Brett Favre's Greatest Game - An Oral History

Packers legend plays on day after father dies

Hollywood would be hard pressed to write a script to describe what happened on Dec. 22, 2003. Brett Favre, by the sheer force of the passion in which he played the game and a 1997 Super Bowl championship on his resume, had already stamped his ticket as a Green Bay Packers legend. But that night in Oakland against the Raiders is arguably the game that elevated Favre lore to mythical proportions. Favre, playing a day after his dad, Irvin, died and with the whole world watching on Monday Night Football, played the greatest game of his storied career.

Charlie Berens offers a Manitowoc Minute take on Brett Favre's greatest game.

Sometimes a tale gets better in the re-telling. As time go by, feats of greatness take on an exaggerated resonance and proclamations of athletic prowess elicit a "back in my day" tone. But Brett Favre's performance versus the Raiders is the rare instance where it's hard to do it justice in the re-telling. Sports fans talk in reverent tones about the magical night Wilt dropped 100. Or being in the arena for Jordan's flu game. And right up there is the night an emotional Favre went 22-30 for 399 yards and threw four touchdowns in the first half the day after his father died. It was 3 yards short of his career high up until that game, and helped the Packers eviscerate the Raiders 41-7 on their home field. 

The score didn't matter. Sure, it was an important game for the Packers, who were in the midst of the playoff hunt, but the cameras and the audience were more interested in the backstory. How would the quarterback who still played like he was a kid on the playgrounds of Kiln, Miss. react to the pressure of losing the greatest influence of his life?

A FATHER AND SON

Brett Lorenzo Favre was born in Gulfport, Miss. on Oct. 10, 1969 to Irvin and Bonita Favre. His parents were schoolteachers, and in high school, he played quarterback and several other positions for the football team his dad coached. A 1996 article Irv penned for a Mississippi newspaper provided some insight into the father/coach-son relationship.  Irv Favre talks about a game that Brett went rogue and got "chewed out" for calling his own play, even though it worked and they won the game.

Irv was there the night Brett was chosen in the NFL draft and the two remained close as Brett worked his way through the NFL ranks, eventually landing with the Packers. 

During Favre's Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2016, he acknowledged that Irv should have been the one to present him during the enshrinement ceremony. 

But it wasn't mean to be. On Dec. 21, 2003, Irv suffered a fatal heart attack while driving in Mississippi. The Packers were in California, preparing the next day's Monday night tilt against the Raiders. Favre was driving with teammate Doug Pederson when he received a call from his wife, Deanna, at 4:30 p.m. PST breaking the news. She flew in at 3:30 a.m. early the next day to be with her grieving husband. 

TODAY'S TMJ4 Sports Director Lance Allan: "We were staying in the same hotel that the team was staying, and all of a sudden you see people with the team, players, and they didn't want to talk out of respect to Brett, but you knew something was going on."

Packers play-by-play WTMJ radio announcer Wayne Larrivee:  "We were driving from Oakland from our hotel in San Francisco and that's when I heard about it and it was a shock, and everybody who knew Irv, knew he was full of life and everything else, so it was a shock to all of us, and I can only imagine how Brett felt."

Packers tight end Donald Driver: "I think I was the second or third person to talk to him, and I stayed in his room for an hour and just talked. Those are the moments you share, and you know who your true friends are. And we'll always be true friends. And I know that." 

PHOTOS: Brett Favre's Greatest Game

Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was going through his own emotions that week. The game was a year after his mom passed away, and it would have been the first time she would have seen her sons play in a pro game together because Akbar Gbaja-Biamila played for the Raiders. 

GBAJA-BIAMILA: "I was asked by Coach Sherman to go in and actually talk to Brett. So I was in his room, trying to help him, but all I did was listen and allow him to go through all the different emotions from crying to laughing to just go through all the emotions … I had three sacks in that game, so it was very emotional already, and then you put the Brett on top of that, it made it that much more emotional."

