You deserve this.
At the bottom of virtually every email he sent to Brett Favre and his wife Deanna, that’s what Bob Harlan wrote. The retired Green Bay Packers president/CEO had been the one who’d come up with the idea of how to reunite the iconic quarterback and the franchise he’d spent 16 years representing. And that had been the easy part.
He’d racked his brain for over a year, trying to figure out a way to rebuild a bridge that had been demolished by the summer of 2008 and Favre’s subsequent two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2012, he’d tried to convince Favre to come to the Packers Hall of Fame induction ceremony to see his former head coach, Mike Holmgren, enshrined, but that attempt at a baby step toward reconciliation had gone nowhere.
“I had some concerns going in,” Harlan confessed following Monday’s announcement that Favre would be enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame on July 18, 2015 and have his number retired that night – before a second game-day ceremony during the 2015 season for the unveiling of Favre’s No. 4 on the Lambeau Field north end zone façade. “But Brett and I at least had a close enough relationship.”
And it was that relationship that made Harlan the man for the job. In fact, he was the only man for the job.
While Favre said he and general manager Ted Thompson had exchanged what Favre called “very good” messages on a few isolated occasions, Favre still had not reconnected in any meaningful way with Thompson or coach Mike McCarthy, the two men who’d decided not to take him back upon his unretirement in 2008. Current president/CEO Mark Murphy, meanwhile, had been at the epicenter of Favre’s acrimonious departure, and having succeeded Harlan only months before everything went south, there simply wasn’t any connection between the two men.
But Harlan, who’d taken over as team president in 1989 and had seen every game Favre had ever played for the Packers, had been on the outside looking in during the summer of 2008. And when Favre played four games against the Packers in 2009 and 2010, Harlan had intentionally avoided attending, watching or listening to those games.
“So I’ve never seen him play against Green Bay, and I didn’t want to,” Harlan said. “I wanted to remember him as a Packer.”
And so Harlan, largely left to his own devices and working moreso in his role as a member of the Packers Hall of Fame executive committee, started thinking. Last November, it hit him: Start with bringing Favre back into the fold at the annual induction banquet, an intimate, $150 a plate event which is part pep rally, part formal dinner. Retire his number at the event, before a wholeheartedly supportive crowd. Then, with No. 4 already officially retired, bring him back for a game for the unveiling of the number on the façade.
Harlan bounced his idea off several close confidants, then off Hall of Fame president Perry Kidder, then Murphy and others in the Packers administration. They all supported the idea.
Then, it was time to take it to the Favres.
“I wasn’t sure how they’d take it. But they agreed immediately,” Harlan said. “It was very important. I mean, this is where he belongs. And I told him, and I told Deanna that. I said, ‘Deanna, the Hall of Fame banquet is a love fest. You’re going to get everybody there that just cannot wait to see you and Brett walk into that room. And that’s Step 1. And then Step 2 is you go out on that field.’ And I said, ‘The two of you deserve this.’
“I kept sending them emails, saying, ‘You two deserve this. You deserve it.’ I just stressed that over and over. ‘This is what we want to do, and you deserve it.’”
By Thanksgiving, everyone had agreed to Harlan’s plan. Concerned that any sort of announcement would be unfair to the 2014 inductees – ex-Favre teammates Ken Ruettgers and Ahman Green – Harlan wanted the plans to remain secret until after the banquet two weeks ago.
“I know Bob has wanted this to be a special moment, and I thank [him] for that,” Favre said on a conference call during the announcement at the still-under-construction renovated hall of fame. “You can’t take the 16 years away that I played there. Those memories are cherished forever.”
After the initial agreement, though, Harlan wanted to make sure the conversations remained amicable until an announcement could be made. So he kept emailing and calling the Favres on a regular basis, through emails or phone calls, throughout the winter and spring – although sometimes that proved difficult.
“Just to make sure they were [still] on board with everything,” Harlan said. “They’re tough to reach. The phone rings and rings and rings and never picks up. You could sit there for days and just listen to the ring, and their cell phones' [voicemail] says, ‘We don’t take messages.’ So when they picked up, I said, ‘God, whatever you do, don’t hang up. Stay with me.’
“One time, Deanna didn’t get back to me for three days after I sent her an email, and she apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry, I was climbing Mount Rainier.’ So … it wasn’t always easy to find them.
“But their enthusiasm grew during the winter months, I thought. And then Brett and I had a long talk about three weeks ago, and he was excellent about everything. Positive, looking forward to it. I even said to him, ‘You know, we can all learn something about the way LeBron James handled going back to Cleveland. Look at how Cleveland accepted him.’
“I said, ‘That’s what you’re going to get.’ It’s just, it’s something I wanted to try, and it worked, fortunately.”
And while Favre’s return may have been inevitable, it might not have happened even this quickly – if you consider seven years quickly – had it not been for Harlan.
“I never felt that [it might never happen],” Favre said. “I don’t want to speak for Mark or for Bob Harlan or the rest of the Packer organization, but I don’t think anyone felt that way. I think we all knew it was a matter of time.
“The most important thing was, when was that time? You’re never really right. There’s always going to be people say, ‘You should have done it at this time, you should have done it at that time, you shouldn’t have done it period, and blah, blah, blah.’ But this is the right time.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.