always behind me and telling me, `Just hang in there. It doesn't seem like things are getting better, but they are,' " Favre once said of Mariucci’s support.
In thanking the coaches who shaped him, Favre is always careful to name Andy Reid and Holmgren along with Mariucci, probably because the other two had just as much impact on him as a football player. It’s just that Mariucci was there when Favre was the rawest and the most immature and somehow he was able to have an impact on him personally as well as professionally.
Neither was easy.
Mariucci recalled during the town hall the time that the Packers were playing Pittsburgh in an exhibition game and Favre was late for a warm-up drill. Offensive coordinator had Mariucci go and find him. When he got to the locker room, Favre was surrounded by a bunch of offensive and defensive linemen doing impressions of announcer Keith Jackson.
“I grab him and say, ‘Let’s go, we’ve got a game to play,’ and he did impersonations all the way down the tunnel,” Mariucci said.
Early in his career, Favre would sit in meeting rooms and have to listen to Mariucci read letters he got from fans. One of them criticized Favre for never throwing the ball away if no one was open.
“I remember it, it said, 'For the love of Christ, will you teach him to throw the ball out of bounds,'” Mariucci said. “So we named that drill after him. The Ken Cote drill.”
The exercise called for the quarterbacks to roll out, scramble a little bit and throw the ball out of bounds. Mariucci had them practice it so much that Favre got feisty one day and heaved the ball over the practice fence.
“It hit a car and the guy slammed on his brakes,” Mariucci recalled. “The guy behind him hit his brakes and slammed into the other guy. He caused an accident.”
As the head coach, Holmgren had to treat Favre with an iron fist. There wasn’t much time for frivolity. Mariucci had to spend countless hours with Favre and his two partners in crime, Detmer and Brunell, and there was always time for fun.
Mariucci used to have Favre over for dinner, sometimes with the other quarterbacks, and Favre would sometimes babysit for Mariucci’s young children. Though there are many legendary stories of Favre’s nights on the town, Mariucci trusted him to take care of his kids, creating for the young quarterback a family environment away from his Mississippi home.
“I taught them how to read,” Favre said. “And they taught me how to read.”
Favre thought Mariucci’s teaching ability allowed him to flourish. Though tough, Mariucci was flexible. There were some halftimes during December games that Mariucci would bring the quarterbacks into the sauna for their meeting.
When Mariucci announced he was leaving to accept the head-coaching job at Cal-Berkeley after the ’95 season, Favre was devastated. He did everything he could to get Mariucci to stay.
“When he told me he was going to Cal, I was at his house crying,” Favre said. “I said I would pay his salary if he didn’t leave.”
But Mariucci did leave and Favre wound up where the two hoped he always would be – in the Hall of Fame. That Mariucci has been by Favre’s side most of the weekend says a lot about the bond they forged many years ago.
As Mariucci said several times, “We’re family.”