GREEN BAY, Wis. - For almost 20 years, Brett Favre was like a member of every Wisconsin family.
To be from Wisconsin is to be a Green Bay Packers fan, and the fun-loving quarterback rejuvenated the storied franchise, brought the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown and turned “Cheesehead” from an insult into a boast. That he liked to hunt, fish and, in the early days at least, have a beer or two, well, his birth certificate may have said Mississippi but he was Wisconsin to the core.
No wonder an entire state is angst-ridden over Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field against the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers’ loathsome rival — and Favre’s new team.
“I have a real problem with that. It was hard enough to see him with the Jets. But to see him in purple?” Tammy Rainville asked, watching her 9- and 7-year-old sons collect autographs outside the Packers’ parking lot Thursday afternoon. “I still believe he belongs to us.”
There are no bystanders in the ugliest divorce in Wisconsin history, with the mere mention of Favre’s name enough to start squabbles this week between old friends, husbands and wives, parents and children.
Those who support Favre think he should be appreciated for all the fun — and victories — he gave Wisconsin in his 16 years here, and blame Packers general manager Ted Thompson for his departure. Those on the other side say no one person is bigger than any organization, and that it’s no longer possible to be both a Favre and a Packers fan.
Especially if he’s wearing a Vikings jersey.
“I’m a Packers fan, so as far as I’m concerned, whatever it takes to win the game. If it takes knocking him out to win the game, that’s fine with me,” Dave Meyer said as his wife, Phyllis, shook her head.
“I think that’s horrible,” she said. “Brett has done so much for the community over the years.”
Wisconsin, and Green Bay in particular, has a bond with the Packers unlike anything else in pro sports. Oh, there are Bucks and Brewers fans across the state, and Wisconsin and Marquette each have their share of followers. But the Packers are like family, even for those who don’t have stock in the country’s only publicly owned professional team.
The waiting list for season tickets has more than 80,000 names on it, and parents often put their newborns on it. If they’re lucky, they’ll get tickets when they’re, oh, about 30. Neighborhood kids gladly give up their bikes for players to ride during training camp, and Packers banners are more popular than American flags around Lambeau Field.
“When you’re in Green Bay, you’re a rock star,” said former Packers strong safety LeRoy Butler, a member of the 1996 NFL champions who still spends most of his time here, recently buying a car dealership near Green Bay and running a foundation that supports women with breast cancer.
“You can feel like the Jonas Brothers with a bunch of 16-year-old girls running behind you. You go to your home state, you hear crickets,” Butler said — and he grew up in the football hotbed of Florida and played at Florida State.
And no one was more beloved here than Favre.
Green Bay, for all its titles and success under Vince Lombardi in the 1960s, went through a long streak of awfulness in the 1970s and ’80s. The Packers had 15 losing seasons in the 24 years after winning the second Super Bowl, and none of their quarterbacks — Jerry Tagge, John Hadl, Lynn Dickey, David Whitehurst, to name a few — came close to living up to Bart Starr’s legacy.
Then, in 1992, the Packers traded for that brash kid from Mississippi. He took over in Game 3 when Don Majkowski got hurt, and Green Bay, Wisconsin — the whole NFL, really — was never the same.
The Packers made the playoffs in 11 of Favre’s 16 years in Green Bay, winning the Super Bowl in his fifth season and making it back the next year. He had one losing season. “He’s the best thing that ever happened to Green Bay,” fan Steve Kohler said. “I can’t see how people can boo him.”
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