KILN, MISS. — Irvin and Bonita Favre are sitting around their kitchen table talking about their son Brett, the brash and stubble-chinned star of the Green Bay Packers who's playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday and shaping up to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
What was the NFL's best player like as a child?
"Mean," his father barks.
"Stubborn," adds his mother.
"If you whipped him, he'd say, 'That didn't hurt,'" Mrs. Favre recalls, prompting a hearty laugh of recognition from her husband. "Truth is, it probably didn't."
Listening to Brett's parents, his sister, Brandi, and family friend John Ellis talk about the two-time league Most Valuable Player, who grew up here in the bayous of southwest Mississippi, you get the feeling that in the context of Brett Favre's boyhood, whippings are a recurrent theme.
If he wasn't shooting out windows with a BB gun or terrorizing his sister, they say, Brett was off jumping his dirt bike into the creek on winter days or swinging from a rope into Rotten Bayou - a mucky swamp that's claimed a few of the family's dogs.
It's a hayseed image that Brett himself has played up with the media throughout his ascent to Brett Favre's Road to Superdome Starts in Mississippi Bayou Town superstardom, telling stories (some apocryphal, no doubt) about writing his name on his underwear at training camp and wrestling alligators to fight boredom.
It's an image he's earned as well: totaling his car in college, demonstrating a fondness for post-game revelry, and seeking treatment this summer for an addiction to pain killers. In his official team photo, Favre's face is unshaven, his hair unkempt, and he wears a cockeyed grin you'd expect from a guy whose teammates call him "Country."
But this rambunctiousness has paid dividends on the field. A master of the Packers' freewheeling West-Coast Offense, he frustrates defenses by scrambling out of the pocket, and he's not afraid to take on linebackers with a head of steam. His rifle-shot passes have been known to catch receivers flat-footed and knock them over backwards.
At Southern Mississippi, Favre broke nearly every school record, leading the team to 29 wins and two bowl victories. After five seasons with Green Bay, he ranks near the top of all NFL quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
But there's another side to Favre. He has founded a charitable foundation that raised $80,000 last year. He's spent countless hours with disabled kids throughout Wisconsin, and he's planning to build a community center here in Kiln, called "the kill" by locals.
Although people in this tiny town 60 miles east of New Orleans acknowledge Favre's wild streak, they quickly note that the quarterback was an A-student who never missed a day of school and that fame hasn't changed him. During the off-season, Favre still kicks around town in blue jeans and flip flops, and on sunny afternoons, you can hear the roar of his jet ski on the Jordan River.
Needless to say, Favre's success has energized this town, whose previous claim to fame was its role as a moonshine factory for Al Capone. It's the kind of place where the coffee shop is full by 6 a.m. and people refer to their pickup trucks as "veehicles."
At the town's watering hole, the Broke Spoke, proprietor Steve Haas describes the pot of crawfish he's planning to boil on Sunday, and the bleachers they're building out back to handle the expected throng. Today, as curiosity seekers roll in, he offers them plates of fried deer meat.
"Did ya shoot that buck yourself, Stevie?" asks a patron who surely knows it's not deer season.
"Nope," Mr. Haas replies. "The dogs got it this morning."
When the subject turns to Brett, Haas's face lights up. "He's a good dude," he says, offering apparently his highest compliment. "He's always been a good dude."
Nevertheless, Favre's road to the Superdome has been bumpy, especially this year. In the midst of his drug rehabilitation, his older brother, Scott, was charged with drunk driving in an accident that killed a family friend. And his sister was allegedly involved in a drive-by shooting at a Louisiana motel. To Irvin Favre, who coached Brett at Hancock High School, his son's ability to overcome these setbacks marks him as a champion.
Besides, he says, Brett's upbringing has also instilled in him an immense will to win. "In our family, competition is the name of the game," he says. "No matter what Brett's in, he's going to try to beat you. He's not a happy loser."
It's a characteristic Mr. Ellis, a local businessman, knows well. Last year, after one of the Packers' discouraging losses to the Dallas Cowboys, his eight-year-old son, Josh, showed up to a party at the Favres' wearing an inflatable football helmet with a Cowboy insignia. When Brett saw this, Ellis recalls, he yanked the helmet off his son's head and stomped on it. "That poor child was crying, but Brett didn't care," Bonita laughs. "He doesn't like Dallas a whole bunch."
As night falls, there's more affectionate ribbing at Brett's expense. He's accused of being a legendary golf cheat, and Ellis remembers how Brett - who's in the middle of a five-year $19 million contract - borrowed $100 from him last year that he still hasn't repaid. Such stories are the kind you hear from a family that's tighter than a snare drum.
"Brett likes where he is in Green Bay, but he'd be crazy not to come back here when he retires," his father says.
Suddenly, the phone rings. It's Brett. "Whatcha doin?" he asks.
"Talkin' about you," his sister answers.
"Tell him John Ellis got something to say to him," Brett's mother says with a grin. Ellis takes the phone. "Hey Brett," he sniffs. "You still owe me a bunch of money, man, a hundred bucks. And what about that helmet?"