Kiln, Mississippi is the home to New York's newest legend, Brett Favre   « Back


Inside the Broke Spoke bar in Kiln, Mississippi, Packers memorabilia is on the way out now that Brett Favre is in Jets green.

by OHM YOUNGMISUK
Source: DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Aug. 12, 2008

KILN, Miss. - Wearing his Hancock North Central High letterman jacket and a pair of unassuming shades, Brett Favre left his cozy country hometown of Kiln for the big city for the first time in the winter of 1987.

Along with 40 of his classmates, Favre left for New York City on his senior class trip that February. The self-proclaimed country boy who loves to hunt and ride on farm tractors did what most tourists do in New York City: He went to the top of the Empire State building, visited the Statue of Liberty and Wall Street, strolled around Central Park, toured the United Nations, caught a Broadway show, shopped at Macy's and ate a slice at Ray's Pizza.

The specter of the country boy from the South walking in the middle of skyscrapers and Times Square amidst thousands of New Yorkers must've seemed like Crocodile Dundee riding the subway for the first time.

"It was our first time away from our parents," Favre's Hancock senior classmate Wendy Curet recalls as her face lights up. "Brett's father called him everyday."

Twenty-one years later, Favre returns to the Big Apple as the NFL's most decorated quarterback, holding the keys to the city and the New York Jets' franchise. But even though he now sports gray hair and the signature stubble on his face, Favre is still the same polite country boy from Mississippi who toured New York in a high school letter jacket.

Despite the obvious comparisons, Favre is the anti-Namath. While Broadway Joe was the epitome of glamour, with his white fur coats and big sunglasses and pantyhose commercials, Favre's preferred attire resembles a construction worker's - cutoff T-shirt and camouflage cargo shorts.

"I've been in his closet," says family friend J.D. Simpson. "I got more clothes than him. Bless his heart, when his dad died, he had to go get a suit."

Favre still hunts when he isn't tending to the 460 acres on his pristine ranch in Hattiesburg, Miss. And the NFL's only three-time MVP still plays football with the childlike enthusiasm of a high school kid.

Favre hasn't changed much since he took his first wide-eyed trip to Manhattan. He admits to not knowing what to expect from New York, but he sounds every bit as excited as the teenager of two decades ago.

"Oh, he's like a kid in the candy store," says Simpson, who was with the giddy Favre on Thursday morning, the day after the trade to the Jets. "I'm telling you, the shine was in his eye and the pep was in his step.

"He's fired up and ready to go."
***


At first glance, Favre and New York look like a marriage that makes about as much sense as Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. And we know how long that one lasted.



After all, this is a guy who grew up in a tiny slice of Bayou country in a town of 2,000. Locals with thick Southern accents pronounce Kiln like "Kill", but that's about the only menacing aspect of this rural area that sports a two-lane highway running through the heart of town, a few country stores and a couple of gas stations that still show damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Cheerleaders stretch before practice at Favre's high school - where a life-sized bronze statue of Favre launching a pass in his Green Bay uniform stands outside of "Brett Favre Field" - and enthusiastically greet visitors with a smile and a big "Welcome to Hancock High School!"

Kiln is one of those small towns where it seems as if everyone knows everyone and no one ever leaves home. Favre's mother, Bonita, still lives in the renovated home where Brett grew up.

Favre, who met his wife Deanna here, may have put Kiln on the map, but the school's star quarterback wasn't even the most popular kid at Hancock North Central. In fact, Favre didn't win one superlative in his 1987 senior yearbook, not even Most Likely to Succeed or Most Athletic.

"He blended in," Curet, now a secretary at Hancock Middle School, says from her living room as she glances at her photo album of pictures of her, Favre and friends from their trip to New York. "He was just one of us."

It wasn't long before Kiln would share Favre with two other small towns. Favre went on to star at nearby Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg before forging his legend and shattering just about every significant NFL career passing record in Green Bay. Favre became such a cult hero in the frigid winters of Green Bay that Kiln became a pilgrimage site of sorts for Packer fans.

For the last 16 years, diehard Packers fans made the trek to Kiln to see the town where their hero grew up. Even in Hattiesburg, where Favre now lives, cars with Wisconsin license plates start showing up along with the stifling summer heat.

"He's like Elvis," Simpson says.

They visit Favre's statue in Kiln and the town's two other famous tourist attractions - a bar called Broke Spoke and across the street, the painted mural of a Packers helmet on the side of a gas station called Dolly's.

Upon stepping into the Broke Spoke, visitors are greeted by cigarette smoke and dozens of bras of all sizes hanging from the ceiling. The walls are covered with Packers paraphernalia and signatures from hundreds of Packers fans.

The day after Favre was traded to the Jets this past week, a handful of customers were at the Broke Spoke watching Favre stand on the sideline during a televised replay of the Jets' preseason game against Cleveland.



"New Yorkers all have to send a fireman's hat down here," says one customer, referring to Fireman Ed, the Jets' most famous fan.

A couple of minutes later, the bartender tries his first Jets chant, by screaming "J-E-T-S, Jets! Jets! Jets!"

Then he suggests a new chant for Jets fans.

"B-R-E-T-T, Brett! Brett! Brett!" yells Derek Peterson, who is Deanna's cousin.

Across from the bar on the other side of Kiln Road is the Packers mural. Signatures from hundreds of fans from Green Bay and beyond cover the painting like graffiti. There's talk of painting a Jets helmet over it now.

