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50 in 50: Brett Favre delivers his magnum opus one day after the death of his father

JR Radcliffe
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Green Bay Packers Brett Favre waves to his wife, Deanna, in a luxury box after throwing his fourth touchdown pass of the game during the second quarter of their game against the Oakland Raiders Monday, December 22, 2003 at Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, Calif.

With the sports world on hold, we present a countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. This is No. 6.

When Brett Favre accepted his third consecutive National Football League MVP award in 1997, he had a playful message for his father and former high school football coach, Irvin.

"I always told my dad the wishbone would never get me to pro football," Favre joked. "Thanks, Dad."

Irv had indeed been a disciple of the wishbone and hadn't let his son air it out at Hancock North Central High School in Kiln, Mississippi. Nonetheless, Brett wound up playing college football at Southern Mississippi, where Irv had played baseball years earlier.

Irv, who made numerous appearances in Wisconsin during his son's time in Green Bay and even had a role on postgame radio shows with WTMJ, had walked away from coaching in 1994 but returned in 2001 with an indoor minor-league team called the Mississippi Firedogs in Biloxi. He led the team to a 17-1 record and league championship.

Football was in his blood, and so was his family.

"He was a fixture," Packers president Bob Harlan said. "He loved to watch his son play."

Around 5:23 p.m. Dec. 21, 2003, the 58-year-old Irv Favre's 2003 Chevrolet pickup truck left the road near his home in Mississippi. He had suffered a heart attack, and though onlookers tried to revive him, he was pronounced dead at 6:15 p.m. The stunning loss came one day before Brett Favre's Packers were scheduled to face the host Oakland Raiders on "Monday Night Football" in the team's penultimate game of the season.

Brett received the news when his wife, Deanna, called Packers backup quarterback Doug Pederson, who was with Brett when the call came in.

"He was the pillar of his family, the rock on which it was built," said Brett's agent, James "Bus" Cook. "He was a father, but he was like a brother to them, too."

The funeral and visitation was set for Tuesday. Over the next 24 hours, the sports nation wondered whether Brett would play in a crucial late-season game across the country in California. Favre hadn't missed a Green Bay contest in more than 11 years, with a streak of more than 200 games played, but how could he possibly play Monday given the gravity of the loss?

"Obviously, the organization is just very saddened," Harlan said. "It's just a terrible story. As much as we knew Irvin, and you know how we feel about Brett and Deanna, there's great, great sorry and sympathy."

Favre not only played, he delivered the single greatest performance of his legendary career with the Packers. With a national TV audience acutely aware of the quarterback's grief, Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-7 dismantling of the Raiders.

Part of the family

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre is escorted off the field with his wife, Deanna, after the Packers defeated the Oakland Raiders, 41-7, "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 22, 2003 in Oakland.  Favre's father passed away the day before.

It bears repeating how much Favre meant to Packers fans. Yes, there was the messy and sometimes surreal rift that developed between the organization and the player after his departure in 2008, not to mention his decision to join the Vikings in 2009. The fences have been mended since, and he's back among the most popular figures in Wisconsin sports history, just as he was in the early 2000s.

Favre had, of course, piloted the Packers to two Super Bowls and one title, with eight playoff appearances in the preceding decade as the team navigated through the 2003 season (and three more playoff appearances to follow). He'd played in 204 consecutive games heading into the Oakland battle, including playoffs, and no quarterback had done that before. He was on his way to several more records in his career, but just as importantly, he was the free-wheeling gunslinger whose flair for the dramatic and aw-shucks air made him intensely endearing.

"Brett Favre is this tough quarterback who's indestructible," Packers coach Mike Sherman said. "He showed a very vulnerable side and shared that with them. On the same lines the team showed a side of themselves toward him, a very caring, consoling side to help him through his grief, and I think that culminated with the way they took the field against Oakland."

In 2003, though, the 8-6 Packers were in a tough spot, needing to finish with a flourish and get some help from other teams to crack into the playoffs. The Packers schedule closed with Oakland on the road and Denver at Lambeau Field.

Favre didn't leave his Berkeley hotel after hearing of Irv's passing. His family encouraged Brett to stay and take the field the next night.

"I've been around people who have lost a family member, lost someone close to them, and they say that person is there watching, or you know, angels, whatever," Favre said the following week. "I would say two weeks ago I didn't really believe in that, but I think we better start believing in something because the odds were against us."

Favre finished the game with a 154.9 passing rating, the highest of his career. While he had battled through injuries to his thumb, knees, hip and elbow during his career, not to mention the removal of 30 inches of intestine days after a serious car accident in college, he'd never faced this.

