Beating the Blitz

updated 10/28/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/28/1996 01:00AM

GREEN BAY PACKERS QUARTERBACK Brett Favre can tell you exactly when he changed his life, even if he doesn't remember it. It was 6 p.m. on Feb. 27, and Favre was in his room at Bellin Hospital in Green Bay, Wis., recovering from ankle surgery. A nurse was about to reinsert his IV, and the oft-injured quarterback was rolling his eyes in resignation at his longtime girlfriend, Deanna Tynes, and their 7-year-old daughter, Brittany. Then suddenly he went into convulsions. "His whole body was jerking around, his lip was folded under," says Deanna, 27, who screamed to the nurse to stop him from swallowing his tongue. Asked a terrified Brittany: "Mom, is he going to die?"

In a sense, just the opposite happened. When Favre, 26, regained consciousness minutes later, he awakened to a central fact of his life: He was an addict in need of help. For the previous five months, Favre had been taking the painkiller Vicodin—first to help him deal with a season's worth of injuries and then as a crutch for coping with fame. Doctors could not pinpoint the cause of the seizure, but it seemed clear to Favre that it was related to his dependency on the prescription drug. Three months later he checked himself into the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kans., for six weeks of rehab.

Today the NFL's Most Valuable Player of 1995 is back with the Pack, drugfree and better than ever. The 6'2", 220-lb. quarterback has thrown for 21 touchdowns, while leading his team to a 6-1 record through the season's seventh week. He has also saved his relationship with Deanna.

"I went to Topeka," says Favre, "because the pills had gotten the best of me." He describes Menninger's as a "boot camp. It was hard—I was someone used to doing what I wanted to do. But now I feel I have ways to handle stress without pills. The bigger thing I've learned is to turn to the people around me—friends, coaches, Deanna. Before, I was keeping a lot of things inside me. All I wanted to do was to take those little pills."

Favre grew up stoic and determined in Kiln, Miss., the second of four children of Irvin Favre, football coach at Hancock North Central High School, and his wife, Bonita, a special education teacher there. "Brett was quiet, the most reserved of the bunch," says Bonita. He was also largely indifferent to pain. "If you slapped him when he was little, he'd say it didn't hurt. He would never give in."

The Favre household was mad about sports, and each of the three boys, Scott, Brett and Jeff, took his turn quarterbacking the Hancock football team. "Of the three, Brett was the most talented," says his father. "He was rawboned, brute strength, plus he was smart. He was a natural untamed deal back then."

In 1987, Brett went on to the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg and won the quarterbacking job as a freshman. Then, on July 14, 1990, returning from a fishing trip, he lost control of his car and hit a tree. He ended up with a concussion and fractured vertebrae, and a section of his large intestine had to be removed. But Favre spent little time feeling sorry for himself. "Every day I tried to do a little more—whirlpool, ice, lifting weights. Gradually I fought my way back," says Favre, who returned on Sept. 8 to lead Southern Miss to an upset win over Alabama.

Favre knew Deanna Tynes while growing up in Kiln. "She was a real tomboy, as tough as one of the guys," he says. Just 14, he gave her a peck on the lips at Scott's 16th-birthday party. "I held her hand for five seconds," he remembers. "God, I was sweating!" They dated through high school, and Deanna got pregnant when Brett was a sophomore at Southern Miss. "I never talked to Brett about marriage. I wanted him to say he was ready," says Deanna, who moved in with Favre in Hattiesburg, then broke up with him for a time before patching things up.

In 1991, Favre was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons but languished on the sidelines. He was more active off the field, where, drawing on his $660,000 salary, he supported many of the local bars. "It was like college," says Favre, "except I was making money." Traded to Green Bay before the 1992 season, he got his break in the Cincinnati Bengals game when Packer quarterback Don Majkowski was hurt. Favre brought the team back from a 17-point deficit to win. "Don never got his job back," says Favre, who has since started 68 consecutive games.

But his success and endurance, in a game where teams go through quarterbacks like tissue paper, has come at a cost: a bruised hip in 1991, a separated shoulder in 1992, a badly bruised thigh in 1993, a hernia in 1995. He remembers taking his first pill. "They ask you how bad is the pain," he says, "and if it's unbearable, they give you something." Vicodin, says team physician John Gray, "is as strong as they come." He adds, "The downside is that people like to use it," meaning that it makes them high.

Favre was hoarding Vicodin and popping the pills at will. He needed it, he felt, both for his injuries and for managing the stress of living up to ever-increasing expectations. "The pills enabled me to escape the realities of being a quarterback and a star," he says. High on Vicodin, Favre would stay up all night studying his playbook, playing Sega golf and watching TV. "I knew it wasn't right, but I was playing great," he says. "I was doing all right."

Except with Deanna. "He was really different at night," she says. "He always looked like he'd been drinking. He wasn't himself. He was defensive all the time. He didn't care what I thought about anything." Packer tight end Mark Chmura, Favre's close friend, noticed the change. "You could tell something was wrong," Chmura says. "He would slur a lot of his words. I told him to knock it off."

Deanna found the Vicodin in his bag in February during a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl; she confronted Brett, who promised to give it up. Favre actually did manage to stop taking the pills for a week prior to the terrifying seizure at Bellin Hospital.

These days, says Chmura, Favre is "back to normal. He's better than normal. He's in the best shape of his life." Under an agreement he signed with the NFL, Favre must submit to as many as 10 urine tests a month. He sees a psychiatrist every week, and he and Deanna have given up alcohol. Last spring, Favre finally proposed. The two married in July at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Green Bay. "They had been fighting, feuding and breaking up for 13 years," says Bonita Favre. "I figured it would happen someday."

Now, Brett can turn his mind to football—and plans for Green Bay's first Super Bowl in 20 years. "Hey," he says, "I've been in three Pro Bowls. I've done everything else. I'll do whatever it takes." Given his ability and the man he has become, the promise hardly sounds like an idle one.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
GRANT PICK in Green Bay

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