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Football Thursday: Big Irv's legend ironclad 10 years later as Brett Favre reflects on magical game after his father's death

Les Carpenter
Yahoo Sports

FENTON, Miss. – Down by the Beneshewa Bayou, past the iron gate and the Spanish moss, there runs a winding road named for a man who loved his children so much he could never say the words. They called him "Big Irv," ironic because Irv Favre wasn't tall, but he had those wide, stocky shoulders, buzz cut and a bark that made everybody jump.

Big Irv was tough. Once he fell off the roof and split open his head. He refused to go to the hospital even as blood spilled from the wound. "Put some ice on it," he said. Big Irv was demanding. When storms blew through, he had his four kids out cleaning up debris before the wind and rain had stopped. For 24 years Irv coached football at Hancock North Central, naming his three sons – Scott, Brett and Jeff – quarterback but rarely letting them throw the ball even as his middle son showed a remarkable ability to pass.

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As a coach, "Big Irv" Favre kept a tight leash on the arm of his son, Brett, in high school. (Getty Images)

And when he died of a heart attack while driving his truck on that December day 10 years ago, the country watched in awe the next night as his heartbroken boy Brett played one of the greatest games of his life, throwing four touchdown passes as the Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders 41-7.

That was Irv. No matter what happened, you go out there and play.

Ever wonder how Brett Favre could be so unbreakable, playing into his 40s and starting every one of his team's games for 17 years despite taking the most vicious of hits? That was Irv. There were no injuries in Big Irv's world. You didn't quit on the man with the crewcut. Not unless you wanted him to forever call you "candy ass" as he forever did one freshman player who walked off his high school football team.

"He would tell you when you did great, but he would tell you every mistake too," his daughter, Brandi, says. "Especially Brett."

But Irv could be fun too. "He was an interesting guy," Brandi says. Much like his son, he could talk and talk and talk, spinning stories as a crowd gathered around. When Brett went to Green Bay, Irv came along too, once introducing himself to the team president on an elevator and lingering in local bars as fans recognized him as the father of the star quarterback. As time went on in Green Bay, his best friend in Wisconsin, Mark Kelly, started walking him by the trailer where Milwaukee station WTMJ did its postgame show.

One day they invited him in and Irv became a star. He laughed and told stories, and in true Irv fashion, he pointed out when his son or one of his teammates made a mistake. Sometimes he'd sit there and sign autographs for an hour as people cherished his signature as much as his son's.

So proud he was of Brett. So proud he was of all his children. If only he could say it.


"I don't think I ever remember my father telling me he loved me," Brett Favre says. "And in no way is that an indication of a complaint."

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In the Favre house, Big Irv's love was understood. At times he would try to show affection but the moment was fleeting. Bonita Favre, Irv's wife, says this is the way of Irv's family. Nobody said "I love you" or lavished presents upon each other or did things to show any great love to each other.

"He was that way as a husband too," Bonita says.

For years he would give her a card on her birthday and she would think the message sounded familiar, until she looked in the place where she stored her cards and realized that each year he would go into her drawer, take out the same card and give it to her again.

Love came in the pride of accomplishment. Love came in a football game won or a yard cleaned right. Irv trusted his boys to be quarterbacks but almost never let them throw. His system was the wishbone and the wing-T, and that's what it was going to be, even as Brett showed a propensity for throwing and was drawing collegiate interest. No way would Irv change his system.

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Tough love from his father prepared Brett Favre for the grind of the NFL. (Getty Images)

Once Brett asked Scott, the oldest, to appeal to his father to let him throw more. Scott agreed and approached Irv.

"Why don't you let Brett throw more?" Scott asked.

"Why don't you get back in your seat?" Irv shouted.

"My father had a standoffish kind of love," Brett says. "If my father had told me he loved me I would have had to go take a shower and it shouldn't be that way."

Several times the children have talked about this. One time Brandi remembers Brett initiating the conversation, saying he could never be so distant emotionally with his own kids. At some point, all four Favre children vowed to be more affectionate when they had children. And they are. Even though Brett's oldest is grown and has a child of her own, he dotes on his daughters. Scott says he tells his children every day that he loves them and Brandi is close to her daughter.

If they had to put a phrase on their father it would probably be "drill sergeant." He would tell them when they did things right and was more than ready to tell them when something was wrong. But this was Irv's love. He wanted his children to be tough. Maybe it was hard not letting Brett throw, but those 20 times a game he plunged into the line of scrimmage on an option play built a resilience that paid off in the NFL when Favre played regardless of any injury.

