- Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN Senior Writer
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MANKATO, Minn. -- The circus starts with a lapdog named Charlie.
He is not much bigger than a rodent, and his bloodlines are Maltese, shih tzu, Yorkie or all of the above. Someday, they'll laugh at this and wonder what was the bigger hoot: that Brett Favre, Ironman Quarterback, has a cuddly, foo-foo dog, or that Brad Childress was there in Favre's spacious house, fumbling around in the dark, hoping the pooch wouldn't nip off a piece of his leg?
Heck, it's funny now. Check out all the reporters hanging on to Favre's every move. Check out Childress, the fifth-year coach of the Minnesota Vikings, a man who, on the surface, is about as revealing as a turtleneck sweater.
Childress is sitting on a golf cart in between two-a-day practices taking a rare break from the heat. He's in stream-of-consciousness mode, recounting the last time he saw Favre a few weeks ago in Hattiesburg, Miss. Training camp was about to start, and Childress wanted to get a feel for what his 40-year-old quarterback was thinking.
A younger, more impatient coach might have skipped this trip. Maybe a couple of years ago, Childress was one of those guys.
"There was probably a point and time where I was so anal and controlling that I'd have been gritting my teeth and saying, 'Aww, that's bull----,'" Childress said.
"But I learned things coaching that guy. I appreciate him more now. I never got a chance to sit, talk or break bread. And I thought the best place to do that would be going down to his spot, out of the light of day. You learn some things."
They talked in the kitchen deep into the night about dogs, armadillos and the future. Then Childress looked at the time and said he had a 5:30 a.m. flight and needed some sleep. So he headed for bed in a separate wing of Favre's house and gave him a handshake and a hug.
"I'll see ya," Childress told Favre. "Let me know what you're thinking about."
Three weeks later, the world waits once again.
A newspaper sits on top of a play clock on the practice field. It has Favre on the cover with a headline that says, HERE WE GO AGAIN.
Fans hang along the gates of the Vikings' summer home in Mankato, wearing No. 4 jerseys, wondering whether Favre, who has vacillated on the retirement issue for at least six years and has a balky ankle, will be back for his 20th season.
Childress still doesn't know. So he walks around with two scripts, one with a Hall of Fame quarterback, arguably the most electric player in the history of the game, one without. He stomps out occasional fires. He genuinely believes everything will be OK regardless of what Favre decides.
Crazy? Maybe. But in "Chilly's" world, it isn't. He's a risk taker hidden in a mathematician's body, a psychology major buried behind a pair of glasses and a clipboard.
Sure, Childress is a control freak. What NFL coach isn't? And it has to eat at him that he has no control over this situation.
Childress leans back in his golf cart, puts his arms forward and grins.
"We all want to grab the steering wheel and drive in our life, you know?" he says. "You control what you can control.
"I'm a big God's-will guy. I try to listen for it every day, and I try to do it."
Learning to deal with '85 drama queens'
It starts with a story.
Every potential draft pick and free agent hears it when he steps into Brad Childress' office. He'll tell them that his dad's name is Harry and that he was a barber, which is kind of funny because Childress is bald.
He'll say that when he used to get into trouble, his mom would make him hang out at the barbershop all day, sweeping up hair while the other kids played outside.
"That helped me with my fiber," Childress, 54, tells them. "How'd you get your fiber?"
Childress' grandfather was killed in a coal-mining accident, and his grandma scrubbed floors so the family could eat. Harry Childress was sent off to Mooseheart City, a lodge-sponsored orphanage in Illinois, and went on to be an all-state quarterback. He had six kids. Brad, his second child, became a quarterback, too.
But life at home was deteriorating. Harry and Joyce Childress went through a bitter divorce, and the fighting wore on Brad, who was often pulled into the middle of it. When Childress was 16, Chuck Dickerson, his high school coach at Marmion Military Academy in Aurora, Ill., offered to take him in. Childress lived in his basement for three years.
"I was probably your typical adolescent at the time with hormones raging, I guess," Childress says. "I had misguided anger toward my mom and dad. I could've headed down the wrong path. I was just running around like a chicken with my head cut off, and my head coach kind of grabbed me by the nape of the neck."
Dickerson was like a second father, and it's obvious his love of coaching guided Childress down the same path. Childress was so undersized -- he topped out at about 145 pounds -- that Dickerson's wife, Shirley, thought up a nickname for him. Bird Legs. He hurt his neck one game and didn't play quarterback. So he played defense.
Dickerson told Childress that he should join the track team because it would make him a better football player. So he became a 300-meter low hurdler and was undefeated until the state finals. Childress hated track.
"He looked like a skinny, little, chicken-breasted guy," Dickerson says. "But ooh, he was a tough, tough, tough guy."
Childress' life at Marmion was regimented, with rifle instruction and Catholic teachings. But when he came home at night, he rarely talked football with Dickerson. They liked that balance. Childress graduated and went to Eastern Illinois; Dickerson eventually joined the college coaching ranks at Minnesota, then became a defensive assistant for the Buffalo Bills in the early 1990s.
They talk still, and a few years ago, Childress invited him out to training camp. Dickerson said no. He knows Childress would have wanted to take care of him, to make sure he was fed and entertained and had a working golf cart. Dickerson didn't want to get in the way.
He laughs when people ask him for Favre updates. As if he knows what's going on. Dickerson scoffs at the notion that Childress would be rattled by this latest version of the Favre watch. Dickerson points out that it was Childress who was the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator during the glory -- and sometimes inglorious -- days of Terrell Owens.
"The whole game of professional football is a damn circus," Dickerson says. "Face it, you bring in 85 drama queens every time you open a training camp, for crying out loud. You live through a firestorm on a daily basis.
