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Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes

Posted: 9:07 AM, Nov 25, 2015
Updated: 2015-11-25 10:07:39-05
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes
Favre, through Harlan and Wolf's eyes

The moment Bob Harlan said he'd give Ron Wolf the freedom to trade a first round draft pick to get Brett Favre , the history of the most storied franchise in NFL annals changed.

One has a plaza named for him at Lambeau Field. The other has his name honored on the east facade. The third will have his number retired Thanksgiving night when the Green Bay Packers host the Chicago Bears (5 p.m. on 620WTMJ, 7 p.m. on TODAY'S TMJ4 and NBC26).

"This is going to be a magical night," says Wolf about what is to come.

In their own words, Harlan - the Packers president, CEO and chairman from 1989 until 2007 - and Wolf - the general manager from 1991-2001, discuss the quarterback whom they staked the future of the franchise on, and who, from the sport's most important position, helped turn it around into the most consistent championship contender in the NFL's last quarter century.

(All photos courtesy Getty Images unless marked)

On knowing Favre was special, years before coming to Green Bay

Wolf: “I was working for the Jets at that time and the Jets, we were of the opinion that he was the best player in that draft - the 1991 draft and that's when born out, even though he went in the second round he was the best player - absolutely no question about that."

“He quarterbacked Southern Mississippi, beat Florida State at Florida State, Auburn at Auburn, Georgia at Georgia, I don't think I need to go on. Those were just unbelievable wins for the Southern Mississippi team and it was all led by that number four, Brett Favre. I had an occasion, maybe five or six years ago, I'd be driving and listening to an interview with Pat Dodd, who was the former head coach at Auburn, and he was asked the question, "Who is the best player your team has played against?" and without two seconds, he said Brett Favre."

On the trade to get Favre in 1992, and the chance scouting opportunity that came before it:

Harlan: "We hired Ron in the middle of November. He was still scouting for the New York Jets at the time. We brought him to Green Bay for a press conference. He said, 'Bob, I've got to go out on the road and complete some scouting assignments for the Jets. You play in Atlanta this week. I'll meet the team there, fly back and start my job in Green Bay.

"I'm sitting in the press box on Sunday morning in Atlanta. Ron comes up, puts his briefcase down next to me and says, 'I'm going to go look at Atlanta's backup quarterback. If his arm was as strong as it was coming out of college, we're going to go after him. That turned out to be Brett Favre. At the time, he was playing third-string in Atlanta, wasn't being used at all."

Wolf: "Ken Herock (the Falcons' Vice President of Player Personnel in 1991) came up to me in the press box and told me if I wanted to see Brett Favre throw, I'd have to do it now, because he would not be permitted to do so once the team came on the field. So right away, I knew I had an opportunity to get - in my opinion - a great player."

Harlan: "Ron comes back a half an hour later and says, 'We're going to make a trade for this guy. Are you OK with that?' I said, 'Ron, I promised you total authority over this operation. I'm not going to turn down the first thing you want to do.' That day, he made the decision that we were going to go for Brett Favre. We were going to give up a No. 1 for a third-string quarterback. We got a lot of angry mail. It worked out. It was something that obviously gave us great success."

 

On the mentorship Mike Holmgren and his staff gave Favre:

Harlan: “To this day Brett will give credit to Mike Holmgren for making him a quarterback, and I think that credit is totally deserved. Mike was one of the few people who could get in Brett’s face. Brett felt that he could always make the play to win the game, no matter what the score was or the situation was, he felt he could make the play and win the game for you. And sometimes, you know, it backfired. Mike was the one guy who when Brett came off the field he would get in his face and talk to him, and Brett listened.

"Mike totally developed him, because Brett was a little wild and needed to be tamed down. He honestly kept some of that wildness throughout the entirety of his career, but the combination of Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren just played a huge, huge role in developing Brett and bringing him along and helping him mature and understand the system. He was very fortunate to have a quarterback coach like Mike Holmgren because Mike did a marvelous job with him. Brett just became a three-time MVP and just an outstanding quarterback."

Wolf: "I think that Mike did a tremendous job with Brett, but Brett was also tutored by Steve Mariucci and Andy Reid, to name two, and they more or less brought him into focus as to what he needed to be to be a top drawer quarterback. All the skill and ability was there. All you had to do was see that pass he threw against the Bengals in 1992 to win the game, at the end of the game, not only that pass, but the pass prior to that to (Sterling) Sharpe to set everything up, so all you had to do is see those things, to realize there was something special here and you know what, there was something special, because he is a remarkable talent and he is a remarkable football player."

