Katja and I watched the Packers-Vikings game last night on Monday Night Football. ESPN hyped this as the greatest Monday Night game of all times, and they weren’t exaggerating too much. The occasion, of course, was 39-year-old Brett Favre’s return, after 16 glorious seasons in Green Bay, to quarterback their arch-nemesis, the Minnesota Vikings, against the Pack. Favre’s retirement from Green Bay in 2008, the Packer management’s disinterest when he changed his mind, his successful season with the Jets, and his second retirement and subsequent hiring by the hated rival Vikings have been a media soap opera for the last year and a half. Green Bay fans, of course, have been in a constant state of consternation, perhaps expressed most cogently by a popularly selling T-shirt, “We’ll Never Forget You, Brent.” We’ve pretty much worshipped Brett Favre for his success in returning the Packers to the top of the heap since the early 90’s, and we’ve continued to cheer for him in the Vikings’ undefeated season to date. I asked Katja at the outset of last night’s game whether she was rooting for the Packers or for Brett Favre. She didn’t have to think about it -- she went with the Packers, and I did too.
Menominee is less than fifty miles north of Green Bay, and the community, like the whole region, has been pretty much insane about the Packers since the inception of professional football in the 1920’s. “Curly” Lambeau, who’d begun as Packer coach in 1919, was still the head coach throughout my grade school years, and Don Hutson, who many regard as the greatest wide receiver of all times, was winding up his astonishing career. In football season in Menominee, you couldn’t then and can’t now go anywhere in public without hearing a constant buzz of Packer football talk.
Vince Lombardi was in his second year of coaching the Packers when we started grad school in Ann Arbor in 1960. Each year during the 60’s my parents arranged to get tickets to Lambeau Field from their friend Jess Jacobsen when we came home to Menominee for Xmas vacation. Despite a snobbish anti-intercollegiate athletics attitude which we’d cultivated at Antioch, Katja and I had already been transformed into rabid Big Ten football fans by attending Michigan games, but pro football in Green Bay was a brand new experience. It usually was freezing, but we bundled up in hunting camp garments and fortified ourselves with Jim Beam whiskey throughout the games. Lambeau Field was the wildest place we’d ever been in terms of an unrestrained expression of primal emotions. The Packer heroes were Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer, Ray Nitschke, and Willie Wood, among others, and Green Bay was the center of the pro sports world. The Lombardi Packers, of course, won the NFL Championship in 1961, 1962, and 1965, and, when the Super Bowl was inaugurated in 1966, they won the first two Super Bowls decisively. We got to go to some of the key championship-deciding games, and they’re among the most exciting experiences of our early married years.
The Lombardi era was followed by a couple of lackluster decades, until the Packers hired coach Mike Holmgren in 1992 and traded with the Atlanta Falcons for quarterback Brett Favre. The rest is legend. Favre replaced injured starter Don (Majik Man) Majkowski in the 1992 Cincinnati Bengals game, and he started every game thereafter for sixteen seasons. The Packers had the NFL’s longest string of winning seasons during this period and went to the Super Bowl twice, defeating the New England Patriots 35-21 in 1996 to win the World Championship. While we paid most attention to our local (dismal) Bengals during this period, we would tune in the Packers when we couldn’t stand it any more and needed to see a victory.
The Packers, of course, lost last night, though they played well, and the game wasn’t completely decided until the closing minutes. Brett Favre had one of his greatest games, completing nearly 80% of his passes and throwing for three touchdowns, with no interceptions or sacks. With the victory, Favre became the only quarterback in history to have beaten every team in the NFL. We decided that this was the best outcome. Let the old guy have the glory – he deserves it. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will have a lot of opportunities in the future. One of the upcoming ones will be when the Minnesota Vikings come to Lambeau Field on Nov. 1. We’ll be tuned in.