"There is no road map for this, this is the right way to handle it, this is the wrong way to handle it, this is how you do it," ABC commentator John Madden said during the broadcast. "It is something that has to shock you. How Brett Favre is going to handle this, I have no idea."

Walker, Ferguson and Walls

Green Bay Packers Brett Favre throws a touchdown pass to Wesley Walls while being pressured by Oakland Raiders Lorenzo Bromell during the first quarter of their game Monday, December 22, 2003 at Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, Calif.(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Tom Lynn)

Favre completed his first nine passes. Two plays after a rainbow 47-yarder to Robert Ferguson, Favre threw a flawless pass off his back foot to the corner of the end zone for a 22-yard Wesley Walls touchdown. Favre jumped into the arms of his offensive linemen, a familiar move for the exuberant quarterback, and was now tied for second all-time with Fran Tarkenton in career touchdown passes.

Later in the first half, Favre was alone in second place after a 23-yard pass to Javon Walker. Only Dan Marino had more.

When Favre hurried a heave into the end zone from midfield and Walker came down with a leaping catch in double coverage for a touchdown, the Packers had a 24-7 lead. That score had been set up by a 27-yard sideline circus catch from Ferguson. Raiders cornerback Phillip Buchanon was the primary victim.

"It was a Favre day," Buchanon said. "He did some great things on 'Monday Night Football.' He made some great throws and I did some bad technique things. ... It was a nightmare game for me."

Walker made another absurd catch in traffic for 43 yards just before halftime, setting up a 6-yard touchdown pass to David Martin. With four catches for 124 yards, Walker delivered what is certainly his most memorable game as a member of the Packers.

"You couldn't draw up a script better than that," Sherman said. "You hoped he'd play that type of game, but the chances of that happening, unless it's Brett Favre, are unlikely. This guy put together a career day."

In the first half alone, Favre completed 15 of 18 for 311 yards. 

The week that followed

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre celebrates his first quarter touchdown pass to tight end Wesley Walls, left, during their Monday night football game against the Oakland Raiders at Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, California, on Monday, December 22, 2003.

Ahman Green added the lone second-half touchdown for either team, but by then the game had become anticlimactic. The Packers were on their way to a 9-6 record and 5-3 road record for the year, matching their best showing since 1972.

Still, the Packers looked like they were on the outside of the playoff picture. When New Orleans beat Dallas during the first round of games the following week, it closed off the wild-card possibility for Green Bay, meaning the Packers' only way into the postseason was a win over Denver and a Minnesota loss to three-win Arizona. 

The Cardinals had beaten the Packers in Week 3, but a Minnesota loss still looked like a longshot. Favre flew to Mississippi after the Oakland game for Irv's funeral and returned to the team by Friday to cram for the Denver game.

"We're a close team to begin with and now it appears we're even closer because of this," Sherman said. "And so adversity does bring out sometimes the best in you and sometimes the worst. With this team, it's brought out the best in us."

This one wasn't a contest, either. Green Bay throttled Denver, 31-3. At Sherman's request, the Minnesota-Arizona game wasn't displayed on the Lambeau scoreboard during the game, but everyone knew what happened in the desert, anyway.

Nate Poole's ridiculous catch as time expired gave the Cardinals a thrilling 17-16 victory, giving the Packers the NFC North crown. Green Bay would later give Poole a key to the city and invite him to the Packers' playoff game the following week. 

"As I said after the game Monday night, I felt like he was watching," Favre said. "Something's going on here. My emotions right now, I'm numb, to be honest with you. I've cried as many tears as I could possibly cry. And I'm so proud of this team and what we've been able to overcome. A lot of people were concerned about our emotions coming out.

"I was just in the locker room, and everyone is cheering, and I said it's hard to cheer because this is so unbelievable. It's beyond my comprehension. I have never been a part of anything like this."

Favre led the league in passing touchdowns for the fourth time in his career with 32, and his seventh 30-touchdown season was the most for any quarterback. When he was removed midway through the fourth quarter for Pederson, Lambeau Field gave him a standing ovation. 

How the moment lives on

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, right, is hugged by teammate Ahman Green at the end of Green Bay's 41-7 victory over the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 22, 2003, in Oakland, Calif. Favre's father, Irvin Favre, died the day before. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Favre played in memorable games thereafter, including NFC Championship Game appearances with Green Bay and Minnesota. But nothing topped the single-game excellence of the Oakland game. 

