The legacy of Ted Thompson
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There was a time when Ted Thompson knew exactly what the guys were going through, legs wobbling on the first morning of two-a-days, mind drifting to the random critiques on a clipboard. He felt 45 men come together as one in the locker room, the same room he carefully passes by now to say hi and exchange small pleasantries. Teddy -- that's what his old coach, Bum Phillips, still calls him -- wasn't much of a physical specimen. Ten years as an NFL player, and Thompson's signature moment probably came when the kicker got hurt and he booted four extra points. But he's so much more important now, with so many layers. He stands 6-foot-1 with perfectly coiffed snow-white hair, and seems even bigger, almost menacing, when he's staring down from his private suite. "If you look at him," Green Bay Packers receiver Donald Driver says, "he's one of those guys who gives nothing away. [But] you can tell the man has feelings. I think everybody has feelings."
Of course Ted Thompson, general manager of the Packers, epicenter of the Brett Favre saga, has feelings. He steps out of the cold rain and into his third-floor office at Lambeau Field, days before Favre's emotional return to Green Bay, and sinks into a chair that faces a giant framed photo. It's a picture of Favre. Thompson pulled it out of mothballs a few years back, a happy snapshot from the 1996 Super Bowl season. Favre, fresh-faced and relatively shaved, has handed off to Dorsey Levens. He's watching Levens go. Before this whole thing spun out of control, the GM once asked Favre to sign the photo, and Favre obliged. There are just a handful of photos in what Thompson acknowledges is a drab office, but he's never thought about taking this one down.
"Oh, no, no," he says as he slaps the armrests on his chair. "That's a good picture of some good players. Good guys.
"You'd have to ask Brett whether he'd call [our relationship today] a friendship. But we were always good together. We never had a bad conversation. Ever. To this day."
Thompson isn't much of a talker. His answers are short; his movements methodical. He's been the Packers' GM for five years, and aside from one whopper of a decision, gets mixed fan reviews -- praised as a keen evaluator of talent, but panned for his insistence on building teams through the draft, not free agency. He is quiet and calculating, a private man in arguably the NFL's biggest fishbowl. He doesn't give sky box glimpses into his soul, regardless of how many times the cameras pan up there to gauge reaction to every Favre touchdown in Vikings purple.
He won't say it, but Thompson and his biggest supporters know this: No matter what he does, his career will always be linked to Favre and the decision to move on without possibly the biggest legend in Packers history.
"There's no way the Packers could've won this thing, no matter how it came out," says former Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf, who traded for Favre 18 years ago. "And it will always be attached to Ted. That's just the nature of the game and the business."
Who is this man forever tied to NFL history?
If you understand Thompson, can you understand the Favre falling-out? Near the end of an interview, Thompson says he has some regrets about the way things unfolded in early 2008. He regrets that feelings were hurt, but is referring mainly to the feelings of Packers fans. He says he hasn't talked to Favre in roughly a year and a half.
"You guys are writing, and different reporters do different things," Thompson says. "[But] whatever that simple answer is that someone comes up with It's never as simple as that. It's a complicated thing, and I'm a very uncomplicated guy."
His early years in football
No, Ted Thompson is not a social butterfly. He has never been married, but came close twice. "It probably has something to do with the fact that maybe I couldn't find anybody to marry me," Thompson deadpans.
He doesn't hit the town at night and mingle, but his inner circle is powerful and undyingly loyal. Two of his closest friends are current GMs in the NFL. One of them, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt, asked Thompson to be the godfather of his two children.
Every summer, Thompson puts away his Rolodex and heads to Goliad, Texas, to stay at Bum Phillips' horse ranch. He mows and does odd chores for the man who gave him a chance with the Houston Oilers after Thompson wasn't picked in 17 rounds of the 1975 draft. They'll sit and talk until the sun drifts into the south Texas night. Phillips still refers to Thompson, 56, as a kid.
"If I had to trust somebody with my life," Phillips says, "he'd be one of them that I'd pick."
Thompson grew up in Atlanta, Texas, a timber town of about 5,000, and still has a distinct Lone Star twang. He played baseball for his dad and was a star fullback in football, the town's obsession. Thompson says his policy of not talking about contracts or money stems from his Texas roots, because it was impolite to discuss family matters.
He lists his biggest influences as Reinfeldt, Wolf, Phillips, former Packers and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, and his own parents.