"My husband threw away all of his Packers stuff already," Curet says, shaking her head.
***


In Hattiesburg, locals have already gone to the sporting goods stores in search of Jets hats and shirts.

Favre is as adored there as he is in Kiln. Not only was he a star at Southern Miss but he resides in the college town most of the year.

The Favres are involved in local charities and Favre is a fixture at some of the local restaurants, including the famous Leatha's barbecue joint. He can often be found practicing with the football team at Oak Grove High School, just a few minutes from his home.

Over the last month, as the drama with the Packers played out nightly across the nation, television crews descended upon Hattiesburg to film Favre working out at Oak Grove. In a hat, cutoff shirt and cargo pants, he could be seen running the stadium steps with Deanna and throwing bombs to Oak Grove players.

Favre has worked out with the team for the last three years and developed a strong bond with several players. He spends hours working with the quarterbacks on their passing technique and teaches the receivers how to catch the ball with their hands, not their bodies, and how to run crisp routes.

Favre has left a lasting impression on some of the Oak Grove seniors, the proof in their tattooed chests.

"Brett throws a little bit faster than our quarterback so you will be used to the high school speed - and then here comes the NFL speed," says Austin Hill, a senior wide receiver who quickly learned from Favre how to catch passes with his hands. "And a lot of times it goes straight through your hands and to your chest and it stings a little most of the time and leaves a nice red circle in the middle of the chest."

Favre has grown so close to the players, he's given several of them nicknames and has had a few over to fish on his farm.

"We would go out there and fish and he would be cutting the grass or the weeds in his cutoff shirt and khaki shorts," says Oak Grove senior punter Zach Slusher. "He is an awesome guy. He has a catfish pond and another pond stocked with Florida bass. Any man would fall in love with his home as soon as they step foot on it. It's just a paradise, a place for release. Brett doesn't even like to fish, he's a hunter, but he will come out with us and keep us company."



It is on his farm where Favre finds peace. He found refuge there after enduring many difficult, and some very public, tragedies and hardships. From his battle with addiction to painkillers and alcohol, to the deaths of his father, brother-in-law and father-in-law, to Deanna's successful battle with breast cancer, Favre spends time riding his tractors and clearing his land and his head.

He quietly dealt with another tragedy recently when a boy he befriended through the Make A Wish Foundation died earlier this summer, just two weeks after Favre granted him his wish to hunt with the quarterback. The boy autographed a photo of himself for Favre, who keeps the picture in his truck.

"I don't know the old Brett," Simpson says, referring to the time earlier in his career when Favre abused painkillers and alcohol. "Everybody talks about the Brett that was wild and partied. I've only known him for nine years. But now he will go out and start working on his property to clear his head. He will get up with the chickens and get out there. I will have to go out and find him on his land. I usually just follow the tracks of the tractor or four-wheeler and he will be chain-sawing something or on the dozer doing something."

As the saga with Green Bay unfolded this summer, Favre worked on his farm or ran sprints and threw balls at Oak Grove.

Even Wednesday, the day he left Green Bay after parting with the Packers for the final time, Favre was on the Oak Grove football field just as soon as he landed in Hattiesburg.

It was on that field that Favre released the stress of his ugly breakup with the Packers, who'd insisted on moving on with Aaron Rodgers after Favre announced his retirement in March, by working out his frustrations.

With the Buccaneers and Jets pursuing a trade for Favre, the future Hall of Famer even debated the pros and cons of joining each team with the kids.

"When he drove up, he said, ‘come here' and (Tampa coach Jon) Gruden was on his speaker phone," says Simpson, Oak Grove's team chaplain, who first met Deanna Favre nine years ago when she joined the board of his Christian youth ministry called First Priority. "Brett said, ‘J.D., I don't know what hunting we're gonna do in Tampa. Hunt crocs?'"

By midnight, it was the Jets who'd bagged their second-biggest prize in franchise history - Favre. And they did it by doing their research on the quarterback and putting together a crafty recruiting package that consisted of places in New Jersey where Favre could hunt and live.



Owner Woody Johnson has even said Favre can hunt on his massive estate in New Jersey.

"He showed me stuff that he printed out on a computer," Simpson says. "It was first class. They even had pictures of deer."

In the end, the Jets showered Favre with the kind of love the Packers were no longer showing the impulsive quarterback.

When the Jets called Favre shortly after the trade, one team official couldn't contain his excitement.

"There were shouts of ‘Man, we got you! I don't eat gumbo and I don't deer hunt but I am going to learn all these things,'" Simpson says one team executive told Favre.

Conventional wisdom may say a country boy will hate New York, but Favre may defy the stereotype.

According to Simpson, Favre took his wife and two daughters to New York to catch a Broadway play earlier this summer, and even though Deanna received cancer treatments at Sloan Kettering, the Favre family thinks of New York as a positive place, since that is where she began to heal.

Simpson says the family leaned toward the Jets over Tampa when they compiled a list of pros and cons of both cities.

Favre's biggest challenge won't be navigating his way through New York traffic but rather guiding the Jets to the playoffs in the competitive AFC and winning over Jets fans.

By the end of the week, Favre was already mapping out what the Jets will have to do to make the playoffs. It sounds as if Kiln's favorite son is ready to hunt some new game: He couldn't wait to hop on a plane to get back to New York.

"He said it's so tough in New York that they can go 11-5 and not make the playoffs," Simpson says of Favre's initial concerns about joining the Jets. "But as far a country guy coming to the city, it wasn't that at all. It's a fun city for them. It doesn't bring back bad memories.

"They think of the hospital and that's all good memories in their mind."
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