Grit, sense of self stayed with Favre

So much of Brett Favre's success is owed to the values he learned and support he received growing up in Kiln, Miss.

Updated: November 29, 2004, 11:55 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

I'm thinking that by now, most of the satellite dishes that once sprouted from nearly every backyard in Kiln, Miss., as if they were some sort of unofficial state flower, have been replaced by cable boxes.

And I'm thinking that come next Monday night, when hometown hero Brett Favre authors his 200th consecutive regular season start for the Green Bay Packers, most of the 100 or so residents of the backwoods town, just a 20-minute drive from the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast resorts, will be tuned in to Al Michaels and John Madden as they struggle to unearth adjectives appropriate to the occasion.

Watch ESPN's Suzy Kolber interview Brett Favre about his life off the field.
• Motion: Brett Favre Sunday Conversation ESPN Motion

Yep, 200 consecutive starts, that ought to be enough to get their attention in Kiln, huh? And to ensure that, when someone queries one of the locals bellied up to the bar at the VFW hall about the best athlete ever produced in the area, no one ever again mentions former pro basketball star Wendell Ladner before first citing Favre's celebrity.

OK, so three paragraphs into this Favre homage, a little background might be in order: It was May 1991, only a few weeks after the Atlanta Falcons had used a second-round draft choice to acquire Favre, that I was dispatched to Kiln to churn out a feature on the team's colorful new rookie quarterback. The editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had been so smitten with Favre's post-draft interview, with the potential of this real-life L'il Abner to breathe life into the moribund franchise, that they wanted an up-close look at him.

A couple days ago, charged with authoring a piece to in part commemorate Favre's 200th start, I paid the AJC Web site $5.95 for the privilege of revisiting the best feature I had turned out during my 10-year tenure at the newspaper. (A word of advice for all budding journalists out there: Keep hard copies of your best clips, yeah, even the ones from 10 or 12 years ago.) The exercise of reading through the 100 inches of copy produced from the unforgettable 1½-day visit to Kiln certainly helped me appreciate even more the significance of Favre's wondrous accomplishments.

And to comprehend, even more keenly, how it is that Favre can soldier on despite the litany of tragedy -- the deaths of his father and his brother-in-law, his wife's battle with breast cancer, the illness of his mom -- that recently has befallen him.

Brett Favre
Quarterback
Green Bay Packers
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp PaTD RuTD Int Rat
348 226 19 0 11 92.7
To come out of Kiln, a place to which I have returned only twice since that visit in 1991 (once, I shamefully admit, just to drive my wife, an unabashed Favre fan, past the family residence as we ferried our daughter back to school at Tulane), you'd better be tough. A lot of the good, God-fearing folks in the one-stoplight burg might curse their poor fortune at the slot machines in the back room of the VFW, using an earthy expletive that rhymes with grit every time the unmatched wheels gobble another quarter.

But it takes true grit, and a deep-rooted sense of self as well, to aspire to greatness when the odds are stacked against you. It takes incredible values, imbued by family and friends and the support group around you, to surpass one's dreams in the manner Brett Favre has. The often-polarizing Hillary Rodham Clinton suggested, in fact, it takes a village.

We're betting that a certain three-time league most valuable player knows the village that delivered him to the NFL 13 years ago was a pretty good place from which to come.

"It's not so much a town, really, as it is a community, a big, overgrown, neighborhood," the Packers quarterback once noted of his home. "Mostly the people work on their cars all day, party at night and wrap it up with a few barroom brawls. But it's a place where everybody knows who they are. Where there is no (pretense). Where they give you the chance to grow up right and, if you work hard, to basically earn everyone's respect."

Brett Favre, well, he grew up pretty right, didn't he? As for the latter, is there any more respected player in the league, on and off the field, than the Packers quarterback?

Certainly, he doesn't need this 200th start on Monday night against the St. Louis Rams to validate him. But that number is so astounding -- shocking, really, in an age where teams discard starters as if they were yesterday's sweat socks -- that it essentially defines Favre. Good friend Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who has chronicled Favre's career in terrific fashion and forged a close bond with the Packers star, recently put the streak in this perspective: If Favre were to retire tomorrow (fat chance, given the passion that he displayed in Sunday night's comeback victory at Houston), then Peyton Manning, who has the next-best consecutive starts streak, at 106, would need to start almost six more season's worth of games to catch up.