"I know that sounds corny," he says, "but that's who I came from. It's who I am."
Thompson played linebacker for Phillips, who was an assistant at SMU, then became a role player with the Oilers. He was smaller than most NFL linebackers, weighing about 215 pounds.
But he knew every defensive position on the field, and, in college, would sometimes do the opposite of Phillips' instructions during a game. "Every time he broke a rule," Phillips says, "he was right. He was an excellent, excellent football player."
"Overachiever" is a word Reinfeldt uses to describe Thompson as a player. Thompson says he always tried to be low-maintenance, a good teammate, and he doubled as the team's backup snapper, punter and kicker.
His climb up the front-office ladder seemed unlikely. After being cut from the Oilers, Thompson spent the next seven years out of football. He became an investment adviser in Houston, but spent much of his time playing golf and softball.
In 1992, Reinfeldt, then with the Packers, recommended Thompson for a scouting job. Wolf threw him in a dark room and told him to evaluate reams of tape. Thompson wrote his reports and was hired on a temporary basis.
"He told me up front, 'This may or may not work. If it doesn't work, then after six months we might just separate and no harm done,'" Thompson says. "And I said, 'That's fine.'"
It became clear, early on, that Thompson has an eye for talent, and he became the Packers' director of pro personnel a year later. In 2000, Holmgren lured him away to join his staff in Seattle, where he oversaw a series of drafts that paved the way for the Seahawks' trip to the 2006 Super Bowl.
The Vikings waffled with the No. 7 pick, and didn't turn their card in on time. They dropped one pick down the order, and then another. Panic ensued in the Seahawks' war room. They had the No. 11 pick.
"It was a very confusing moment," says Reinfeldt, who was part of the Seattle front office at the time. "Another team was trying to get their pick in, and then another team. Ted looked at everybody and said, 'We're turning in [Marcus] Trufant right now.' And we jumped in.
"Now, as it turned out, the league kind of let everybody else get their picks in. But in that moment of complete chaos, it was clear to him what we should do."
Thompson, his peers say, has always been that way. Cool under pressure; firm on his decisions. His research is meticulous and hashed out through checklists. During an average week, he'll fly around the country to do his own scouting, and, by draft time in late April, Thompson is stone-cold calm when the Packers' number is up.
He is not a one-year-fix kind of guy, says 49ers GM Scot McCloughan, who worked with Thompson in Green Bay and Seattle. Thompson is always looking five years into the future. He collects picks, and believes that the core of a team should come from the draft. He scoffs at the draft-day notion that a franchise would lock itself in according to need; sometimes, if the talent is still out there, you have to grab it.
On April 23, 2005, a few months into his job as the Packers' GM, Thompson made a decision that would reverberate through Wisconsin for five seasons. Aaron Rodgers, a bright, young quarterback from Cal who had been projected by some to go No. 1, was plummeting down the draft board. Thompson scooped him up with the 24th selection.
It was a pick that even the deepest sentimentalists, surely, could somehow fathom. Favre was 35, after all. And even then, he'd pondered retirement, starting several years of the "will he or won't he" saga.
"I'm sure the reasoning Ted made, even after he drafted Aaron Rodgers, was, 'Listen, we're a good team now, we've got a good quarterback now, but we've got to look ahead for what's best for the organization,'" McCloughan says.
"Ted did it the right way. He let the guy sit on the sidelines for three years, kind of get his feet wet, and now he's taken off and become a really good football player."
Rodgers is the man now
A request to speak with Brett Favre, one of undoubtedly hundreds the Vikings will field this week, was sent to Minnesota on Sunday, after Favre's team fell to 6-1. It asked if Favre would like to talk to ESPN.com about Thompson. The reply from Vikings PR was prompt and polite: "We will pass at this point."
Thompson will not discuss the details or timeline behind what happened in early 2008, after Favre retired, then unretired, and the Packers eventually informed him they were moving ahead with Rodgers. Only two things are certain: that there were hurt feelings, and two different accounts as to what exactly happened.
Through thousands -- no wait, seemingly millions -- of media accounts, this is what happened next: Favre was traded to the New York Jets, dazzled and then fizzled with a biceps injury, retired, then wound up with the Packers' NFC North rivals; Rodgers threw for more than 4,000 yards on a team that went 6-10 last year, and is back and strong on a 4-2 squad that nobody can figure out yet.