And Brett knew Irv was proud of his career, which in the end was love. All those times he'd come to the Packers games home or away, wearing his son's jersey, telling everyone who would listen that he was Brett Favre's dad. What was that if not love? He just never could say the words.

About a week before he died, Irv was with Kelly at Lambeau Field. Kelly had bought a brick on a new walkway there in honor of his father who had died. Kelly and Irv started talking.

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"Did your father ever tell you he loved you?" Kelly asked.

"Nooooo," Irv replied.

"Do you ever tell your kids you love them?" Kelly asked.

"They know I do," Irv said.

"Don't you think you should tell them?"

"I guess you're right," Irv said.

Later, after Irv had died, Kelly told that story to Brett, who scoffed.

"Ah, he never would have said it anyway," Brett said.


Looking back, Bonita wonders if Big Irv knew something was wrong with his health. "There were a lot of things that weren't right," she says. In the days before his death, he sold all the black Angus cattle he kept on the property. His autopsy showed he had two previous heart attacks. She has no idea if he knew.

She went to every doctor she could imagine Irv would see to find out if he had visited. The doctors said no.

On the day Big Irv died he had been trying to reach Brandi. She was the one to whom he showed the most affection and in many ways was the one he was closest to. She had moved to Missouri but was home because they were going to be celebrating Scott's birthday the next day. Brandi was busy seeing friends but finally told her father to meet her at the restaurant the family owned.

Father and daughter talked for about 20 minutes when Big Irv stood up and said he had to head up to the nearby town of Kiln. A few minutes later the phone rang in the restaurant. It was the owner of a meat market out on Route 603. Irv's truck had gone into a ditch in front of the market. Scott, Jeff and Brandi raced to the scene arriving just as the ambulance pulled up.

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Brett Favre and his wife, Deanna, after Favre's legendary MNF performance in '03. (Getty Images)

As they pulled up, Brandi had a premonition that her father was dead. Scott saw Irv lying on the ground, the paramedics working on him, his face blue, and he knew something was terribly wrong. They followed the ambulance to the hospital where a highway patrolman walked up to Brandi, hugged her and said, "We tried to do everything we could."

Bonita, who had been out shopping and didn't have her phone, arrived a little while later. A decision was made to reach Brett who was already with the Packers at a resort hotel in Berkeley, Calif. They called Brett's wife, Deanna. She tried to phone Brett, who was out golfing with backup quarterback Doug Pederson. When she couldn't reach him she called Pederson.

When Brett heard Pederson answer the phone and say, "Oh, hello Deanna," he knew something bad had happened.


There was no question Brett Favre was going to play the Monday night game the day after his father's death.

My dad would have said, "Get your butt out there and play," Brett says.

"His daddy would have come out of the grave if he didn't play football," Bonita says. "'There's no damn reason to miss a game, get out there and play ball.'"

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News of Irv's heart attack put a pall over the whole team. The players, of course, knew Irv. He was around all the time. And they felt for Brett, who was clearly devastated. Jeff Blumb, the Packers' director of media relations at the time, remembers being struck by the silence on the bus to the stadium. Pregame bus rides aren't raucous, but there is usually some kind of chatter. On that night there was nothing. It was as if they were mourning with Brett.

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The day after his father's death, Brett Favre threw four TDs in a game. (Getty Images)

Even though he knew he was going to play, Brett was filled with doubt about how well he would perform. His passes were wobbly and fell into the dirt during warmups with Pederson .

"I'm afraid I'm going to fail," he told Pederson.

"You won't, Brett," Pederson said.

Then the game started, the normally hostile Oakland fans gave Brett a standing ovation and he was never more brilliant. On the team's fourth play he fired a 47-yard pass to Robert Ferguson, placing it perfectly in Ferguson's hands. He had a 43-yard TD pass to Javon Walker and a 6-yard rocket to David Martin for another score. Almost everything he threw was caught. Some came on great catches, like Wesley Walls' jumping grab in the end zone, but mostly they were perfect spirals thrown between defenders and into the arms of his receivers.

"It was all God," Brett says.

"I've always considered myself a Christian guy, but my faith was sketchy at best," he says. "I can't put into words what happened. I made some throws that I didn't know how I made that throw. There were throws in that game that were easily the best throws I have made by far."

