ATLANTA - He caught your eye as a cocky, tough-as-nails freshman at Southern Mississippi in 1987, and you knew he would be special.
Brett Favre the collegian was indestructible in body and spirit - not unlike Florida's Danny Wuerffel. The Gulfport, Miss., native had a strong arm and quick feet to go with an inextinguishable fire. He was as fun to watch then as he is now as the NFL's best player.
I covered Florida State's 61-10 win over Southern Miss at Hattiesburg in '87 when Favre completed just five of 30 passes for 40 yards with four interceptions. Undaunted by the score and his own mistakes, Favre played the fourth quarter as though his team needed a field goal to win. "That kid will be a terror when he grows up," Deion Sanders predicted. Two years later, Favre upset the sixth-ranked Seminoles at Jacksonville's Gator Bowl.
August of '90: Favre had 30 inches of intestine removed after a car accident. Doctors questioned whether he would play that season, but they didn't know their patient. The pit bull was back a month after the surgery, and he beat Alabama.
Now, Favre is a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, and his Green Bay Packers are favored to stop the upstart Carolina Panthers Sunday at Lambeau Field and advance to the Super Bowl. To think that it was the Atlanta Falcons who stole this guy in the second round (33rd overall) in the '91 draft.
Two quarterbacks had already been selected - Dan McGwire by Seattle and Todd Marinovich by the L.A. Raiders - and the Falcons had the foresight to nab Favre ahead of the higher-rated Browning Nagle of Louisville. It was a stroke of genius that would turn a franchise around. Unfortunately for Falcons fans, it was the Packers that got turned around.
Green Bay general manager Ron Wolf sent a first-round pick to his pal, Atlanta vice president Ken Herock, for Favre on Feb. 10, 1992. Five years later, the Packers are playing in a second-consecutive NFC Championship Game. The Falcons are coming off a 3-13 season and looking for a new coach and quarterback.
"We felt at that time it would probably be three or four years before Brett got a chance to play, and we wanted to get better on defense,." said former Falcons coach June Jones, who, under Jerry Glanville, set a course with Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver.
The first-round pick was spent on offensive player, running back Tony Smith, who never made a mark and was cut in 1994.
Favre had a weight problem and poor work habits as a rookie in Atlanta, and he was no instant success with the Packers. He threw 24 interceptions in 1993. But the Packers were patient, and Favre blossomed in coach Mike Holmgren's "west-coast" offense.
Holmgren had believed in Favre since '91, when, as San Francisco's offensive coordinator, he traveled to Southern Miss to work out the quarterback. Wolf, then with the New York Jets, also attended the session. A year later, Holmgren was the Packers coach and Wolf the team's GM.
"When we got together here, and Brett had already been in Atlanta one year and we had a chance to get him, we kind of put our heads together and came up with what we liked and what I thought would be a little hairy (laugh) about taking him," Holmgren said. "We came up with the same thing: The guy has a heart like all of outdoors. He's got a very, very strong arm.
"The downside early on, I thought, was he threw every ball the same way, whether you were five yards away from him or 60 yards. You might get killed if you were five yards away from him. Obviously, I thought he had to refine some of those skills to run our style of play."
Refined as a six-year pro, but still willing to dive into a trash compactor if needed, Favre is the man to stop in the Super Bowl tournament.