No doubt, Favre is Packers' greatest of all time
The first time I ever talked to Brett Favre one-on-one was at the end of training camp in 1993.
It was his second year with the Green Bay Packers and my first on the Packers' beat, and he was going to be the cover story for the Press-Gazette's season preview.
For about half an hour we sat in a stairwell next to the locker room when it was on the north end of the stadium, before Lambeau was renovated in the early 2000s. The conversation was informal and relaxed, and Favre was both funny and serious. We talked about the upcoming season and the longer future, and when I asked him his career goals, he immediately answered that he wanted to be the best quarterback in NFL history.
I remember thinking, you know, I really enjoy this guy, but what? Are you kidding me?
I didn't know at the time that I didn't know anything about anything, but in my defense, this was long before Favre was a three-time NFL MVP.
He was coming off his first year as a starter, a 9-7 season in which he'd shown flashes of ability and a cannon arm that stood out to anyone who'd watched pro football even casually. But at the time, was anyone other than Ron Wolf thinking Brett Favre was going to be an all-time great? No way.
Yet here Favre was Saturday night at Lambeau Field, almost 22 years later, the first player in Packers history to be inducted into the franchise's hall of fame and have his number retired on the same night.
Favre's not quite going down as the best quarterback ever, though he probably cracks the top 10 of that illustrious list. For instance, Bill Polian, the Pro Football Hall of Fame of general manager, ranked him as the No. 9 quarterback on his list from a New York Daily News survey in 2014 of the best NFL players ever.
But on this day, as his number is retired, Favre unequivocally goes down as the best player in franchise history. Better even than the two great stars of the 1930s and '40s, receiver Don Hutson and fullback-linebacker Clarke Hinkle. And better than all of the Pro Football Hall of Famers from the Lombardi years.
Yes, Aaron Rodgers has a chance to surpass Favre, but Rodgers is only about halfway through his career. The next eight to 10 years will determine that.
But what makes Favre especially consequential in Packers history is the state of the franchise when he arrived. It's not an overstatement to say that the Wolf-Mike Holmgren era Packers might have saved the franchise in Green Bay.
It's easy to forget now with the franchise flourishing, but if the nearly quarter-century of losing following the Lombardi era had continued, the Packers might have had serious difficulty selling enough stock and getting the $295 million referendum passed by Brown County voters to refurbish Lambeau Field. And without the added revenue from the refurbished Lambeau, there's a chance the Packers might not have survived in Green Bay.
In fact, Paul Jadin, Green Bay's mayor at the time, told Harlan that if the referendum hadn't passed, the Packers would have left Green Bay by 2015.
"Thank God we were winning when that referendum came up," former team president Bob Harlan told me recently. "If we were still like we were in the '70s and '80s I don't think we would have had a prayer."
And while Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Reggie White played absolutely critical roles in the winning, the most important figure was Favre, because he did it on the field at the game's most important position. That set the foundation for a franchise that since 1992 has the NFL's second-best winning percentage (.637), behind only New England (.641).
So while Favre was far from the only person responsible, it's hard to overstate his role.
"I take pride in that everyone's just kind of used to winning now," Favre said at his press conference Saturday afternoon. "That's not a bad thing, and we were the ones that kind of started that off."
There's plenty of responsibility on both sides for Favre's divisive departure from the Packers in 2008, which caused the long wait for Saturday night's honors.
Favre brought much of it on himself by starting to seriously contemplate retiring in the early 2000s. The yearly offseason drama had to wear on the team's coaching staff and front office, and GM Ted Thompson had to look out for the team's future when he drafted Rodgers in 2005. It's hard to overstate the importance of that decision as well.
The Packers, on the other hand, should have known that if they pushed Favre out — and make no mistake, they did by asking for his answer in the spring of 2008 — that he was too competitive to stay retired when he still was playing good football at age 38. And when Favre said he was coming back in the summer, Thompson should have had the courage of his convictions and traded him then and there.
But at this point, seven years ago seems like seven decades, and on this night it was long forgotten. I knew the Packers sold out the Lambeau Field bowl (about 67,000 tickets) in a couple hours for the right to have Favre drop in for about 20 minutes and then watch the Packers Hall of Fame and number retirement banquet on the stadium's big screen. But I wondered how many actually would show up. There weren't many empty seats.
So Saturday night in the stadium felt like a throwback. The "MVP" chants as Favre stood in the middle of Lambeau brought back feelings of the mid-1990s. It had to remind the fans of when winning always feels best, when it's new and fresh, as it was for the Packers after 21/2 decades of losing. Watching the broadcast of the banquet had the same vibe.
So the night wasn't about a bad breakup or feelings of betrayal because Favre ended up with one of the Packers' great rivals, the Vikings. Instead, it was about winning (Favre had a .645 winning percentage in 16 seasons with the Packers), and it was about a player who's freewheeling style of play and emotional honesty connected with its rabid fan base.
It's impossible to summarize Favre's career, but when I think of Favre, I think of two things.
The first was maybe the most remarkable thing I've seen at an NFL game in 22 years of covering the league. It was one of Favre's most famous games, at Oakland the day after his father had died in 2003. But it's not the four touchdown passes and 311 yards passing in the first half that jump out. It's the reaction of the of the Raiders' Black Hole fan section at the end of the field where the Packers ran out that night.
The Black Hole is probably the toughest, meanest, most heartless and intimidating section of fans in the NFL. When it gave Favre a standing ovation as he was introduced, it was nothing less than stunning. The ultimate sign of respect for one of the NFL's all-time competitors and charismatic performers.
The second was when Favre was playing for the Vikings, when a woman likely in the vicinity of 90-years old summed up Favre as well as anyone I've ever heard. I was at the YMCA and there were Vikings highlights on TV. I stopped to watch them alongside her. When they ended, she leaned on her cane, turned and looked up at me and said, "Boy, it's always interesting with him around, isn't it?"
It sure is.