I never met Brett Favre, though I’ve heard some stories. But I remember where I was when he took his first snap as a Green Bay Packer.
It’d be hard for me to forget, seeing as how I was there.
Sept. 13, 1992, was one of those Florida summer Sundays where not even a liberal dollop of supposedly sweatproof 50 SPF could prevent you from looking like a boiled lobster after just under four hours in the sun, where $20 of water and pink lemonade wasn’t enough to keep hydrated and cool. The high temperature was 89, but in the concrete bowl of Tampa Stadium — which basically became an open-air kiln on days like these — an on-field thermometer registered 109.
The Buccaneers were drilling the Packers, both on the scoreboard and in physical punishment. Days of defensive dominance like these would someday become routine for the Bucs with the acquisitions of John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to guide them. But with a defense featuring Keith McCants, Mark Wheeler, Ray Seals, Darrick Brownlow, Darrell Fullington and Milton Mack, this sort of performance was a tad unusual.
The pressure left Green Bay starter Don Majkowski running for his life until he was finally unable to escape, bowing to injury in the third quarter. Trailing hopelessly, the Packers turned to a second-year quarterback from Southern Mississippi.
Quizzical looks shot through the crowd.
By this point, the people who surrounded our family’s seats — including the guy that looked like Kenny Rogers whose 10-year-old kids spent most of the games burning through about $50 in cotton candy, hot dogs, pretzels and Cokes — had learned to ask me about anything or anyone they didn’t know, and Favre was someone they didn’t know.
Knowing my audience, I provided an explanation to which they could relate:
“He was the guy at quarterback for Southern Miss when they beat FSU a few years ago.”
Eyes lit with recognition — or maybe it was just sweat dripping down from brows. Half the neighbors in the grandstands smiled. Gator people. The other half grimaced. Seminole followers.
Favre proceeded to log a few firsts for his career that day. His first completion — to himself. His first interception as a Packer; he’d thrown a pair in four attempts the previous season with the Falcons. He overcame some early skittishness after nearly being pounded into Tampa topsoil by future teammate Santana Dotson, but he couldn’t get the Packers on the scoreboard on his series and his team fell 31-3 in a game that probably wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.
Many Bucs fans escaped the open-air steam room for their cars, bidding a hasty retreat and missing those final moments when Favre settled down and completed a few passes.
But anyone who tells you that they saw greatness coming for Favre by virtue of that 8-of-14, 73-yard, 41.7-passer rating performance is a liar.
See all the people standing up in the aisle behind him? That’s because they’re leaving early.
It wasn’t as if I watched the game and said, “Eureka! I just saw a future Hall of Famer.” It was more like, “Eh … there’s no reason to put him in now; Don Majkowski is better.” Majkowski, after all, had a Pro Bowl appearance and a catchy nickname — “Majik Man.” Favre was a second-year quarterback already on his second team, perceived as a washout in Atlanta. One might have received better odds on him being in the ArenaBowl than the Super Bowl in five years time.
Of course, such low-rent opening acts aren’t unusual for great quarterbacks. John Elway accidentally lined up for the snap under his guard. Johnny Unitas was cut from the Steelers. And Tom Brady was not the man many Patriots fans thought would emerge as their passer of the future, because Michael Bishop outshone him in the 2000 preseason.
Several years and a world championship later, Favre owned the world. As was said of Austin Powers, “Women want him; men want to be him.” As someone who to this day prefers perpetual stubble and outgrowth to daily dalliances with the electric razor, I can identify with this.
Thus, when my girlfriend at the time said I was her Brett Favre, I took this as a compliment. In September 1992, this would have been an insult. She’d probably used the Favre line on her previous boyfriend, but I didn’t want to quibble.
Several months later, she traipsed into liplock with another guy, claiming that it wasn’t cheating “because I broke up with you when I kissed him,” to which I replied, “Then you should have pulled out your (expletive deleted) cell phone and called to let me know.”
I was no longer Brett Favre. Well, maybe I was Brett Favre, circa Sept. 13, 1992. Or maybe I was Anthony Dilweg, Don Majkowski or God forbid, Randy Wright.
Then I started an internship with ESPN.com working on NFL.com that led me here, and the idol worship and usage of football players as pop-culture touchstones pretty much stopped for me. NFL players were no longer larger than life, though they remained big enough to kick my butt to the Springs and back.
Yet Favre somehow remained at that level. As human as he proved to be, he still inspired a whisper of awe in what he became. Even when his exploits sent your team towards heartbreak — as was the case last October on Monday Night Football — one couldn’t help but appreciate and salute the accomplishment, even when it happened at the expense of the team you watch every week.
He’d come a long way from spitting out topsoil in Tampa.