 

On what made Brett Favre so endearing to teammates and fans:

Harlan: "The thing I always admired about him, and I said this when I gave speeches about him, is he played the game with the passion and enthusiasm of a kid on a sandlot. You don't see that a lot in the NFL. He was the same way in the locker room. He was that way on the team bus, on the team plane. He was always the prankster, the one who had a good time with everybody. The players respected him, respected his leadership, but they also knew he was one of them, a down to earth guy you could have a lot of fun with. Nobody had more fun than Brett."

"I used to get a kick out of when the players would travel on Saturday afternoon. Some of the players would get on the team plane. They'd have on three-piece suits and all this jewelry, just look so dignified. Brett would get on and he'd have on tennis shoes, no socks, a pair of Levi's, a t-shirt and a red baseball cap that looked like it was worn by the Gashouse Gang (the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team).

"Everybody loved him. Everybody got a kick out of him. Even when he walked through the airport, the fans loved it. They said 'Look at the way he is. He's one of us. I think that was one of the things that made Brett not only so successful, but so popular with his teammates.

"He was one of the gang - something that in Green Bay meant a great deal to everybody."

On Favre the competitor:

Harlan: "People have to realize how emotional he got playing the game of football. A lot of times, I don't think that came through. You would see him in the locker room after games, particularly after a loss. I think he put up a good front when he talked to the press. I would see him sitting in front of his locker and not wanting to talk to anybody right after a game. I watched him for so many years and had such respect for him as someone who just really wanted to work as a teammate. 

Wolf: "He is a complete competitor… playing the game was very, very important to him. The fact that he never missed a game, would indicate how important that was to him. I think that's a quality that very few possess. He had to be on the field, and he had to lead the team and the fact that he had a lot of injuries and went out and played and made other people play better. He had, I think, the leadership factor, the fact that he was gifted, he was a gifted passer - people always wanted to talk about the rocket arm - obviously, you cannot do what he did without having an exceptional touch, and an exceptional feel as a passer is concern. He had all those things, plus he had that indomitable will to be successful, and he was."

Harlan: "I admired his competitiveness. He just did not want to give in to anybody. I don't care who tackled him or what happened to him on the football field, he couldn't wait to get up and get in that player's face and say, 'If that's your best shot, it's not enough.' Great competitior. As great a competitor as I've ever been around."

 

On the immense respect that grew for Favre:

Harlan: "Later in his career, when he went through a number of years where kept contemplating retirement and so forth, couldn't make up his mind. One year (2004) as we closed in on the end of the season, he was having some second thoughts about coming back. Before the team went home after the last game, I asked Brett to come to my office. I wanted to visit with him before he left to go back to Mississippi.  I knew he had been concerned about the way our football operations were going at the time with Mike Sherman having both jobs (coach and general manager), and some of the things that were going on on Sundays.

"I told him I had already visited with the executive committee, and when the season was concluded, I was going to take the general manager title away from Sherman and keep him as coach, but I was going to hire Ted Thompson to come in and be the general manager. I could see the two jobs weighing too much on Sherman. He was becoming a different personality, and it affected his coaching and everything else, so we needed to make the change.

"I wanted Brett to know that. I told him, 'Before you make the decision, think about the changes we're going to make. He knew Ted because he had worked here with Ron Wolf. He said 'Good. I've got a lot of respect for Ted. I like that.' I don't know any other player I'd have called and had that conversation with, but I felt his importance to this franchise was just enormous, and he needed to know that and think about that as he made the decision. As it turned out, he came back and had some great years, even with Mike McCarthy.

"There weren't many players who fell into that category, but certainly he as a team leader (was) someone who should know that and be aware of what we were planning for the future."

On the pain of trading Favre, and the return to Titletown as a Viking:

Harlan: "Brett is such a competitor. He wasn't convinced in his last couple years in Green Bay that he was finished. Any great athlete feels that way. This is all he's done his whole life is play football. He doens't want to admit that time has come when he's finished. He wanted to play some more, and I understand that. We traded him to the Jets. I guess I was OK with that part of it because you don't see the Jets that much. 
 
