They came almost 30 strong on Sunday and filled a suite overlooking the field at the indoor stadium in downtown Minneapolis formerly known as the Metrodome. There were Brett Favre's wife, Deanna, and their two daughters. There were his two brothers and his sister and all their kids. There were his mother, his aunt and his mother-in-law. There were old friends from back in Green Bay and some others from Minnesota and, by god, it could just as well have been a wedding (or sadly, a funeral) down home in Mississippi as a football game up north, except for the more than 63,000 others in the house, half of them, it seemed, wearing purple or white number 4 jerseys.
Deanna will tell you the family and friends came out like this because it was playoff time and you just never know when her 40-year-old husband might do something epic, like dropping four touchdown passes on the Cowboys in a 34-3 elimination victory. Like faking Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears off his feet and then throwing a second-quarter touchdown pass to Sidney Rice, as if they were playing backyard ball in one of Favre's Wrangler ads. Like finding Rice from 45 yards out in the fourth quarter for the receiver's third touchdown catch and then running full-out into the end zone and jumping onto guard Anthony Herrera's massive shoulders before hoisting Rice into the air. Because nobody would want to miss any of those things.
Brett will tell you, yeah, it's all of that and something more, too, something closer to the bone. "Because they never know if it might be the last one," Favre said following Sunday's game. And then he shrugged that famous Favre shrug because, he said, he doesn't know either. But after 19 years, 308 consecutive starts, two retirements and the accumulation of almost every significant NFL passing record in a career that reads like an epic novel, nobody would want to miss that either.
For now, the end is on hold. Favre and the Vikings will play in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in New Orleans against the Saints. They will play in a building less than 50 miles from Favre's native Kiln, Miss., and less than two hours from his home in Hattiesburg. It's the stadium in which Favre won his only Super Bowl, 13 years ago as a member of the Green Bay Packers. A story that began crazily in August rolls on through January. "One of those incredible years," says Deanna. "One of those special years you never forget."
Vikings All-Pro left guard Steve Hutchinson to Brett Favre upon returning to practice from the bye week: "I've never had a chance to ask: Have you had fun this year?"
Favre: "Oh, yeah, it's been a ball."
The whole thing seemed so absurd. After 16 seasons in Green Bay, Favre spent 2008 with the Jets; they started 8-3, finished 1-4 and missed the playoffs. Favre looked shot at the end and, making things worse, was criticized after the season by teammates who said he was aloof. The Vikings had gone 10-6 in 2008 but lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs. They were perceived as a respectable team that was a quarterback short of serious contention.
Favre retired in February and underwent shoulder surgery in May; a torn biceps tendon was repaired, a small rotator cuff tear left alone. The Vikings tried to sign him in midsummer, but Favre declined; eventually, though, he agreed to a two-year, $25 million contract, and on Aug. 18 he arrived at Vikings practice as a passenger in coach Brad Childress's black SUV. From the outside, the team and the quarterback both looked vaguely delusional.
Favre didn't see it that way. He had been uncomfortable in New York on several levels. Jets coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense was descended from that of Don Coryell, in which pass routes are identified by numbers; Favre had always played in a Bill Walsh-style West Coast attack, in which routes are given names. It is not unlike two different languages. "There were times when I called a play and I was still figuring it out while I walked up to the line of scrimmage," says Favre, "sort of translating it back to West Coast language in my head. Eventually Schotty started meeting me halfway, because he had some experience in the West Coast offense earlier in his career."
Off the field, metropolitan New York life jarred him. "Things were real simple in Green Bay all those years, and I took that for granted," says Favre. "Even something like travel. I'm in New York, and it's an hour bus ride to the flight, and most of the flights are long." Perhaps most damaging of all, Favre's arm gradually went dead.
"He called me during December," says Favre's older brother, Scott, 43, "and said, 'I'm thinking I can make a 50-yard throw, and then the ball only goes 40.'"
Surgery would revitalize his wing but not quickly enough for him to sign with the Vikings at the start of training camp. "I kept going to the high school [in Hattiesburg] and throwing with the kids," says Favre. "Deanna was saying, 'What are you doing? It's over.' But when Brad called back in the middle of August, my arm felt a lot better." How much better? Vikings wideout Bernard Berrian says, "He's dislocated some fingers around here."
