When the 2003 NFL season opened, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre had already pretty much assured himself a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The 13-year pro had been named the league’s most valuable player three consecutive times; had guided his team to two Super Bowls, including a victory in Super Bowl XXXI; and had helped restore the most storied franchise in league history to prominence by leading it to 11 winning seasons in his 12 years as the starter.
As the Packers prepared for their penultimate game of that season, a Dec. 22 Monday Night Football date with the Oakland Raiders at Network Associates Coliseum, their playoff hopes were flickering. They needed to win their last two games and hope their division rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, would lose their final game.
But the Packers’ postseason chances and Favre’s incredible streak of 205 consecutive starts were suddenly at risk. The day before the game, Irvin Favre, Brett’s father, high school coach and biggest fan, had suffered a fatal heart attack in Kiln, Miss. Packers fans, teammates and coaches all wondered: Would the mentally tough but emotional Favre be too broken up to play?
Meanwhile, the officiating crew assigned to the game — referee Tony Corrente, umpire Darrell Jenkins, head linesman Aaron Pointer, line judge Mark Steinkerchner, back judge Don Carey, side judge Doug Toole and field judge Craig Wrolstad — were going through their usual pregame preparations. At some point, they also learned of Irv Favre’s death.
“I remember all the media coverage of how close he and his father were, and all the speculation,” Corrente said. “We prepared as if he was going to play. Our preparation did not change. We don’t talk about the ‘what if.’”
Even though Favre took the field with his teammates for the pregame warmup, the quarterback’s participation in the game wasn’t assured. As kickoff approached, Corrente had a feeling Favre would play.
“When he came out that night you could feel something in the air,” said Corrente, who was in his eighth year in the league and fifth as a referee. “It’s the magic of the competition, so to speak. There are those events that you feel there’s a little electricity in the air.”
Wrolstad on the other hand was wrapping up his first year on the NFL staff. This was his first game under the Monday Night lights. But it wasn’t his first visit to Oakland, where the fans are known to be especially enthusiastic. They arrive wearing elaborate makeup and costumes, occupying a section of the grandstand known as the Black Hole. Visiting players and officials are not appreciated there. But Wrolstad noticed a different attitude that night, at least as far as the opposition was concerned.
“When they introduced (Favre), they actually cheered for him, and I thought that was pretty classy of the fans, especially fans that are known as being pretty hard on the other team,” Wrolstad said. “I’d been to Oakland before and they really weren’t that friendly.”
But once the game began and Favre began hitting his targets with uncanny precision, the fans resumed their hostile attitudes. Favre completed his first nine passes for 184 yards. The first touchdown was a diving catch by tight end Wesley Walls with 9:18 left in the first quarter. Four minutes later, Favre connected with Javon Walker from 23 yards away. Walker and David Martin caught scoring strikes in the second quarter. For the game, Favre was 22 for 30 for 399 yards. Eight of his completions went for 20 yards or more. The Packers prevailed, 41-7.
“He couldn’t do anything wrong,”
Corrente said. “He’d be rushed, he’d take a step and the passing lane would open.”
Wrolstad was amazed at Favre’s accuracy. “As a deep official, we don’t follow the flight of the ball. We watch the players where the ball is going to come down. We officiate the players. As he’d throw the ball, we’d look at the players and I was thinking, ‘This guy’s not open.’ Sometimes you’ll see a guy wide open and you’ll go, ‘The receiver is going to make this catch.’ You kind of think that in your mind’s eye. But a number of these passes, his receivers were not open, and I think even double-covered, and it seemed like every pass he threw, the ball came down into his receiver’s hands or the receiver went up over a guy and made a catch. It was actually pretty amazing.”
Just as the Raiders fans have a somewhat unsavory reputation, so does the team. Oakland traditionally ranks at or near the top of the league in yards penalized. One might think a defense being carved up like a Christmas ham would try to disable or at least bruise an opponent having a field day against it. Corrente saw none of that. In fact, the Raiders were penalized only three times for 25 yards.
“The defense never really kind of said, ‘We’ve got to get after this guy even more.’ He’s smart enough (to say), ‘If you’re going to come after me and you’re going to blitz me or whatever, (I’m) going to dump the ball quicker,’” Corrente said.
From his perspective, Wrolstad said the Raider secondary didn’t play poorly. It was just one of those nights when a team played with extra motivation. “Sometimes you have good coverage and the quarterback is so good that he can still slide the ball into open spaces, and the receivers are so good that they can sometimes go up over the top and make the catch and things like that,” he said. “I think the Raiders defensive backs had really good coverage most of the night. Just where the ball came in, they just maybe didn’t make a play on the ball, or they weren’t able to make the play, or whatever. The receiver might have had a better shot at it.”
“I knew that my dad would have wanted me to play,” Favre said after the game. “I love him so much, and I love this game.”
Favre went home to Mississippi for his father’s funeral, then returned and led the Packers to a victory over Denver in the regular-season finale. Meanwhile, Nathan Poole caught a 28-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game to give the Arizona Cardinals an 18-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. That gave the Packers the NFC North title.
Divine intervention? Only big Irv Favre knows for sure.
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