At the family house in Fenton, the Favres celebrated Scott's birthday as they would any year, with a cake, then sat down to watch the Monday night game, just Bonita, the children, the closest family members and Kelly, who flew down from Milwaukee.

"We laughed and we cried," Bonita said. "We were celebrating a birthday, watching the game and … mourning.

"We'd be happy one minute and looking back, the game's going good and then you're sad and you shake it off and be happy," Scott says.

Several times that night Brett Favre cried. He did this even as he ran around on the field making the best throws of his life. He went past 200 yards and then 300. He finished with 399 yards, the second-most in his career at the time. He completed 22 of 30 passes and he threw four touchdowns. He even moved into second place for most career touchdown passes – a feat that normally would have received some recognition but was lost in the sadness of the night.

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When the game was over he hugged Deanna, who had flown in for the game, did a quick interview with the sideline reporter, showered and left with Deanna to go to the airport and fly home to Green Bay to pick up Christmas presents before heading to Mississippi. His car was given a police escort, with so many motorcycles he felt for a moment like the president.

"I'll watch that game sometimes and I'll say, 'I know how I feel,'" Brett says. "It was a beautiful game and a roller coaster."

He pauses.

"If anything, the one emotion that stands out is satisfaction and being proud," he continues. "Very proud. I played 320 games or something [actually 326, including playoffs] and that game was the best game I ever played in."


The kids feel they lost something when Irv died. He never got to see all of their children. They never got to show them all they had become. Brandi believes each of the children has not properly dealt with the suddenness of his death even though it will be 10 years on Dec. 21. Brett always hoped his father would be able to attend his Hall of Fame induction. He knows Irv would have loved that.

One Christmas, Brett gave Irv a replica of a Packers Super Bowl ring. Irv said thank you, then eventually left the room to make a phone call. In Milwaukee, Kelly heard an excited Irv on the phone.

"You'll never guess what Brett gave me," he said. "A Super Bowl ring just like the players have."

Irv stopped for a moment.

"You'll never guess what it says," he continued. "It says, 'Thanks dad.'"

If that isn't love, what is?

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  Arizona Cardinals – Carson Palmer was a tremendous 30-of-42 for 419 passing yards.

  Atlanta Falcons – The unstoppable Paul Worrilow had another 13 total tackles.

  Baltimore Ravens – Despite an inability to score late, Ray Rice had a huge game in the mud.

  Buffalo Bills – We finally get to see what EJ Manuel can do.

  Carolina Panthers – Cam Newton has raised his game another level.

  Chicago Bears – Josh McCown continues to fill in beautifully for Jay Cutler.

  Cincinnati Bengals – Vontaze Burfict continues to dominate.

  Cleveland Browns – Josh Gordon had 125 receiving yards on another down day for the Browns.

  Dallas Cowboys – Bye.

  Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning tore apart one of the league's best defenses.

  Detroit Lions – For a half, Calvin Johnson had another Calvin Johnson day.

  Green Bay Packers – Jordy Nelson had a solid afternoon for the slumping Packers.

  Houston Texans – Garrett Graham had 136 yards receiving.

  Indianapolis Colts – Coby Fleener just gets better and better.

  Jacksonville Jaguars – Johnathan Cyprien had eight solo tackles.

  Kansas City Chiefs – Alex Smith was strong in the Chiefs' loss.

  Miami Dolphins – Charles Clay had a solid day.

  Minnesota Vikings – John Carlson was a rare bright spot for the Vikings.

  New England Patriots – Rob Ninkovich was in the Panthers' backfield all night.

  New Orleans Saints – Drew Brees was fantastic … again.

  New York Giants – Victor Cruz burned the Packers for 110 yards.

  New York Jets – Chris Ivory has been an amazing find for the Jets.

  Oakland Raiders – Matt McGloin steps in and throws three touchdowns.

  Philadelphia Eagles – The Eagles are best when LeSean McCoy is healthy.

  Pittsburgh Steelers – Forget trade rumors; Ben Roethlisberger had a huge day.

  St. Louis Rams – Bye.

  San Diego Chargers – Ryan Mathews' 127 rushing yards wasn't enough for the Chargers.

  San Francisco 49ers – NaVorro Bowman was all over the Saints with 15 total tackles.

  Seattle Seahawks – Once again Russell Wilson runs a game perfectly.

  Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Vincent Jackson had a big day for the Bucs.

  Tennessee Titans – Ryan Fitzpatrick completed a remarkable 22 of 28 passes in a near-win.

  Washington Redskins – Alfred Morris had another solid day.

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