The Packers were immersed in an unforgettable four-week stretch. In the playoff opener against Seattle, the Packers won in overtime on Al Harris' pick-six against Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. A week after that, the Packers lost in overtime to Philadelphia in the infamous "4th-and-26" game.

Green Bay went back to the playoffs in the 2004 season, but Sherman was fired after going 4-12 in 2005. The organization hired Mike McCarthy, and a new era of Packers greatness began almost immediately, including with Favre in the 2007 run to the NFC Championship Game.

Fans may have been frustrated with Favre during his acrimonious departure (or the organization for letting it happen), but he's once again one of the most beloved figures in Wisconsin sports. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, you better believe highlights from the Oakland game were in ample supply.

Favre's record streak of 297 games played didn't end until long after he'd left Green Bay, in 2010.

Great moments in Favre

ORG XMIT: NY157 FILE - This Jan. 26, 1997, file photo shows Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre celebrating after throwing a touchdown pass to Andre Rison during first quarter action at Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.  A stretch of 297 straight starts, 321 counting playoffs, ended Monday, Dec. 13, 2010, because of a shoulder injury that not even the indestructible one could overcome. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File)

Which Brett Favre moments in a Packers uniform are your favorite?

Sept. 20, 1992 — Favre replaces an injured Don Majkowski to make his Green Bay debut and leads his team to a 24-23 win over the Bengals after being down 14 points. He capped it with a touchdown pass to Kitrick Taylor.

January 8, 1994 — In his first playoff game, Favre uncorked a 40-yard touchdown pass to Sterling Sharpe with 55 seconds left, and the Packers prevailed in Detroit, 28-24, for their first playoff win in 11 years.

Dec. 18, 1994 — Favre plunged into the end zone on a 9-yard rush with 3 seconds left for a 21-17 win over the Falcons in the final Packers game ever at Milwaukee County Stadium. The Packers finished 9-7 and advanced to the playoffs, with another first-round win over the Lions.

Nov. 12, 1995 — Favre throws five touchdown passes despite a badly injured ankle, including a fourth-quarter touchdown to Edgar Bennett that accounts for the winning points in a 35-28 win over the Bears.

Jan. 6, 1996 — Green Bay enjoyed a breakthrough to the NFC Championship Game with an uplifting win over San Francisco in the divisional round, 27-17. Favre threw first-half touchdown passes to Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura.

Jan. 12, 1997 — Favre completed 19 of 29 passes for two touchdowns as the Packers carved up Carolina, 30-13, and returned to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1968.

Jan. 26, 1997 — Favre passed for 246 yards and two touchdowns, including a 54-yard bomb to Andre Rison on the second Packers play from scrimmage to help Green Bay win their first Super Bowl in nearly three decades, a 35-21 win over New England.

Sept. 26, 1999 — Favre's game-winning 23-yard touchdown pass to Corey Bradford for a 23-yard touchdown with 12 seconds remaining beat the Minnesota Vikings.

Nov. 6, 2000 — On a rainy Monday Night against the Vikings, Favre lofted a pass in overtime that appeared incomplete, but Antonio Freeman reeled it in, stood up and ran to the house for a 43-yard game-winning score, prompting announcer Al Michaels to scream, "He did WHAT?"

Sept. 30, 2007 — Favre's 16-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings set the new NFL career passing touchdown record, passing Dan Marino's count of 420. Favre finished with 508, now in fourth behind Drew Brees (547), Tom Brady (541) and Peyton Manning (539).

Oct. 29, 2007 — On the first play of overtime against the Broncos, Favre hit Greg Jennings for an 82-yard touchdown pass that gave the Packers a walk-off win.

Dec. 16, 2007 — With a 7-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver, Favre set the NFL career passing record, bypassing Dan Marino's mark of 61,361 yards. Favre finished his career with 71,838, a mark that has since been passed by Brees, Brady and Manning.

Rules of the 50 in 50 series

  • Moments are recorded over the 50-year window from 1970 to 2019 (sorry 2020, but you're disqualified)
  • These are moments and not achievements, although that largely goes hand-in-hand.
  • These are "greatest" 50 moments, so you won't see moments that are pivotal but ultimately heartbreaking (like the NFC Championship loss to Seattle, Kareem getting traded, etc.)
  • You also won't see (many) moments that came to be recognized for their greatness later, such as the day the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo or the day the Packers traded for Brett Favre.
  • Moments considered include teams based in Wisconsin and Wisconsin athletes competing in individual sports or as part of national teams (such as the Olympics), or moments on Wisconsin soil.
  • These are singular moments. You're supposed to remember where you were when they happened.

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.