Next Thursday, the Cheesehead Radio gang will come out of their offseason slumber to bring you a very special interview with Michael Neelsen, the man behind the new documentary Last Day At Lambeau, a chronicling of the heartaching divorce of the Packers and Brett Favre. The film culminates with Favre’s last appearance at Lambeau Field on October 24, 2010.
The entire idea behind Neelsen’s film is very personal to me. You see, the whole idea of Favre’s “last day at Lambeau” was my personal Packer Bucket List. Since 2001 on, I made it my mission to be at Favre’s “last game” at Lambeau Field.
In 1992, I was blessed to have gotten some last-minute tickets to the Cincinnati Bengal game, and it was a beautiful autumn day. Like everyone else in the stadium that day, we were mesmerized by a young quarterback who had already been billed as “the quarterback of the future”, who willed a last-second victory on the strength of his arm. Brett Favre was born that day as a Packer, and I was a fervent fan from that day forward.
As his career went into its twilight, and criticism mounted against Favre, I often rose to champion him, even in the years when I openly petitioned him to hang up his cleats. I knew the end was coming, and each year, I petitioned my limited network of family and friends for tickets to the last home game of every season. This was going to be my personal “Alpha and Omega”…I was there for Favre’s first game, I was going to be there for Favre’s last game. Hopefully, like the first, it would end with an inspirational Packer win (cue irony).
Some years were a little easier than others. If they had an off year, it was usually no problem for a cheapskate like me to get a ticket at face value. If it was a playoff run, it was quite a bit harder. But somehow, I managed to get myself in the bleachers for what might have been Brett Favre’s last game.
In 2002, I scored some tickets for the home playoff game the Packers hosted against the Falcons. It was a terrible, terrible game, as the Packers lost 27-7, and my personal claim of “The Packers never lose when I’m at a game” fell apart.
In 2003, perhaps the most exhilarating stretch of four quarters I’ve ever been a part of, I went to the funeral atmosphere of the final game of the season against the Broncos, with the Packers needing a miracle to make the playoffs. I sat and put up with the world’s most annoying Denver fan in front of me, who mocked all of us as his team was going to the playoffs despite losing, and the Packers were going home. When the Vikings lost in the final seconds against Arizona, a wave of excitement slowly built around the stadium, then exploded when the final score was announced and the Packers were division champions. Mr. Bronco left soon after with several explicatives for the folks who wished him a happy trip home.
Miraculously, I managed to get the prized family tickets for the Seahawks game the next week, and we all know how that one ended..with Al Harris making a miracle interception in overtime to win a game that looked to be in doubt. As the Packers went confidently into Philadelphia, no matter what happened, I had been at the game I wanted to be at.
The following year, 2004, I was there as the Packers lost to the Vikings at home in the playoffs, and stood what seemed to be just a few yards from Randy Moss wiping his butt on the goalposts. A very disheartening loss, but at least, if Favre retired, I would have been at his last game. With a new GM being brought in that offseason, I began to think there was a good chance it might have been.
After a miserable 2005 campaign, I watched the Packers win their season finale against the Seattle Seahawks. I was almost disappointed, as it set the Packers back a little in the draft, but I also felt strongly that with major changes coming, that was likely Favre’s last game. It was nice that he finished with a win, and was a good time to hang it up.
As we know, however, he didn’t. And in 2006 Favre and his new head coach fought their way to a .500 record, and that was the first “last game” I was unable to make.
Now, here’s where some of the interesting psychology comes in to play. I really thought Favre should retire at this point, but in some ways, for my own Alpha/Omega mission, I wanted him to come back for one year, just so I could say I was there. It’s funny, when you think about it, how we change how we look at the game depending on our perspective. We do it all the time when we play fantasy football, rooting for a touchdown to Jermichael Finley as opposed to, say, John Kuhn because it helps our own personal goals. I had my “Last Game at Lambeau” goal in mind for so long, passing up opportunities for other games (in warmer weather) just for the chance to be there in January, year after year.
But 2007 came along. It was a charmed season, a special season. Favre could do no wrong, and neither could the Packers. My finances were limited, but I scraped up scalped tickets to attend the Seahawks game after the first-round bye, figuring the Packers were doomed to head to Dallas in the next round. I watched the Packers and Favre get the win, and felt great that I had fulfilled my long-time goal .
But the very next day, I watched almost in horror as the Giants defeated the Cowboys in Dallas, meaning New York would be headed to Lambeau for the NFC Championship. Having blown my wad on the Seattle game, I desperately searched for a ticket, but there were none to be found anywhere near face value. For the second year in a row, I sat at home watching Favre’s final game at Lambeau, a heartbreaking loss that I felt almost certain would be the last game in his career.