LARRIVEE: "You could understand that if he didnt play in that ballgame, it would be perfectly understandable. It was a game that the Packers had to win and they were in one of those situations where coming down the stretch they had to win every game to get into the playoffs it seemed like. So, it wasn't a surprise to see Brett go ahead and play in it, but it have been understandable if he did not."

GAME TIME

The Raiders game was Favre's 88th consecutive start. A fractured thumb was among the many ailments he was battling that season, so nobody would have blamed him for sitting out. Usually, Favre was on the field well before game time warming up, but on this night he didn't come out until close to kickoff, adding to the drama. The notoriously tough Raiders fans actually showed Favre some respect, applauding during pre-game introductions. 

Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson was playing for the Raiders that game and would later play several years for the Packers. 

1992 feature on a young Brett Favre in Green Bay.

WOODSON: "So his father passed and he came in -- you know Raiders fans don't like anybody -- but they respected the man, they respected who he was, and what he was as a player. I think down inside of everybody, everybody was kind of rooting for him in a way."

ALLAN: "That stadium, I've been in that stadium before, it's an old, decrepit stadium, and it makes it seem even more dingy by the fans, because they are there in their gear, they're wearing skeletons, they're wearing spikes on their pads and this and that and face paint, and I was expecting some of the most vile things to be said toward Brett and toward the Packers as they came out of the tunnel, but instead, before the team was even on the field, you saw people with signs, Raiders fans in all their gear looking like they were dressed up for Halloween, and they had signs that said, 'We are with you Brett.'"  

"ON A NIGHT LIKE TONIGHT THIS HAS TO BE THE GREATEST PLACE ON THE FIELD TO BE. THERAPEUTIC." -- Al Michaels on MNF broadcast

Al Michaels and John Madden called the game for ABC. 

"There's no roadmap for this. There's nothing. If you said this is the right way to handle it, this is the wrong way to handle it, this it how you do it, it's something that has to shock you, and how Brett Favre is going to be able to handle this, I have no idea." — Madden before kickoff.


On the first series of the game, Favre led the Packers on an 80-yard touchdown drive. The series was also notable because Favre tied Fran Tarkenton for second place on the all-time list of touchdown passes at 342. Later in his career, he passed Dan Marino on the all-time list at 420. 

WOODSON: We get into the game, and it seems like every possible thing that they tried worked. And I don't know what it was, or how it came to be that it was that type of night, but it was definitely a special night for him, and I think everybody felt it.

LARRIVEE: As the game went along, it was one big play after another. Brett was just throwing the ball up to the heavens. Javon Walker and Donald Driver and all these guys, Robert Furguson were coming down with it and it was just amazing to see."

Favre continued to complete a first-half masterpiece the likes of which has rarely been seen. 

Highlights: 

  • Favre was 7-7 for 139 passing yards in the first quarter, the second most in his career, only eclipsed the season before in an MNF game versus the Chicago Bears.
  • Favre made 9 straight completions, before throwing an intentional incompletion out of the endzone.  
  • The game was was essentially over by the end of the first half. Four touchdowns and 311 yards, the most in his career for a first half of football. 
  • Eight of Favre's completions went for 20 yards or more in the game.

Gilbert Brown, Packers NT (1993-1999, 2001-2003): "To see him go out there and perform, and his teammates, his receivers, they told him to just throw it up, we'll go get it. Throw it up, and we'll go get it. Brett threw it up, and those boys went out and played for him. But for Brett to do that in that frame of mind, shows what kind of champion he really is."

"You bring this script to the studio and they throw it out. It's like fantasy." -- Al Michaels during ABC broadcast. 

GBAJA-BIAMILA: "Literally, I think he was just throwing the ball. He didn't really care where it went, but by God's grace, there were Packers around to just rally around. It was crazy. It was unbelievable. I remember him playing for his dad, just playing his heart out, and it didn't matter, he was just going to go out there and just sling it. And he did."

