MADISON, Wis. -- For 16 seasons, he was the ultimate Packers hero. But now that the Brett Favre era in Minnesota has launched -- at long last, with yet another trademark flip-flop -- the most fascinating question to ponder is whether that instantly makes him Green Bay's ultimate villain as a Viking?
What a strange and unexpected trip Favre has inspired these past 15 months or so, and all I know for sure is that I couldn't have picked a much better vantage point to witness this particular chapter of his late-career melodrama. Since last fall, I have lived here in Madison, deep in the heart of Packers country but not all that far from where Viking-loving hearts bleed purple. Green Bay is 2 hours to the northeast. The Minnesota state line is about 2 hours to the northwest.
This may not be the epicenter of where Favre's glorious NFL past and dubious present intersect, but you can certainly get there from here easily enough.
Unscientific as my sampling may be, the Packers fans I've encountered since the start of Favre's flirtations with the Vikings almost physically recoiled at the mention of No. 4 in the colors of their division rivals. Last year's one-season stay with the Jets was one thing. This is a whole new level. This is the Vikings. This is betrayal. This is way beyond a mere border war.
Fortuitously for me, right in my very Madison neighborhood resides one of the foremost authorities on the Packers, all things Wisconsin, and the particular long-running enmity that suffuses the Green Bay-Minnesota rivalry. David Maraniss is a Wisconsin native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, whose 1999 biography of Vince Lombardi -- When Pride Still Mattered -- stands as the definitive work of the legendary Packers head coach.
Who better than Maraniss to take a stab at describing the unique ground that Favre is attempting to traverse this season, like a field rife with land mines? He's a life-long Packers fan who still lives here part of the year, and he literally wrote the book on the foremost icon in Green Bay's storied football history. When I asked him if Favre's latest NFL comeback carried more potential pain for Packers fans that last year's version, he didn't equivocate.
"Yes, definitely,'' Maraniss said. "There was a symmetry to last year that doesn't exist this time. Favre started his career with one year in Atlanta , so if he felt like he had to end his career with one year somewhere else, that was okay. Especially since it was far away [in New York] and had no real bearing on the Packers, being in the AFC. But no, this is different this time. As a Packers fan myself, there's something particular about the Vikings that we hate.''
On its most basic level, it comes down to the Vikings' relevance, and Favre's potential to add to it, Maraniss said. Minnesota, after all, did win the NFC North last season, and the Vikings are seen as Super Bowl contenders by some. In the past two decades, Minnesota has been the team most often directly challenging Green Bay for division supremacy. The state of Wisconsin goes into a kind of mourning with every Packers loss. I shudder to think of the gloom that may descend around here should Green Bay lose a game or two this year to the Favre-led Vikings.
"It has been generations since we worried about the Lions, and the Bears are always there as a historic rival,'' Maraniss said. "But Packers fans truly hate the Vikings. So I think it does mean more to the fans this time. I really don't know what they'll do with all those tens of thousands of No. 4 jerseys they own. Probably put them in storage and take them out in seven years or so when he's going into Canton.''
Having covered the Vikings for four years in the late '90's, and now having lived in Wisconsin through at least part of an NFL season, I still can't quite wrap my mind around the image of Favre wearing a helmet with those familiar horns on it. I suppose we'll all get used to it pretty quickly, the way the Jets' green and white looked somewhat normal on Favre by season's end, but at the moment it still seems a completely foreign visual. Like Derek Jeter in Red Sox colors, getting a bear hug from Big Papi.
As one Packers fan recently reminded me, this isn't ex-Bears quarterback Jim McMahon finishing up with a short stint in Minnesota. This is Favre, the quintessential Packer. (Although I think it's worth noting that both Favre and McMahon won exactly one Super Bowl ring each with Green Bay and Chicago, respectively. But I digress).
"Obviously fans are more attached to the players than the players are to the place in which they play, and that's a lesson fans always have to re-learn,'' Maraniss said. "But in the end, I think most Packers fans are Packers fans first, and then Favre fans. I think last year's Favre-Packers stand-off was a test of that whole notion, and it was close. But in the end, they're Packers fans first and Favre fans second.''
I don't know if there has ever been a more dramatic hero-to-villain transformation than the one Favre might experience this year in the upper Midwest. Can you imagine the emotional crescendo accompanying the ultimate moment of truth, when Favre takes the field at Lambeau for the first time in Vikings horns, in Week 8, on Sunday, Nov. 1? What will that look and sound like?
"I honestly don't know if they'll boo him,'' Maraniss said. "Wisconsin people are.... They'll boo someone like Manny Ramirez. But I don't know if they'll boo Favre at Lambeau. I think it'll be more cheering louder for the Packers. I think what they'll really want is him to lose the two games against the Packers and throw six interceptions in those games. That would make them the happiest.''
Maraniss is correct in saying that many Packers fans have moved on beyond Favre, transferring their allegiance to second-year starter Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, as he himself has done. But the mere mention of Favre's name picks a still-healing scab with Packers fans, and in my brief Wisconsin experience, I've found that their passions on the topic are always just beneath the surface.
"They'll forgive, but it'll take a while,'' Maraniss said. "In time they forgave Lombardi for going to Washington [to coach the Redskins]. This year, they'll hate [Favre] and hope he loses. But they'll forgive him when he goes into the Hall of Fame as a Packer. He has to go into Canton as a Packer, and that'll help.
"It's really not even about Packers fans. They're jilted lovers. But it has nothing to do with them. It has to do with [Green Bay general manager] Ted Thompson first and foremost, and then Favre's age. He didn't want to quit playing, and the Packers were ready to move on without him. Favre's not really spurning Packers fans, but that's often not what the fan realizes.''
Time will indeed heal some of today's Favre-inflicted wounds in Packer-dom. But for this year at least, Green Bay loyalists will have to come face to face with the once unthinkable: Favre, their longtime hero, has cast his lot with the enemy. It was the worst-case scenario that Green Bay's front office fought furiously last year. But it's now reality. This isn't the curiosity the Jets represented. This is the Vikings. This is the nadir.
"It's absolutely must viewing,'' Maraniss said, with a laugh. "In a way, it's a no-lose situation for Packers fans. If he screws up in Minnesota, great. And if he has a phenomenal year, well, you know, fickle fans. It'll just add to his legend a little bit.''