He held up his right thumb as though it were an artificial appendage, or some sort of grotesque contraption one finds in a costume store just before Halloween. Glancing at the swollen, fleshy, misshapen digit, Brett Favre told me matter-of-factly, "When I broke it earlier in the season, I lost my ability to grip the football. I kinda had to re-learn how to hold the ball ... and to throw. They tell me it will never be the same as it was before. But I'm finding a way, I guess."
It was Jan. 10, 2004, the day before a divisional-round playoff game between Favre's Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The iconic quarterback and I were sitting on folding chairs in the corner of a darkened downtown Philadelphia hotel ballroom, catching up on what had been an emotional and trying season for the most revered man in Titletown.
Favre and I went way back -- really, we'd come up together in the business, he as a hard-charging emblem of raucous excellence, me as an access-obsessed Sports Illustrated football writer -- and we'd long ago stopped marveling at each other's eccentricities. But in this particular moment, which I remember with vivid clarity, I was truly awestruck: Here was Brett Favre, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have spun it, telling me with complete and disarming sincerity that he'd had to figure out a new way to spin it on the fly.
Because Green Bay would go on to lose to the Eagles the following night, I didn't even end up writing about that surreal scene in the hotel ballroom. It turned out Favre, after throwing a pair of early touchdowns, would serve up a bizarre pop-up of an overtime interception to facilitate Philly's victory, though the Packers would have advanced to the NFC Championship Game had they simply been able to stop Donovan McNabb and the Eagles on fourth-and-26 late in regulation.
For all I know, Favre's altered grip might have been partially responsible for that errant overtime throw. Then again, how many of Favre's most famous passes weren't delivered in the face of daunting circumstances, be it rain or snow, pain or sorrow, fierce defenders or a career's presumed end?
There might have been greater quarterbacks than Favre -- that's a never-ending topic of discussion for the bar room or TV studio -- but none has had a career more legendary, and no face of the franchise has been more revered by a fan base. That relationship became strained in the summer of 2008 when Favre called an audible on his exit plan, and he and Packer Nation were flat-out estranged when he returned 15 months later to lead the rival Minnesota Vikings to victory on an unthinkable Sunday at Lambeau.
Yet I always regarded a reunion as inevitable; Favre, after all, had meant too much to the Packers, and vice-versa, for the bad blood to persist. And on Thursday night, when the soon-to-be-first-ballot-Hall-of-Fame quarterback returns to Lambeau to have his jersey retired at halftime of the Packers' game against the Chicago Bears, so many of us will be giving thanks.
Favre's right thumb might not have regained its former dexterity, but time seems to have healed this wound, and that's a beautiful thing. Yes, there's now another sublime quarterback in Titletown (and give two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers a ton of credit for taking the high road and helping to pave the way for this reunion), just as a beloved Hall of Famer (Bart Starr) once captured the hearts of Packer backers back in the day.
Yet the connection between these fans and The Man With The Golden Arm (and Mangled Thumb) is singular and timeless and transcendent, and this is a moment that needs to happen, in order to make Favre and Packer Nation and the pro-football universe whole.
The affection for Favre begins with the obvious: He led a Titletown resurgence that included back-to-back Super Bowls, including the franchise's first championship in three decades, and did a whole lot of winning over a near-two-decade span.
The victories, however, don't even begin to cover it. With Favre, it was about the resilience, the forging on in the face of human frailty, the utter lack of pretense, the improvisational brilliance, the chutzpah and, best of all, the sheer joie de vivre with which he conducted his job.
On that day nearly a dozen years ago, as we sat together in that darkened ballroom, Favre was looking ahead to what he hoped would be another epic playoff victory and, the following week, a chance to get back to the Ultimate Game. Yet, he was also a bit sentimental, for there was so much upon which to reflect.
In October of 2003, on the third play of a road game against the St. Louis Rams, he'd fractured the tip of the thumb on a teammate's shoulder pads. Favre kept playing -- of course -- throwing a pair of touchdowns in a defeat that would drop the Packers to 3-4. At the time, he'd made 180 consecutive regular-season starts, an NFL record for a quarterback onto which he would add another 117 (not to mention his 24 consecutive career playoff starts, for a grand total of 321).
In this case, he played quarterback with a splint on his throwing thumb, and he managed to perform at a high level and lead the Packers back to the postseason. That's simply the way it was with Favre: At various times during The Streak, he would fight through a separated shoulder, a sprained knee, a broken foot, elbow tendinitis and concussions -- and, scarily, those are just the ailments we know about.
On one night, above all, we all felt his pain: Less than three weeks before Favre and I met in that ballroom, he'd played a Monday Night Football game in Oakland that captivated millions of choked-up viewers. The night after his father, Irvin, died of a sudden heart attack, Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-7 victory over the Raiders, completing his first nine passes after earning a hearty ovation during pregame introductions.
When he talked about the experience that January afternoon, he was still openly grieving. I put down my notebook and stopped asking questions; this was bigger than football, and journalism seemed like an ancillary concern.
It was quiet for a moment, and then Favre spoke again.
"When I was in Oakland, it's like I wasn't really there," he said. "I mean, I was there, but I wasn't. You know? I can't really describe it. But when it came time to play, I just felt this focus ... and I felt like I wasn't alone."
On Thursday night, in front of a fan base that once cherished him and a national-television audience, Favre likely will experience at least a small tinge of that sensation -- that he's not alone -- and the raw realization that his playing career touched more hearts than even he will ever know.
Thanksgiving football isn't always magical, but when Favre once again feels the love in Titletown on Thursday night, rest assured that a football-watching nation will be giving the living legend a big thumbs-up.