"Once he went to Minnesota, I must admit that bothered me. That bothered me to the point that when we played Minnesota and he was the Vikings' quarterback, I didn't watch the games, or go to the games, or even listen to them. I knew the kind of reception he was going to get in Green Bay. I knew how these fans felt. They weren't happy. I just hated to see someone who had helped save this franchise and turn it around get booed in his own stadium by these fans who had adored him for so many years. What I'd do is, wait until the game is over, wait about an hour, turn on the radio or television, get the score and at that point, it was what it was. I even had my sons who went to those games who said, 'We're glad you didn't go, because it would have bothered you.'
 
"I think if Brett had not gone to the Vikings, stayed with the Jets, I don't think the attitude of these fans would have ever changed, because we traded him. We made the move, and he wanted to keep playing. By the way, he did prove that he still had the ability. He almost led the Vikings to the Super Bowl. He certainly was a competitor. It bothered our fans. There were a lot of people who were extremely angry. There was some negative reaction when we announced that we were going to bring him back in July, induct him into the (Green Bay Packers) Hall of Fame and retire his number."

Photo: TODAY'S TMJ4

On the return of Favre to Green Bay back in July for the Hall of Fame induction:

Harlan: "The reception he got here was outstanding. The fact that over 60,000 people moved into this stadium, just to see Brett come home. It's going to be enourmous when he comes home on Thanksgiving when he has his number unveiled up in that north end zone. People now say, 'Let's get over it and move on. We waited for years to become a winner, and Brett Favre helped make us a winner at the most important position in football.' 

"The things you've got to remember about Brett is there were so many times I would see him during the week in the locker room and he could barely walk. He was so beat him from the previous Sunday. You wondered how he was ever going to be ready for another week, and on Sunday morning, he'd come running out of the tunnel ready to go. He gave everything he had for this franchise. People look back now and realize that. The reception he got in Green Bay was probably the greatest Hall of Fame banquet we've ever had. Brett was overwhelmed by the reception he got in the stadium."

Wolf: "That experience when his jersey was retired and he was put in the Packers' Hall of Fame, that has to be all time. I can't imagine that happening anywhere in any sport across the world, not just the United States of America, the fact that in less than two hours, over 67,000 people paid five dollars to come in to take a peek at Brett Favre. I mean, that's incredible, that shows what he meant to the entire operation. They used to say that the old Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built, well obviously the (renovated) Lambeau Field is the house that Favre built."

Harlan: "I quite honestly think he was very concerned about what that reception was going to be. We planned this banquet for two years because we wanted to make sure we got him into the Packers Hall of Fame before he went into the Hall of Fame at Canton, which he'll do next year. We talked to him off and on about bringing him back. I remember the first time I had the phone conversation with him. I called him because I wanted him to know what we were planning. I knew he had a concern about going on the field. I said, 'Brett, the Hall of Fame banquet is a love-fest. You've been there before. You introduced Frank Winters when he was inducted...it's a way for our fans and you to reconnect again and get together.'

"Then I said, 'If the time comes and you don't want to go on the field and have that number unveiled, we'll work out something where you don't have to, but you can stay in the booth with Deanna and your family and wave to the fans or something. I think that why he said, 'I think I'm going to need Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren to go on the field with me. I think he was just concerned about going on that field by himself. Even last year, when he was going to come back for a game and wanted Bart (Starr) to walk out on the field with him, then Bart unfortunately became ill and couldn't be here, so Brett didn't come back. I thought when we started talking to him when we started getting closer to the July banquet, he was becoming more comfortable about going out on that field."
 
"Once he did, the standing ovation he got at the beginning was five minutes. It was unbelievable."

On what Thanksgiving night will be like:

Harlan: "When I saw the reception he got here in July when he went out on that field, he didn't really get emotional when he was inside the atrium of the stadium talking with the fans, but he did in that stadium when he went in that bowl and came out of that tunnel, he did get emotional. This was the thing he was a little concerned about. It couldn't have turned out any better. The same thing is going to happen when he comes out on Thanksgiving. It will probably be more emotional if he comes out with Bart, but either way, it's something that is going to be a highlight of our history. We've only had six numbers retired with all the great players that have represented this organization. For him to join that elite group, I just think it's enormous."

On where Favre stands in Packers history:

Wolf: "In such a rich football tradition, like the Packers, to be mentioned in the same breath with a player the caliber of Don Hutson - and that is where Favre is in the hierarchy of former Packers - is in of itself a tremendous statement for anybody that knows anything at all about Green Bay Packers football.

"In my opinion, he's the greatest player ever to play for the Green Bay Packers."