"You're dissected and bisected. You've got to be able to take it with a grain of salt and do your thing. Brad, he's looking at Favre and wondering what Favre's going to do. But he's also looking at the rest of his squad, and you know he's got plans."
'This ain't wrestling, chess or track'
Childress has not been an instant fan favorite at most stops. He was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin during the Rose Bowl runs of the 1990s but often was skewered for not airing it out more. Coach Barry Alvarez, who loved the run, could placate fans with a quip. He'd say he didn't throw on first down because he hated second-and-10.
Childress, a more subdued chap who didn't exactly light up a room full of reporters, shouldered much of the blame. He didn't care. He had work to do. He'd lock himself away in the film room, studying every detail. Childress will rewind a piece of film eight times just to study a right tackle's foot.
"He calls it the minutiae," says Darrell Bevell, a former Badgers quarterback under Childress who now serves as his offensive coordinator in Minnesota. "There's no detail too small.
"It's tough. He coaches you hard. Even when you do something right, he's always going to point out something you could've done better."
You [were] looking at people and saying, 'I've got to get rid of that guy. I can't get rid of him now, but I've got to get rid of him.' We're playing the ultimate team game. This ain't wrestling, chess or track.
”-- Vikings coach Brad Childress, reflecting on team building
Childress coached eight years under Alvarez, who calls him a "good communicator," then served seven seasons as an assistant in Philadelphia before finally getting his shot as the Vikings' head coach in 2006. He would tell his new players in Minnesota that this might be his only chance at running a team and that he wanted to do everything to ensure that it lasted.
So his top priority was finding athletes who not only fit into his system but also passed the character sniff test. He had Daunte Culpepper, a franchise quarterback, on his first roster. Childress traded him before the 2006 season. It wasn't because Culpepper couldn't get the job done; it was something the new coach heard in the weeks after he arrived. Culpepper, he says, talked about money instead of the team.
It was a move that in some ways launched this whole Favre watch because the Vikings have gone into just about every camp since then without a clear-cut starting quarterback. But Childress says he doesn't regret it.
"I couldn't trust everybody in the beginning," Childress says. "You [were] looking at people and saying, 'I've got to get rid of that guy. I can't get rid of him now, but I've got to get rid of him.'
"We're playing the ultimate team game. This ain't wrestling, chess or track."
It's a mentality ingrained in the Vikings from the start, says linebacker Chad Greenway, Childress' first pick in the 2006 draft. It's what helped the 2009 team go from the uncertainty of not knowing who the quarterback was going to be through training camp to bonding with Favre and making it to the NFC Championship Game five months later.
In every Vikings playbook, Childress inserted a quote from John Wooden. It says, "The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team."
Upside of waiting for No. 4
A woman and her young son stand outside the end zone at a recent Vikings practice. The kid points to Tarvaris Jackson, who's wearing the red, no-contact jersey for quarterbacks. The boy asks who he is.
Says the mom: "That's our quarterback if Favre doesn't come back."
Favre might be in Mississippi, but he's everywhere in Mankato. The team had barely started camp last week when news broke that Favre had told a couple of teammates, via text message, that he was finished. Favre later denied the reports, and Childress dismissed it as "filler" in a slow news week.
He quashes any speculation that he isn't on the same page as Favre. He calls last year's apparent sideline spat with his quarterback "creative tension" and says they have a better understanding of each other now.
If the Vikings are tired of the uncertainty, they aren't showing it. The first few practices, before the latest Favre drama, were somewhat quiet, kicker Ryan Longwell said.
"Everybody was kind of uneasy, but when it started firing up, practice started to get a little more fired up," he says. "It's almost like we thrive on it a little bit."
One of Childress' favorite sayings is "Overcommunicate clarity," and he says he has done his best to keep the team informed of what's happening. He addressed the situation in the spring of 2009 when the Favre-to-Minnesota rumors began to swirl. He said only two guys on the entire team were uncomfortable with the prospect of adding Favre -- Jackson and backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels.
This summer, through another camp of uncertainty, a few more tightropes have been tiptoed, and Childress has had to pat a few backs and offer up a little extra encouragement. He says there's an upside to Favre's not being here.
"The other quarterbacks are getting damn good in our system," Childress says. "They're getting [reps] they normally wouldn't get if the No. 1 guy was here. And those will serve them somewhere down the road."
What drives Childress?
They're so different.
Favre taps out a couple of texts, and their reported contents end up in 120-point type. He is so big, so beloved, that he can agonize over a big-screen TV purchase on a Sears commercial -- fresh off another real-life bout of career indecision -- and make millions laugh.
Childress drifts into a crowd and goes unrecognized.
"It's funny, and I love it, when you sit by somebody and they don't have any idea what you do," Childress said. "And I'm not advertising it, either.
"If I get a five-day growth, a mustache and that I just look like a guy that's in a midlife crisis."
Favre got on his tractor and chased armadillos this summer; Childress continued to plot away for 2010. He took a little time off this summer to go to Germany on the NFL's annual USO tour, a trip that was especially meaningful because his son Andrew is a U.S. Marine deployed in the Middle East.
By mid-July, Childress was back in the states, back in the middle of the NFL's greatest sideshow. Critics say Favre enjoys this. Logic says Childress dreads it.
It should be noted that Childress' favorite class in college was abnormal psychology. He was intrigued by stories about the brain. He believed, at one point, that his career would involve people lying on his couch, pouring out their childhoods. He thought maybe he'd be a psychologist.
This summer, he has to be.
Will Chilly and Favre finally get what they both so desperately want? Minnesota, and the rest of the NFL world, still wait.
"I can tell you exactly what drives Brad," Chuck Dickerson says. "He wants to know how good he is. And the only way to find that out is to keep reaching."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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