Facing a third-and-10 near midfield Sunday, Brett Favre rolled left, zipped a pass up the sideline and hit Dorsey Levens in stride, who raced into the end zone for the touchdown.
Favre chased after Levens and the two leaped into each other in celebration. Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day” blasted on the loudspeakers. The fans cheered just as loud as they ever did. It all felt familiar.
Then the tin of chewing tobacco fell out of Favre’s pocket, a subtle reminder that this game, a flag football contest at Camp Randall between Favre’s team of former Packers and Donovan McNabb’s team of former non-Packers, didn’t quite have the same formality as the 322 Favre started in the NFL.
“Today was about having fun and reuniting with a lot of guys that obviously we had some great times with,” Favre said after the game. “And it was fun. And I haven’t had fun like this in a long time.”
Favre, 45 with a full head of gray hair, still looked like the player who treated the game of football as just that—a game. With a smile on his face, he scrambled around the backfield, threw bullets and bombs and, of course, tossed an interception. When he said it’s the most fun he’s had in a long time, it’s hard not to believe him.
“I always had fun playing the game, but watching him practice it was like, you can be that way, you can really enjoy it without taking a step back,” said former teammate Nick Barnett. “You can have fun and go full speed at the same time.”
The flag football game capped off a reunion weekend between Favre and the state of Wisconsin. He returned to Lambeau Field Saturday for induction into the Packers Hall of Fame, an event that featured a banquet inside the atrium for a select few and a brief appearance by Favre on the field. The stadium sold out.
“Fill a stadium, just to hear him talk for 20 minutes? Where does that happen at?” said former teammate Antonio Freeman. “That’s the amazing part.”
Six years ago, Favre got quite a different reception from the Lambeau crowd. In his first game in Green Bay after his messy and infamous departure, Favre was booed relentlessly as his Vikings defeated his old team.
“When he went to Minnesota I was a little upset. But then when he came back to Green Bay and won and swept that season, I was kind of a little happy for him, like that’s some sweet justice right there,” said Cory Smith, a Packers fan who drove four-and-a-half hours from Indiana to see the flag football game. “If I gotta watch my team lose to anybody, I’d like to see them lose to Brett Favre.”
The Favre fiasco divided fan allegiances. There were plenty who supported the Packers and chastised Favre throughout the ordeal, but there were also fans who took Favre’s side and lost interest in the green and gold.
“There’s only going to be one Brett Favre. The Packers will still be here after Favre retires,” said Matt Bowman, a Waunakee resident whose custom No. 4 jersey read “THE MAN” on the back. “I stayed true to him. He was my idol.”
But for the vast majority of fans who hated seeing Favre in purple, time has healed the wounds of betrayal. A quarterback who suddenly became a pariah is now beloved again in Wisconsin.
“To hate him for anything that happened is ridiculous. You could feel it when it happened, I get that,” Smith said. “But now, it’s kind of dumb. If you still hate him now, you never really liked him.”
Though Favre’s exit from Green Bay was sloppy, it just feels like a blip on the radar for most Packer fans. They remember Super Bowl XXXI, the game against Oakland the day after his father died, the miracle throws nobody but Favre would ever attempt and his childlike enthusiasm for the game. The divorce doesn’t seem to have tarnished his legacy.
“How could you hurt something that was that good? I’ve watched the Packers since 1959. Bart Starr was my favorite, Ray Nitschke and all those guys,” said Margaret McCormick, a Melrose resident. “Well then we were down for so many years. You’re too young to understand what it was like to go to the games and lose, lose, lose, lose.
“It was sad. All these different coaches and different quarterbacks. It was terrible. And then all of a sudden we got Brett, and everything turned around.”
McCormick also attended the induction ceremony at Lambeau, and she was in awe of how many people showed up for Favre’s on-field cameo. The sheer uniqueness of the moment stirred up tears in her eyes.
She wasn’t alone. Favre was misty-eyed and overwhelmed as he spoke to the crowd of 67,000.
“I have to admit, I’m worn out. Just from the emotions. Yesterday was absolutely amazing,” Favre said. “The emotions were far greater than what I thought they were going to be. And that’s a tribute to the fans here, it really is. Amazing.”
All athletes have some sort of connection to their fans. But it’s hard to think of any player whose connection to fans is as special as Favre’s, a relationship that suddenly came crashing down one summer and was slowly rebuilt as time passed. When asked to sum up the weekend, Favre didn’t mince words.
“I’m back home.”