- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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He prays to god about a god. He worries about things he's never worried about before. His hands, for instance.
Catching a football has never been a problem for Greg Jennings, but now that he's going to be catching his passes, everyone keeps asking him if he can handle the heat. It's tough to admit, but his confidence is starting to crack, even though he has yet to see one of those passes hum his way, much less meet the man who hurls them. So he prays.
After Jennings rises from his knees on this
morning in May 2006, the first day of his first NFL minicamp, the receiver rubs blessed oil over his body. A few hours later, the second-rounder from Western Michigan lines up for his debut play: a 5-yard hook route. As Jennings waits for the snap, one thing goes through his mind: Just catch the ball.
See, this god -- a quarterback wearing a red No. 4 practice jersey -- is a stubborn son of a gun who might never pass to Jennings again if he drops this one. And he likes to put a little extra on his throws at first. As a test.
Plus, Jennings thinks he's already failed once, last night. He was lost, scrambling through the hallways of Lambeau Field looking for the rookies-only dinner, when he heard a noise on the other side of a door. So he opened it and
It was him.
Right freaking there, in the seat nearest the door, breaking off his conversation and turning up his eyes. It was him, the most spontaneous and playful quarterback in history. Only Brett Favre wasn't smiling. He wasn't offering a hand. He was freezing Jennings with a glare that said, I don't know what you need, but I'm not going to help you.
Jennings wanted to leave, but he couldn't spin around, not yet. He was locked in on Favre, thinking, Man, those grays. They were everywhere, along the sides of his buzzed hair and sprinkled in his whiskers. This wasn't the precocious QB who beat 10-year-old Greg's beloved Lions in the 1994 playoffs by rolling left and firing a rocket across the field into the arms of Sterling Sharpe.
Neither was this the carefree kid running around the Superdome with his helmet off after throwing a Super Bowl touchdown against the Patriots in 1997. Nor the three-time MVP who came clean about his addiction to painkillers; nor Cameron Diaz's ex in "There's Something About Mary." Nope, this guy was worn and grizzled. And his eyes burned right through Jennings until the kid got the hell out.
Jennings stewed all night over those three
seconds, convinced he'd put himself on Favre's blacklist. So now he finds himself running his first hook route, hoping just to catch the ball. He turns a half step shy of five yards, and Favre's pass is
already hissing his way, with no arc. If anything, it's coming down at an angle.
Jennings leans back for protection. But when the ball hits his hands, there's no sting or ache. So that's why this quarterback is so great, Jennings thinks: He throws catchable heat.
Later that day, in the huddle, Favre says, "Greg, you've got the Puma, right?" Jennings says "Yeah," knowing the Packer lingo for a 15-yard comeback. Jogging to the line, Jennings is ecstatic. He knows me! But the rest of the day, Favre says nothing
to him. That day becomes a week, then a month, then an entire dang summer. And when training camp starts, Favre communicates only the bare
necessities -- plays or routes, nothing more.
Jennings isn't used to this. His father, Greg Sr., a pastor in Kalamazoo, Mich., and the source of that blessed oil, raised his son to reach out to everybody. Heck, Jennings arrived at college with the nickname "Superman." Quarterbacks sweated being in Jennings' pocket, not the other way around.
But Jennings is determined to be one of Favre's guys, so he studies him, hard, over the next few weeks. He notices how Favre never dresses for practice in the locker room, how he just sort of arrives on the field ready to go, then disappears to shower and changes elsewhere. He notices how Favre calls plays in the huddle but forgets everyone's routes, or pretends to, just to make the receivers recite them. He notices how, after backup Aaron Rodgers throws every pass as hard as he can, Favre says, "That used to be me. In 17 years you won't be doing that."
He notices how Favre wears the same tan shirt every day. How when the quarterback approaches it doesn't matter if Jennings stands a little straighter, prepping for a hello -- Favre always passes him by. At night, Jennings tells his pregnant wife, Nicole, that it's like "being in an elevator with a stranger."
During red zone drills one day in camp, Favre tells Jennings to cut off his 5-yard out pattern at two yards. Jennings does and catches a touchdown. As Jennings trots back, receivers coach Jimmy Robinson screams, "That's a 5-yard route!"
"Brett told me to run it at two yards," Jennings said.
Jennings watches Robinson puff out his chest, angrily strut over to Favre, then politely ask, "So you want him to run it at two yards, Brett?"
This is how it works here. There's the playbook, then there's the offense the Packers actually run. There are the coaches, then there's the player everyone takes their cue from. Even head coach Mike McCarthy says during film sessions, "Brett, just keep me in the loop."
