Monday mornings, the graying Vikings warrior with the close-cropped hair, stubble-beard and creaky joints moves so gingerly about the Minnesota dressing room that teammates sneak peeks in wonderment at Brett Favre's tenacity and resolve.
In the twilight of a remarkable career, the 40-year-old pickup-tough quarterback from Mississippi has produced a magical 19th NFL season. With a win Sunday night at Carolina, the Minnesota Vikings would clinch the NFC North and have their best start (12-2) since 1998.
Brett Lorenzo Favre holder of virtually every significant NFL passing record has won over many skeptics who believed before the season that the old gunslinger was washed up.
Still, the question hangs in the air like a downfield Favre rainbow: What compels this old-school football soul with the still-lively arm to endure jarring hits in Minnesota when he could be riding his tractor in Mississippi? Particularly at an age when teammate Ryan Longwell says, "It's tough just watching him walk" after games.
In a rare two-hour interview, Favre tells USA TODAY about the expectations borne from a conflicted, ambivalent relationship with his father. Favre, who once had a problem with prescription pain pills, also reveals how he copes with the pain of playing in the NFL at 40. And, he suggests that his on-again, off-again retirement just might be on again, if the Vikings manage to win the Super Bowl in February.
Six years ago Christmas week, Favre's father and high school coach, Irv, died from a heart attack at 58. The quarterback says that loss still resonates.
"I have never really discussed this before, especially publicly," says Favre, wearing a blue T-shirt, blue jeans (yes, Wranglers) and scruffy brown work boots. "But after (last) season was over, I didn't have the passion; I had lost it. I always felt that I played for me, but that was always to prove myself to him.
"I knew he was proud of me. But he was one of those who never said it."
The physical pain he can deal with. Favre says he takes 800 milligrams of Ibuprofen three times a day. Long gone are the days when he gulped "Vikes" by the handful the highly addictive narcotic Vicodin to deal with his football-induced maladies.
"I know I'm not doing myself any favors by continuing to play," he says. "I guess in my mind I'm thinking, 'One more year (what does it matter?).' I know that's kind of foolish."
Another ache isn't as easy to remedy. Losing your best friend is one thing; when he's your father and coach, it's something else.
One day after the man they called "Big Irv" died, his son's legend grew exponentially. Burying the shock and grief of the moment, the then-Packers quarterback hurled four touchdown passes to defeat the Oakland Raiders in a memorable game.
When his father died, Favre lost his biggest fan and most vocal second-guesser.
"Brett suffered through that loss," says his wife, Deanna, "and a couple of terrible seasons. It really took a toll on his confidence. He was down on himself."
The father had driven his son relentlessly, even after Favre reached the NFL. Unsolicited advice about how to play against the "big boys" was common.
Irv Favre knew a lot about operating the "wishbone" offense in high school, a run-based scheme popularized in college football in the 1960s and '70s. In rural Kiln, Miss., coach Favre considered the forward pass all but verboten even if his son was a strong, gifted passer.
As a result, only the University of Southern Mississippi offered Favre a scholarship. In Hattiesburg, Miss., Favre began seventh on the depth charts; he ended up starting all four years.
Sturdiness was a Farve family trademark.
"If you grew up in a household with a football coach who looks like a drill sergeant, you would think you would be tough," Favre says. "Anytime I was hurt, or thought I was hurt, his advice was, 'Get your ass up.' Most of the time, I was probably milking it, like any kid who wants attention. But he was having none of it.
"Never did he say he loved us (children). But we knew. And vice-versa: We never said it to him."
The father of four, the elder Favre demanded the same from his kids: supreme effort and no excuses. He pushed his two eldest boys, Scott and Brett, particularly hard.
"It was a double-whammy," Deanna says. "Not only was Brett trying to impress his coach, he was trying to make his dad proud. That mentality always stuck with him."
Favre says he never felt comfortable with his passing fundamentals, which he felt were stunted under his father's coaching. To this day, Favre's unorthodox style falling back as he throws, firing the football off-balance from weird angles leaves his mechanics flawed, though his arm strength and improvisational skills more than make up for it.
"My dad taught me toughness, but that was it. I was so far behind" as a passer, he says. "I always felt like I was trying to prove to him that I could throw it 80 yards, and through a wall."
The Atlanta Falcons drafted Favre with the 33rd overall selection in 1991, but he quickly partied himself out of town. He was traded to Green Bay.
Father and son were a lot alike plain-spoken, fun-loving and stubborn. But Brett was even more like his grandfather, Alvin Favre: Big-hearted and somewhat reclusive, though engaging when in a group.
"You would never know Brett is really sort of distant," says Jeff Favre, a younger brother. "He always has been different. He was who he was before he made it in the NFL."