Rodgers girds himself for the media onslaught, which will no doubt be more intense this week than any quarterback rush. He is comfortable and confident, and says he has Thompson to thank for some of that.
"I mean, he stood behind me last summer, and so did the organization," Rodgers says. "I've never doubted their loyalty, as I don't think they've doubted the way I feel about this organization.
"We were kind of joined at the hip when I got here in '05," Rodgers says of Thompson. "It was his first year as a general manager, I was his first draft pick, so I think we're going to be forever linked. Just that linking in itself, I think, has bred a good friendship between us."
The Packers, players say, are a family organization. And the team is together and tight. Driver, an 11-year veteran in a sea of young faces, says he's having fun and that "every guy loves one another." Driver is one of Favre's closest friends, and he shakes his head at the media's fixation on the Favre split and whether it's impacted the Packers' locker room.
He says the team is so young that most of the players "don't know Brett from Adam and Eve."
Thompson is big on chemistry. He says he stayed in the NFL for 10 years mainly because of the camaraderie he felt with his teammates. Asked what he likes most about his job, his answer is quick.
"I enjoy the team," he says. "I like to see them happy."
From the fans' perspective
Rick Brucker once spotted Ted Thompson at a Festival Foods grocery store in town. A longtime Packers fan, Brucker wanted to approach Thompson and say hi. He hesitated and walked away.
"He had his coat on, he had his hat pulled pretty low," Brucker says. "That was when the heated part was going on. I thought, 'Nah, he wants to be left alone.'"
Brucker runs a dairy farm outside of Green Bay and considers Thompson a businessman who did what he had to do in the face of Favre's indecision. He says fans are fickle, and their memories aren't exactly long. He points out that people questioned the Reggie White acquisition back in the day. He says a good chunk of Green Bay was skeptical of Favre when he arrived in '92.
"Everybody is like a backseat driver," Brucker says. "All of a sudden, they know better. I just kind of sit back and see how the year goes. It always seems to work out."
A year and a half later, it's obvious that the state of Wisconsin is still torn about Favre, and, inevitably, Thompson. Favre's bobblehead doll is sold out at a sports collectible store near Lambeau Field, and at least four Web sites and two petitions are devoted to the firing of Thompson.
Erick Rolfson and his brother Adam, devout Favre fans, started firetednow.com and bringbackbrettfavre.com. They eventually removed a venomous message board from the Favre site because, Erick says, Brett wrote them a letter asking them to do so.
The brothers have received more than 1,000 letters from Favre supporters, and are releasing a book called "Letters to Brett Favre, A Fan Tribute." The loyalty to No. 4 is everywhere, Rolfson says. There's an elderly woman from Elroy, Wis., with Favre's number shaved into the left side of her scalp, and the fans who still want Thompson's head.
It brings Rolfson to tears when he reads some of the letters, he says, but then he becomes stern when talking about Thompson.
"I think it's Ted's way, Ted's way," he says. "You never let your ego get bigger than your checkbook."
But not everyone is anti-Thompson. Steve "Sparky" Fifer, an afternoon-radio host at Milwaukee's WSSP-AM, says the Favre issue has divided Packer Nation, but the majority of fans who call him are in support of Thompson. They want to see Favre lose, Fifer says. Before Part I of Vikings-Packers earlier this month, the radio station held a Favre-A-Que to expel any memories of No. 4.
Fans were allowed to take whacks at a purple clunker car with Favre's jersey number painted on it. They had to take four swings.
Living inside, outside the game
It seems kind of funny now. Thompson loved the NFL because of the camaraderie, the feeling of being in the middle of it, and now he lives his life on the periphery.
"I like being able to be around the game, because it allows you to be a kid again," he says. "I have to stand on the edge of that locker room, but after a win, when you get to go in that locker room and even though you're not a part of it because you're distanced from it, you're proud to be a part of it."
He never got married because he happened to be single when he started out in the front office, and the demands made it nearly impossible to find a soul mate.
He developed a sense of detachment from his players, because that's what general managers have to do when they're deciding the fates of 80-plus men.
But there was a time, not too long ago, when Thompson used to hit golf balls with Favre. They talked about playing a real game together, when their worlds slowed down. Now Thompson has a photo in his office and a hundred questions flying at him.
"I know this," McCloughan says. "When their careers are said and done, it won't surprise me at all if they go out and play golf together and just go out and be buds. I think both of them respect each other that much. Deep down there's a good friendship there."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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