He's only partly joking.
So Jennings studies the Favre offense every night on his laptop and, once camp breaks, in his home theater. Before the season opener, McCarthy
announces Jennings is starting, that he's "never seen a rookie that productive that fast." The promotion earns the kid this: One day following practice, after Jennings catches a 57-yard bomb from Favre, the two pass in the hallway. Favre, for once, looks up.
"Hey, Greg. How you feelin'?"
"Good, thanks. How are you?"
And the god walks off.
Approaching The Man
It's too easy.
In the first quarter of the third game of the 2006 season, against the Lions, Favre signals Jennings from a deep crossing route into a slant. After the snap, Jennings takes five steps forward, angles in, catches the ball, then pivots outside and turns
upfield. As he sprints, Jennings doesn't see Favre 25 yards behind him, running and pumping his right fist. But Jennings feels him after crossing the goal line -- he gets slapped on the head so hard that his ears ring. He woozily hands over Favre's 400th touchdown ball to his screaming quarterback.
After scoring twice in his first three games, Jennings thinks he's earned enough of an opening to approach Favre. So at a memorabilia show, Jennings lobbies Favre to play one more year.
"We'll see," Favre says curtly. Later, at practice, Jennings asks Favre why he never hosts the receivers for dinner. "I will, but you've gotta know when to leave."
Man, what is it with this guy? Does he ever ease up? During one film session, Robinson grills Jennings on defenses and the rookie answers, "Cover 2, two-10, 33 backer dog zone "
"No," says Favre. "It's a Cover 2. That's it. Don't make it more complicated than it needs to be."
That stings. Even so, in that room, with Favre pointing and instructing in his familiar soft drawl, Jennings is astonished. I'm right here with him.
And Jennings can't help staring at him at practice, Favre wearing short sleeves, laughing in the cold. And again before games, as Favre pulls on his
jersey and looks so iconic in green and yellow that Jennings checks himself in the mirror before
kickoff just to make sure he looks sharp enough to play alongside this legend. It's embarrassing, but Jennings thinks, Man, he gets to me like that.
Maybe, but any hopes of a deeper connection with Favre take a blow on Oct. 22, when Jennings sprains his ankle against the Dolphins, forcing him to miss a game and throwing off his timing. He catches only one of nine passes that come his way on Nov. 19, as the Patriots shut out the Packers.
Two weeks later, in the second quarter of a blowout loss to the Jets, Jennings runs a deep post but Favre throws a corner. During meetings, Favre tells Jennings, "Gimme five" -- five more minutes studying. So Jennings watches extra film, and prays, but it doesn't matter on Sundays. In the huddle, when Favre asks Jennings if he's open, all the receiver can think is, Why don't you just look at me and find out for yourself?
Jennings needs encouragement, but Favre is not about to give it to him. After all, Favre still remembers how nobody helped him 20 years ago at Hancock North Central High in Kiln, Miss., where his old man, Irv, coached a wishbone offense that barely allowed a throw. Nobody helped Favre when he arrived at Southern Miss in 1987 as the seventh-string QB.
Hardly anyone cared when he slipped to the Falcons in the second round in 1991, nor did teammates mind a year later when, after a trade to Green Bay, he was thrown into the complex West Coast offense and criticized so harshly by Mike Holmgren that Irv pleaded in vain with assistant Steve Mariucci to tell the coach to ease up.
So there's no soothing words coming from Favre. Plus, Favre already has Jennings pegged as the eager, analytical type, and he knows that if he pulls him into a film room to dissect all his mistakes the kid will just stew over them. Not that Favre doesn't care. He knows Jennings has got raw talent. Hell, he's known since the rookie caught that fastball on his first day of camp.
Jennings just didn't realize it, because Favre scouts receivers even when they're catching from the other quarterbacks, so he can get a better sense of how fluidly they run routes. Funny thing is, Favre also knows exactly how little he speaks to Jennings because his wife, Deanna, asked him one day why he didn't reach out to the younger guys more.
"I should," he replied, "but I've become a loner as I've gotten older."
After the season ends -- after Jennings misses the Packers' last game because Nicole gives birth to their daughter, Amya, six weeks early; after Favre says he'll play a 17th season; after Favre spends April lobbying for the Packers to acquire Randy Moss, then reportedly seeks a trade after they don't -- Jennings gets a call from Favre's memorabilia guy. He wants the receiver and his wife to fly to Mississippi for the quarterback's charity golf tournament. Sure, it's over Mother's Day weekend, but Jennings is going.