So, did we expect such longevity from Favre when we made that visit to Kiln in 1991? Truthfully, given his penchant for hell-raising, probably not. But we expected, more so than did then-Falcons coach Jerry Glanville, some degree of greatness.

Even without his ham-handed handling of Favre, Glanville will be recalled as one of the biggest buffoons in recent league history. But Glanville, whose ego was even bigger than those cowboy belt-buckles he always wore with his black jeans, fretted that a carousing Favre would never reach his potential. The Falcons had Chris Miller as their starter and Billy Joe Tolliver as the primary backup in 1991, good guys and decent quarterbacks, and Favre knew he was never going to play. And so he became intimately familiar with some of the watering holes in the Buckhead entertainment district, drew plenty of fines from Glanville, and wilted on the bench.

It's not so much a town, really, as it is a community, a big, overgrown, neighborhood. … But it's a place where everybody knows who they are. Where there is no (pretense). Where they give you the chance to grow up right and, if you work hard, to basically earn everyone's respect."
Brett Favre on growing up in Kiln, Miss.

The breaking point came on a Saturday morning in October, when Favre overslept and was late arriving for the team picture, apparently an unforgivable transgression in the sunglass-covered eyes of the head coach. Come the offseason, Glanville ordered vice president of personnel Ken Herock to trade Favre and the history of two franchises was essentially sealed for the next 13 seasons.

You think the Packers would have earned their first Vince Lombardi Trophy since, well, the reign of Vince Lombardi, without Favre at the controls? Think the Falcons, who have never posted consecutive winning campaigns in the 39-year history of the franchise, might have a Super Bowl trophy by now if they had actually exercised a little foresight and kept the kid from Kiln?

"There was always something special about him," said Herock, who fought like crazy against Glanville's trade demands, but was ultimately overruled. "He wasn't always the prettiest guy, but he was tough, and he was a winner."

Pretty, for sure, was never Favre's style. In the first week of his initial training camp, he threw nothing but ducks. He would come off the field shaking his head, mumbling about his inability to throw a "spiro" which is Kiln-ese for "spiral." Yet there was a certain and undeniable it that surrounded Favre, an aura that eclipsed just football acumen, that was evident from the outset. Teammates gravitated to him, embraced him, seemed to hint that this was a guy who, bottom line, would out-compete everyone around him.

Turns out, 13 years later, they were right.

Funny thing but, in 1991, while most of the residents of Kiln figured their homeboy had the right stuff, they weren't exactly sure of him. "The Great" Wendell Ladner of hoops fame (not once, in 1½ days, did we encounter anyone who did not affix the prefix "The Great" to any Ladner reference) was the town's most celebrated sports hero. Probably because, while playing with four teams in five ABA seasons, Ladner brawled like no one else in the game. He was a nasty guy, full of grit, complete with the kind of gumption that oozes up from the red dirt and red-neckedness, for lack of a better term, of Kiln.

Then again, when it came to guts, literally, no one should have ever doubted Favre. On July 14, 1990, he was returning from an afternoon of a little chicken, a little beer and a lot of sun when he swerved his Nissan Maxima to avoid another car, flipped into the loose gravel, and suffered serious injuries. Three weeks later, while healing from his wounds, he experienced sharp abdominal pains, and surgeons subsequently removed 30 inches of intestine. Five weeks after the surgery, he shepherded Southern Mississippi to an upset victory over Alabama.

Noted then-Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings: "You can call it an upset, or a miracle, or whatever term you want to use. All I know is, Brett Favre was bigger than life."

Thanks in large part to Kiln, to the values he learned there, that analysis hasn't changed.

At the D&K Quickstop convenience store during our long-ago visit to Kiln, the hand-lettered placard in the window, devoid of punctuation, succinctly reflected the priorities of the town and of Brett Favre and his family. It read: "Smile Be Happy God Loves You God Bless America Boiled Peanuts."

That trinity of values -- love of God, love of country and family, good ol' country living -- remains with Favre to this day. You think he's a damned good quarterback? Well, Favre is a damned better person.

No other way, come Monday night, Brett Favre could be starting a 200th straight game.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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