GREEN BAY, Wis. — Brett Favre’s chartered jet arrived in Green Bay on Sunday evening, shortly before the Packers’ annual Family Night Scrimmage. Rain lingered and lightning cracked as fans greeted him hysterically, like young girls welcoming the Beatles in the ’60s. At Lambeau Field the faithful were giddy. Seeing helicopters and planes above, one little girl kept asking her Dad, “Is that Brett Favre up there?” This was the moment most Packer fans were waiting for: the return of their retired football king.
But no one got the opportunity to see Favre win his crown back. He never even stepped onto Clark Hinkle Field, the Packers’ pristine practice facility across the street from Lambeau. Instead, on Tuesday afternoon, the day Favre was to make his triumphant return, anointed heir Aaron Rodgers guided the team through suffocating humidity and heckling fans.
During practice, spontaneous choruses of “We want Brett!” played like a soundtrack through the green, chain-linked fence. Hundreds of people stood ready to shout “Hosanna!” and wave palm branches should their king emerge. But Brett was gone. His red Cadillac Escalade had left about an hour earlier — the last time he would exit the stadium he helped turn into a football shrine. By Wednesday afternoon he was on a plane to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. By Wednesday night he was a New York Jet. In just over 72 hours Favre, the future Hall of Famer and only three-time NFL most valuable player, went from retired leader, to returning king, to disgruntled exile. His 16-year reign in Green Bay marred, at the end, by a public feud, half truths, and hurt feelings.
Because of the break-up, many Packers fans are torn between supporting a player they idolize and a defending franchise they own. As Ryan Young asked, “Root for the team, or root for the player?” For some the answer is the player. Throughout the week, t-shirts and signs criticized General Manager Ted Thompson. Slogans ranged from “Trade Ted not Favre,” to “4-Get Ted, Favre’s our man,” to one yellow t-shirt with a picture of a screw followed by the name “Ted.”
With trade talks dominating the news on Wednesday, Carol Grant was visibly angry. She’d driven up from Racine, Wisconsin, about an hour south of Milwaukee, with some friends to watch practice. “It makes me sick,” she said. “It’s like a betrayal on the part of management. It’s the end of a dream.” Her friend Sandy Johnson, sporting a pink Favre jersey, admitted she too is disillusioned: “We always thought [the Packers] were different. Mr. Thompson always told us what a great family we are. Well, we don’t operate that way in my family.”
Mary Vanden Elsen agreed. Sitting on a concrete bench overlooking practice, her young son Jon to her left, she had some scathing words for management: “Thompson should be run out of town.” Vanden Elsen has attended practice since she was five, and regularly brings Jon to get player’s autographs. The usually happy atmosphere of training camp, she said, where players ride children’s bikes to practice, is gone. “It’s very sad and very wrong.”
BUT NOT EVERYONE blames management. Mark, a retired radiologist from Green Bay, said he was embarrassed by the way fans acted on Tuesday, booing Aaron Rodgers and chanting for Favre’s return. “Heckling at practice is not the way to express dissatisfaction,” he said. He feels fans are reacting out of emotion, not reason, and blames Favre’s selfishness for the rift: “People have seen a [different] side of Favre…a selfish prima donna.”
Just down the fence line, Randy Bania of Green Bay agrees Favre is at fault. “Favre made a decision in March and he has to accept the consequences of that decision,” he said, adding that he’s using the situation to teach his son, Zach, responsibility. As Bania talked, Zach turned around, revealing the screen-printed name on the back of his Packers jersey: “FAVRE.” Bania admitted that just yesterday he supported Favre, but after thinking it through he believes Favre has the wrong intentions: “He’s not committed to playing football. He came to reclaim his throne…and restore his pride.”
He may be right. When Favre landed in Hattiesburg he admitted he didn’t return to Green Bay to win his job back: “I knew going up there it was more formality than anything, something I had to do. I didn’t think I’d be up there too long, and I wasn’t.” Instead of coming to resolve differences and play football, Favre came to vent and assign blame.
No doubt, there’s blame to share. Head Coach Mike McCarthy admitted on Tuesday and Thursday that communication could have been better on both sides, and said he never took Favre’s unretirement talk seriously. But once Favre arrived in Green Bay, McCarthy was ready to move on — with Favre. McCarthy said on Thursday he would have opened the position up for competition, almost ensuring Favre his job back.
But Favre wasn’t ready to do that. He felt so hurt by the Packers’ reaction to his unretirement that he couldn’t play — he wouldn’t play — for the Green Bay Packers: “I know people say I should put the personal issues aside, and I agree, but I couldn’t do that.” As McCarthy put it, “he wasn’t in the right mindset to play here.”
In the end, Favre was handed the keys to his kingdom, but he was too unstable to accept them. The “dream” didn’t end solely because the Packers had to move on, it ended because that team’s legend “couldn’t.”
Fans now must decide either to move on or to stay bitter like Favre.
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