And I was almost right: as Favre announced his retirement from the Packers later that year, I knew that I had gambled and lost. And as Favregate unfolded over that turbulent offseason, it was clear that Favre would never suit up in Green and Gold again.
As Favre retired again after that season, I called my uncle in 2009 and asked for the family Viking tickets. I was given a resounding “no”, as he planned to go to that game if Favre somehow managed to finagle his way into purple. I told him to keep me on a list if he came across tickets, as this wasn’t a game I wanted to miss.
Three days before helicopters began following Brad Chldress to the airport, my uncle offered me the tickets, as it appeared all hope had been lost for the big matchup. Worst mistake he ever made, though he did scalp some tickets for himself, too.
The game itself was surreal in every sense of the world. And as I sat in the 35th row with my wife, I was deafened in one ear by the boos for Brett Favre, and deafened in the other by the roars for Aaron Rodgers. It was a playoff atmosphere, but notably different, more chilling. You could tell that this game was far from just another regular season win or loss, or even a rivalry matchup. You might even say that it was more important to many fans than even a sudden-death playoff game. Every possession, every pass, every penalty was seemingly life-or-death, not only to the fans, but to the players.
And as the game went on, it was a lot more death than life. The Vikings climbed ahead of the Packers that day on the frozen tundra, not necessarily on the arm of the traitor quarterback, but on the inspired play of the team around him. The game wasn’t about Favre vs. Rodgers (and in fact, I felt Rodgers actually outplayed Favre that day), but Favre vs. Thompson. It was a crushing blow to the Packers’ season, the feeling that somehow, Favre finally had played his way into a better position for himself, and the master plan the Packers had to move on without him was indelibly flawed.
It was a terrible feeling as a Packer fan who had endured the wrenching emotions the summer of Favregate had to offer. The Vikings were headed to the playoffs, and the Packers wilted away the rest of the season. And I walked out of the stadium as a man with a broken bucket list, a twisted goal of seeing Favre’s last game at Lambeau, and watching him again pull out a win…but this time, over my beloved Packers.
You cannot deny the impact of that game on October 24, 2009. It was perhaps the most intense game I had been at since the early 1990′s. Favre was the focal point of that game that day, and he had walked out victorious, head down, draped under Ryan Longwell’s arm, as torrents of boos showered upon him from bitter, angry, betrayed fans.
Which brings us to the game that is the focus of Neelson’s film, and a game I also managed to get tickets to. As I entered the stadium on that day in October of 2010, it was a far different feel. The Packers were fighting through injuries in the midst of a season of high expectations. The Vikings, who brought back a far-older Brett Favre, were struggling mightily. The game was important, but not for the same pride reasons as the year before, but because both teams desperately needed wins at that point.
But there was no doubt…this was going to be Favre’s final year. This was the last time the kid I saw back in 1992 would take the field, with few clues from his play on the field that it was even the same man. We anticipated the game for so many reasons: redemption, revenge…all those feelings that now seemed to revolve around the guy under center on the other side, Aaron Rodgers. The kid was getting MVP talk, was having a solid year, really growing into his own. This was the game he needed to step up and face the ghosts that haunted him, exorcising them, and silencing his critics, once and for all.
In the end, the Packers prevailed, but not without a sense of irony. Favre had a miserable game, taking big hits in the backfield and throwing three picks. But Rodgers had an off day himself, with some scattershot passes seemingly thrown to invisible receivers, and a couple of uncharacteristic interceptions. In the end, it wasn’t Rodgers who stepped up and took the crown away from Favre, but the defense that Thompson had been so carefully building since he first came to Green Bay in 2005.
Rodgers emerged from the game as the winning quarterback, but in the battle of Favre vs. Thompson, a winner could finally be declared, once and for all. Favre left the field battered and defeated, with a team that had lost faith in him. The Packers went on to win the Super Bowl.
And that day, again, I walked out of the stadium with twisted feelings. My Packers had won, had won an important game. But in the end, the man I had made it one of my life goals to see his Last Game at Lambeau had become far less than what I had always envisioned him as. He was a shell of himself, a man who looked like he wanted the game to end. I walked out having fulfilled my mission, yet the man himself was not even a second thought. He wasn’t Favre. He was just another guy.
There may be no greater tragedy to come out of this divorce and climactic pair of games played between two rivals over the passion and ignorance of one man. In the end, Favre became what Packer fans would have never, ever dreamed of him during his tenure in Green Bay, or even when he went to other NFL teams.
Brett Favre became irrelevant. And in so many ways, my Alpha/Omega mission became irrelevant, too. That may end up being the hardest thing for me to forgive Brett Favre for.
Join Jersey Al Bracco, Jayme Joers, John Rehor, Kyle Cousineau, Amanda Lawson, and CD Angeli as we talk with Michael Neelsen, director of Last Day at Lambeau on Cheesehead Radio at 8:00 CST at BlogTalkRadio.