Minneapolis fit the Favres better than New Jersey did. Brett, Deanna, 10-year-old daughter Breleigh and Deanna's mother, Ann Byrd, moved into a rented house five miles from the Vikings' facility in suburban Eden Prairie. (Older daughter Brittany, 20, is in college.) "We were like fish out of water in New Jersey," says Deanna. "Here we picked up where we left off in Green Bay. There's a small-town feel. We just seem to fit in. I feel like God brought us here." On the field Favre also fit in, because Childress, schooled by Andy Reid in Philadelphia, runs a West Coast-based scheme. Reid learned it in Green Bay under Mike Holmgren, Favre's primary mentor.
Consequently Favre has been highly efficient. His 107.2 passer rating this season was the best of his career; his 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions represent his best ratio of TDs to picks. Other contributions have been just as important. "It's amazing what a confident, experienced quarterback does for you," says Hutchinson, who'd blocked for Tarvaris Jackson, Gus Frerotte, Brooks Bollinger and Kelly Holcomb in the two seasons before Favre arrived. "Brett is an old guy who has seen it all and done it all. He made this team more complete in every way."
Favre instructed wideouts Rice, 23, and rookie Percy Harvin, 21, to bring their laptops to the facility on Mondays to upload video that they could study at home, and then he taught them how to study. "Early in my career," says Favre, "I'd watch film for three hours because I was told to. But I was just watching the game like a fan. I had no idea what to look for."
Beyond straight game preparation, Favre told Harvin to study video of the Patriots' Wes Welker, to learn the intricacies of playing the slot. "He told me to watch Welker's fundamentals," says Harvin. "Watch the little things he does." Favre worked with tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on sight-adjusting pass routes to beat safeties, and Shiancoe led the Vikings with 11 touchdown catches.
In the locker room Favre brought a daily paradox. He is 40 years old and looks every minute of it, with his gray hair and gray stubble. Yet he acts like he's 13, waiting for teammates to turn their backs so he can smack them painfully on the butt. "He's a goofball," says placekicker Ryan Longwell, Favre's close friend since Longwell was a rookie on the '97 Packers team that went to the Super Bowl. "But now he's a goofball with urgency, because he knows time is running out."
One thing he has not done is socialize off-campus. "Maybe that's part of why I was criticized last year," Favre says. "But I quit drinking 12 years ago, and I found out that I wasn't quite the social guy I thought I was." Now he says he just goes home every night and watches more video.
The Vikings won 10 of their first 11 regular-season games, lost the next three, then finished with a rout of the Giants. They took the NFC North with a 12-4 record—beating the Packers in two emotion-charged games—and got their playoff bye. Favre spent the week off in Mississippi, hunting deer. "I called his cellphone one day," says his brother Scott. "He picks up and whispers 'hello' real quietly, so I said, 'You're in a [deer] stand, aren't you?' He whispers, 'Yeah.' So I figured he was happy."
History waits to fully judge the Minnesota experiment. The Vikings last played in the Super Bowl in January 1977. "Brett really wants a shot at another Super Bowl," says Deanna. "That's what this was all about." But he also wanted the right kind of closure, and even before facing the Cowboys, Favre seemed ready to make a call on that score. "We went 12-4, I played well, even though I showed up late to camp and all the crap that went with it," he said last Thursday. "You can't look into a crystal ball at this point; whatever happens, happens. I sure hope this continues. But boy, it's been pretty darn good."
After beating Dallas, Favre went further. "It's been a lot of fun," he said. "We're winning, we have a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and we're playing in the championship game. Pretty awesome."
Here is Favre now, standing in an office at the Vikings' complex three days before beating the Cowboys. He is talking animatedly about the Dallas pass rush, bringing his hands together to illustrate DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer rushing from the outsides and meeting at the quarterback. "They're damn good," he says. "They almost killed Philip Rivers."
Favre goes quiet. He watched Dallas film the previous night with Deanna. It shook her. "Being the quarterback's wife," she said, "it was pretty scary." It had been less than a week since Tom Brady was pounded repeatedly by the Ravens, who showed no respect for Brady's past greatness. "Hey, I learned a long time ago that old saying, 'You're only as good as your last game,'" says Favre. "Try to tell me that's not true, no matter who you are."
So let the record show that at 40 years and a little more than three months, Favre carved up the Cowboys, left them dead on the turf in Minneapolis and did it all with the joy of a kid at recess. When it was over, he ran through a tunnel in the corner of the stadium, waving his index finger in the air. An unlikely season was extended. A singular career remained alive for another week.