Once established in Green Bay, the quarterback persuaded his parents, Irv and Bonita, to retire. Soon, he recalls, he noticed his father was drinking a bit more when he would regularly fly up for games. Father and son would ride to the stadium.
"After the game, he was sauced up a bit," Favre says. "He might've had 20 beers or two. I guess I do that to people 'What's he doing? I gotta have a drink!' We would be in the truck coming back and he would say, 'Damn, y'all can't catch s-. Or, one of his favorites: 'You couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle today.'
"I'm like, 'Gee, thanks, Dad.' I probably drove him to drink," Favre says with a chuckle.
During his 20s and 30s, the quarterback could not only throw them deep, he could throw drinks back with the best of them. "Thank God there weren't camera phones" then, he says.
The NFL was aware of his abuse issues, particularly with painkillers. In 1996, Favre was persuaded by league officials to seek treatment with a two-month stay in rehab at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan. He says he threatened to leave several times, but league officials told him, "Fine, you won't play," Farve recalls. The league had no comment on his claim.
"I really had a bad problem with pain pills," he says.
Three years later, Favre returned to rehab to address a drinking problem. Deanna had given him an ultimatum: Quit or she was leaving.
"I haven't drank in 12 years not a drop," says Favre, who offers counsel to teammates on substance-abuse dangers.
He says he never liked the taste of alcohol, only its effect.
"I thought I used to like Boone's Farm," he says with a laugh. "Three-dollar Strawberry Hill perfect for throwing at signs when you were done.""
Through the years, Favre's father could not bring himself to lift the coaching throttle. The son continued to bite his tongue and roll his eyes most of the time.
"Dad, I am a two-time (NFL) MVP," his son recalls protesting after one critique in 1997, before he won a third-consecutive Most Valuable Player award.
"I don't give a damn you still made a stupid throw," the father shot back, Favre recalls.
Frank Winters, a Packers teammate for 11 seasons and one of Favre's closest friends, describes "Big Irv" as being "tougher on Brett than any coach he ever had."
"He was just very hard on him very critical," says the retired center. "We'd be in a room and his dad would nitpick. 'Why did you do that?' But his dad was always right. 'Yeah, Dad, I know,' Brett would say."
Then the second-guessing was over. Forever.
When Irv died, "I thought it was a relief," Favre says. "After he passed away and the dust settled and I got home even though he had been a pain sometimes I realized it hadn't been that bad. I had lost (something more valuable). There was always this little man on my shoulder pads saying, 'Prove you can do this.' "
That lingering insecurity helps explain his longevity, Favre says. His enduring philosophy: "You're only as good as your last pass."
"Part of my success always has been that I felt I had something to prove, even after I won three MVPs. That has not changed today. If I am going to play, I'm going to be the best and have this chip (on my shoulder). You have to play with the mentality that you are about to lose your job, and that they're going to talk about 'The Other Guy' first. You have to think, 'I want my name mentioned first.' "
For a while, the quarterback yearned to have a son of his own. He and Deanna already were the parents of Brittany, now 20, but "we wanted a son for the longest time," he says.
In vitro fertilization resulted in a second daughter, Breleigh, 10. Three subsequent miscarriages convinced the Favres that they were blessed enough.
"We gave up," Favre says. "And as time went by, I thought to myself, 'I'm glad I didn't have a son.' It would be a lot to live up to."
'It's not make-or-break'
The Vikings' success this year has created high expectations for a Minnesota franchise that is 0-4 in Super Bowls. Favre strongly hints he will retire if he can captain the Vikings to their first championship.
"Yeah," Favre says, "I'd be pretty comfortable saying, 'Hey, there ain't nothin' left. ."
However, "I'm not going to sit there and go, 'Oh, my God' if the Vikings don't win the Super Bowl, he says. "I'd love to get there, but it's not make-or-break for me."
This season, Favre has played magnificently (a 68.1% completion percentage, including 3,341 yards, 27 touchdowns and six interceptions). His surgically repaired throwing arm he suffered a torn biceps in his right shoulder last season has not needed the cortisone shots it did last season during his one-year stint with the New York Jets.
Still, rolling out of bed on Monday mornings sometimes is a chore.
"A couple of weeks ago, I felt terrible," he says. "Both ankles; there was no movement (getting out of bed). I was hobbling. The previous week, I was slammed on my shoulder. I tried lifting my arms and they felt like they weighed 20 pounds. My legs? They're strong, but I don't trust 'em (to run far)."
Favre regularly deals with pain and inflammation wracking his body. So do many other NFL players but they were not born in the '60s. He plays with a pre-existing torn right rotator cuff, and suffers from a degenerative hip condition. Eventually, he will need a replacement. And when it comes to concussions, the NFL's hot-button topic, well, he's a bit foggy on his medical history.
"It's no laughing matter, but I've had more than I can remember," Favre says. "You are going to see stars a little bit. I mean, it is football."