GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Five years ago, on a surreal Sunday in pro football's most storied stadium, Brett Favre returned to Titletown in white and purple, and tens of thousands of former Favre-o-philes loudly and repeatedly voiced their displeasure.
From the start of warmups to the aftermath of the Minnesota Vikings' 38-26 victory over the Green Bay Packers and successor Aaron Rodgers, Favre felt the enmity of a fan base that had once revered him. The messy departure after his aborted retirement. ... The phone call with Matt Millen giving the then-Lions boss tips on how to beat the Packers. ... The overt desire to stick it to his former team by joining one of the Pack's chief rivals. ... All of it was too much for Packer Backers to bear.
But Favre won, the home team lost, and Vince Lombardi surely turned over in his grave. As he walked off of Lambeau Field toward the visitors' locker room, the distinct possibility of taking another franchise on a championship run circulating through the crisp autumn air, Favre's triumphant grin seemed colder than the most frozen of tundra.
In that charged context -- and in what can now fairly be ranked as one of the more improbable comebacks of Favre's exhilarating career -- Monday's symbolic return of Favre to the Packers family stands as a lovely development, one we should not take for granted.
Good for the Packers. Good for Favre. Because, though major players on each side of the divide surely had to work through some awkwardness and put aside some hard feelings, this is the right thing to do, and it's flat-out good for football.
Few gridiron love stories have been so poignant and so sappy -- and few breakups have been so messy and so emotionally draining. Though I always maintained that Favre meant too much to the franchise and its fan base to forestall an inevitable reconciliation, I began to have my doubts on that early November afternoon in 2009, and as that storybook (if you were a Vikings/Favre fan) or nauseating (if you were a Packers fan) season proceeded.
In retrospect, it could have been worse. Think about it: Had Favre, who was quite possibly an overtime possession away from taking the Vikings to Super Bowl XLIV, hoisted the Lombardi in South Florida, it might have taken 10 years before the Packers felt compelled to retire his number and induct him into their Hall of Fame. And had Rodgers not led the Packers to a championship the following February in North Texas, and later cemented himself as perhaps the NFL's brightest star for the next decade, we might have been looking at a 2035 induction date.
Rodgers, in fact, deserves credit for more than merely being awesome. Despite some legitimate and deeply personal reasons for resenting his legendary predecessor, he took the high road and helped facilitate the healing process. Beginning with that awkward appearance at the NFL Honors show before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans 18 months ago, during which the two quarterbacks yukked it up while co-presenting the Comeback Player of the Year award, and continuing with increasingly emphatic shows of support for Favre, A-Rod's aim was true.
And if Favre himself continues to harbor any ill will -- and I strongly suspect he's over it, or at least getting very close to being over it -- well, he did a hell of a sales job on that conference call with reporters at Lambeau on Monday.
Using words like "truly honored," "humbled," "blessed" and "blushing," Favre spoke magnanimously of the organization, the fans and even some of the assembled reporters. In looking ahead to his jersey retirement at an undetermined 2015 home date (some free advice to the Packers' powers that be: don't pick the Vikings game), Favre -- in response to a question from NFL Media analyst Steve Mariucci, his close friend and former quarterbacks coach -- addressed the possibility of returning to Lambeau this season and threw out a dreamy scenario in the process.
"Wouldn't it be nice to flip the coin with Bart Starr before a game?" he asked. "I get goose bumps just thinking about it. That would be an electric moment."
And let's face it: Favre is a bit of an expert in that department, having produced more raw, genuine and transcendent thrills than any player of his era, or perhaps any era.
Before Favre took over in 1992, the Packers had been in a two-decade rut, and there were doubts about whether the franchise could ever recapture its past grandeur, or even survive in a small market. As with Montana, Favre's resilience, toughness and penchant for magic served as the driving force behind the turnaround. And, in the end, Favre -- like Montana -- felt pushed out in the name of a hastened succession plan which paved the way for a quarterback who'd prove to be brilliant.
Montana and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young will never be BFFs, and things aren't perfect between him and the Niners organization, but they have kissed and made up enough to make the fan base rejoice. This was no simple task, but it was the way it had to be, and now Favre and the Packers can do the same for the good people of Titletown and their extended green-and-gold family.
The first word that comes to mind: Hallelujah.
As a young Sports Illustrated writer, I was frequently granted an up-close-and-personal glimpse of Favre's appeal, though I blessedly never got the Jim McMahon hot-wax-in-the-underwear treatment. It was a rollicking ride, complete with stink bombs and doe urine, and it was easy to ascertain why there was so much affection for the man among his peers.
I thought I understood why Packers fans -- and, truth be told, a whole lot of non-Packers-fans -- deified Favre: Yes, he was talented and clutch and heroic and inhumanly sturdy, and he was exuberant and improvisational and indefatigable, too. Yet there was always something more, something that caused an even deeper connection with the masses. Favre was rough around the edges. Favre was flawed. Favre was country, and he didn't pretend to be otherwise.
Bottom line: Favre was resoundingly human, in a way that most living legends aren't, and he connected with the game -- and, by extension, those who love watching it -- in a way that put us all in touch with our inner child.
You might think I'm overwriting (it wouldn't be the first time) or exaggerating, but I saw the man commune church at Lambeau, and I saw his worshippers respond, and it was eerie and unique and special.
I know I'm not crazy -- but there was plenty of insanity in the air. I attended Favre's final two games as a Packer, in January of 2008, and spent a lot of time interacting with the locals around town in the process. One night at Nicky's Lionhead Tavern in De Pere, my old SI colleague Peter King struck up a conversation with a mild-mannered, 30-something Packers fan named Robert Ruprecht, resulting in what we now refer to as the I dream of shopping with Favre confession.
The quote that appeared in Peter's column ("I dream about this guy. I dream that I'm going shopping with him. I'm not kidding. I'm just saying, we worship Favre.") doesn't fully do the moment justice, and it was merely the most extreme expression of a sentiment that most Packer Backers seemed to share.
At the following day's playoff victory over the Seahawks at snowy Lambeau, Favre felt the love in a way that was pure and unrelenting, and he gave it right back, and it was wonderful. I later described it as "abject adoration that bordered on the religious." But, alas, it wouldn't last.
Twenty-two months later, Favre took the field at Lambeau and got booed by what until then had been far and away the NFL's most polite and congenial fan base, and I knew the boos came from a deep, guttural place, and it was equal parts fascinating and tough to watch.
That seems like a long time ago, as it should. And I suspect I'm not the only one who possesses such an opinion this week.
Believe this: When Favre comes back to Lambeau, he'll once again be greeted with appreciation and affection -- and he won't be the only one with goose bumps.