LARRIVEE: "You could tell when Brett would make a play he was Brett, and then he would go back to the sidelines you could tell he was thinking about his dad and the situation with the family and everything else. You could tell he was playing with a heavy heart, but also the atmosphere in the stadium, I mean, Oakland is a racous stadium, a great crowd for the Raiders, it's the "Black Hole" and for good reason, but the crowd was even almost cheering Brett on even though he was whipping the Raiders. That was really surreal actually."

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McCARREN: "Brett was outstanding, no question about it. But the rest of the team, watching their response to his trouble, his hardship – I think that whole team elevated their game because of Brett Favre and how much they thought of him and how much they loved him."

"I didn't expect this performance, but I knew he was watching tonight."

FAVRE POSTGAME (ABC): "I knew my dad would want me to play. I loved him a lot and love this game, it's meant a great deal to me and to my dad and my family. I didn't expect this performance, but I knew he was watching tonight."

Needless to say, the entire state of Wisconsin was watching the game. Among those fans was an aspiring young football player in Pewaukee by the name of J.J. Watt. Watt, a three-time defensive MVP for the Houston Texans, vividly remembers the game. 

WATT: "It was a different experience than I've ever had watching a football game. You could feel it. It was like everybody was with Brett that night. I can't personally imagine what that would be like. But to watch him go through it, they way he played, the way he reacted. I was one of the coolest things I've ever watched. That was special."

THE LEGACY

Favre spoke to TODAY'S TMJ4 about where that game stands on a resume chock full of achievements.

FAVRE: "Losing my father and the role he played in my life and my career and wanting to honor him the best way possible, it could not have gone any better considering the circumstances. You know I think that's the game that is talked about the most and looked at most fondly. But it's hard, people say 'what is my favorite play, my favorite player.' There are a lot of years, and a lot of history."

LARRIVEE: "I think it's probably, if not the top game, right at the top of the list. I would imagine Brett would say his Super Bowl victory was the height of his career and maybe that first pass in the Super Bowl for a touchdown to Andre Rison if I'm not mistaken, might have been what Brett might think is the pinnacle, but this game is right up there with some of the great games he's played and won. Because of the courage it took to play that game."

WOODSON: "It was a respect. You know the way people here respect me because they got to see me up close and personal as a Packer, well with Brett, it was the entire league got a chance to see him as a player and embrace him as a player, the way he played [the game]. You know, he was a guy who went out there and played it as if it was a pickup game of football, and people loved that about him."

HALL OF FAME INDUCTION

In Favre's induction speech into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016,  the topic of his father loomed large. He spoke of not having a car as  teenager, and waiting for his dad long after football practice ended in order to get a ride home. Days and nights that no doubt cemented the bond between father and son. 

He also spoke of overhearing a conversation between his dad and some other coaches after he had a bad game in high school, and Irv promised he will "redeem himself. He has it in him." Like the best athletic competitors, Favre used that as fuel to drive him in that next game. 

More fuel was a conversation he had with his wife, Deanna, on the plane back to Green Bay after his dad's funeral. Deanna told him that Irv had confessed that he couldn't wait for Brett to reach the Hall of Fame so that he could present him on stage. 

FAVRE (Hall of Fame speech): "So a new goal had entered into my mind then and there, and I said to myself, 'I will make it to the Hall of Fame.' That I would make it to the Hall of Fame so I could acknowledge the fact of how important he was ... So I could acknowledge the importance of him and my career and my life, which he was a tremendous part of my life. He taught me toughness. Boy, did he teach me toughness. Trust me, there was no room for crybabies in our house ... He taught me teamwork, and by all means no player was ever more important than the team ... So then and there in that moment on that plane I was determined for selfish reasons to get to this point to acknowledge how important he was. I would not be here before you today without my father."

Dad would be proud. 

An extra special thanks to Charlie Berens and the Biloxi Sun Herald for their contributions in making this project happen.