Anything to get closer to the guy.
Favre looks past Jennings at first; he's too busy glad-handing, posing, signing. When Jennings
finally gets some one-on-one time, Favre brings up Moss, saying he wishes the Packers had gotten him because he would have made the team better. Then Favre says, "Look, Greg, you're one of the reasons I came back, to see what we can do."
We. That makes Jennings think the new season might be different. And at training camp that summer, things are different. Favre asks Jennings what he sees on each play, instead of informing him. He pinches the back of Jennings' arm in the huddle, just for the hell of it. And once September arrives, after McCarthy challenges Favre to make 2007 his best statistical season yet, Favre calls the receivers to gather for film study at 9:45 a.m. on the Tuesday before the opener against the Eagles. That morning, Favre peeks through the doorway of the meeting room and
It's just Jennings.
He's been sitting there for over two hours, studying plays with Amya in his arms. Jennings asks where everyone else is. Favre laughs and says, "You know how guys are on their off day." Wait -- they stood up Favre? Whatever, this is Jennings' chance. The two of them dissect the Eagles for 35 minutes, with Amya crying the entire time. When Jennings looks over at Favre, wearing that same tan shirt, he's no longer in awe. It's just his quarterback. And to Favre, Jennings isn't a rookie anymore; he wants to see what the wideout can handle.
After the Packers win their first two games, which Jennings misses with a hamstring injury, they trail the Chargers by four with 2:13 left on Sept. 23. But Jennings catches a slant between two defenders, makes a third miss, then runs untouched for a 57-yard score -- Favre's NFL-record-tying 420th TD pass.
The next week, in the first quarter against the Vikings, with the Packers at the Minnesota 16 and expecting a blitz, Favre audibles tight end Donald Lee from a deep route to a quick out. That gives Jennings single coverage on his deep slant. With the play clock winding down, Favre backs into the shotgun and, under duress, fires to Jennings, who runs into the end zone for the record-breaker. Favre sprints at Jennings and picks him off his feet, hoisting him like a champagne glass.
A few weeks later, before the Packers play the Broncos on Monday Night Football, Greg stands with his mother, Gwen, outside the team hotel.
"After I introduce you to Brett," Jennings says to his mom, "tell him to throw to me."
When Favre walks by, and Jennings pulls him aside, Gwen says, "You're going to throw him the ball tonight, right?"
"Greg put you up to that, didn't he?" Favre says.
Hours later, after hitting Jennings for an 82-yard TD on the first play of overtime, Favre chases down his receiver and says, "Hope your mom's happy now!"
The next week, against the Chiefs, with the Packers trailing 22-16 with less than four minutes left, Jennings smells something raunchy in the huddle. He glares at Favre, who looks away. Later, in the locker room, after Jennings has caught a game-winning, 60-yard score, he's sure his quarterback ripped one intentionally, just to relax the guys. So he asks Favre, "You did it, didn't you?"
"No," Favre says. "But that one smelled so bad I wish I did."
Jennings laughs. And over the next few months, he comes to realize something: Once you're in
with Brett Favre, you're all the way in. It's Jennings
who now gets invited over for dinner. It's
Jennings who Favre pulls aside before a late-November practice and says "Challenge the guys. Go out there and see who can run the best routes, and tell them I'm looking." And it's Jennings who sits by Favre on the sideline after he throws an early
interception against the Cowboys on Nov. 29 and yells, "Shake it off, man. We'll get it back."
fter trying so hard just to get Favre to look his way, Jennings now sees eye-to-eye with his quarterback. Even better, the Packers are 12-3 and about to give Favre his last best shot at a Super Bowl.
Well, maybe not last. One day in early December, Jennings asks Favre, "One more year?"
"Maybe. Hell, you talked me into it last year."
Of course, Jennings isn't the only one wondering if Favre will come back. Look at wideout James Jones at a recent practice. Jones, a rookie out of San Jose State, knows all about Favre's history. And out on the field, he locks in on Favre, who's a few feet away, wearing his red No. 4 jersey without long sleeves, helmet cocked, smiling and laughing in the cold. For a moment, Jones doesn't even move.
Then he hears Greg Jennings whisper, "He gets to you like that, doesn't he?"
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. For Wick's Picks, click here.
Playing with Brett Favre is as fun as it looks -- once you get to know him. Just ask Greg Jennings, who brushed off the legend's cold shoulder to become his magic man in this record-breaking season.