OAK GROVE, Miss. — It’s a short Wednesday afternoon practice in late October.
As Brett Favre walks off the field to his Chevrolet truck, a man comes up to him with a football he’d like Favre to sign. Favre signs the ball and drives off.
This is the life of Brett Favre, sure-fire NFL Hall of Famer turned high school football coach. In theory, he’s just another one of the guys. He’s an unpaid offensive coordinator, but he stills puts in the hours for practice, film breakdowns and game preparations like the rest of the staff.
But he’s not like the rest of the staff. That’s inescapable — even back in his native Mississippi. He’s a three-time NFL MVP and 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
“There’s always people trying to talk to him, trying to get some stuff signed,” Oak Grove quarterback Kirk McCarty said. “Brett does a really good job of keeping that away from his coaching as much as he can.”
During a highly anticipated game against Brandon on Oct. 25, Favre had a steady stream of cameras and eyes glued on him. The circus effect has diminished some during Favre’s two seasons at Oak Grove, but he continues to find his name in national headlines. That week, it was about the St. Louis Rams reaching out to the 44-year-old about returning to the NFL after former No. 1 pick Sam Bradford was lost with a season-ending ACL injury.
“It’s something he’s used to dealing with,” Oak Grove coach Nevill Barr said. “When you look at it, it’s still an honor for him. I think he’s a humble guy who knows he’s been blessed.”
If a professional football career never materialized, Favre would have gone straight into coaching after college. It was part of his focus at Southern Miss — he also likely would have been a special-education teacher — and he grew up as the son of a Mississippi high school football coach. Irvin “Big Irv” Favre coached Brett and his two brothers at Hancock Central High School.
Big Irv was a no-nonsense coach who ran a wishbone offense that rarely allowed Brett to show off his strong arm. The late Favre, who died in 2003, usually let his middle son throw the ball only four or five times a game. “He was one of those really tough, hard-nosed football coaches that believed in being physical and running the football,” said Rick Cleveland, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
When Brett Favre was later enjoying what will surely be a hall-of-fame career in the NFL, Big Irv still pointed out his mistakes.
“There was not much of a gentle hand with him,” Brett Favre said. “It was all tough.”
As a coach, Favre is different; he’s far more even-keeled. Whether at practice or during a game, you won’t see Favre screaming or cursing at a player. Sophomore wide receiver Jordan Duncan said his offensive coordinator comes to practice with an upbeat attitude.
“I don’t beat the kids up,” Favre said. “I never knock them down. I never pick on them. I think a lot of coaches have done that. I don’t believe in harassing, hazing, bullying, any of those things. I believe in building them up with a lot of confidence.”
When Barr reached out to Favre two years ago about joining his staff, he didn’t worry about the eventual sideshow. He knew if Favre said yes, he’d be committed. He banked on his players not being star-struck. Favre worked out at Oak Grove during the summer for years while he was in the NFL.
Most importantly, Barr put his ego aside. It’s not often an unpaid assistant overshadows the head coach. But in this case, that’s exactly what happened. And Barr was fine with it.
“I’m in this for the kids. That’s what I get joy out of,” Barr said. “Anything I can do to help our kids, anything I can do to bring in someone that can make a difference with them, I’m going to do it. I thought Brett was one of those things. He can relate to them. He can make a difference.”
Barr has been coaching for 39 years and is comfortable with his abilities as a head coach. Likewise, Favre is comfortable with his role.
“Brett listens. He knows it’s a team thing,” Barr said. “He knows it’s about all of these people working together. He’s got a good chemistry with our coaches.”
Barr believes Favre loves what he’s doing and hopes he makes a career out of it. Favre has no clue what he’d be doing if he wasn’t coaching and doesn’t see his involvement at Oak Grove ending anytime soon.
“I enjoy really not doing a lot,” Favre said. “Until that changes, I don’t care about making money. It’s fun and it keeps me active and involved. Until something changes, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”
Brett Favre the high school coach is different than Brett Favre the NFL quarterback. The Favre who ran up and down sidelines and emphatically slapped teammates on the rear end isn’t on the Oak Grove sidelines. He still has his moments of excitability, especially after an explosive offensive play. But he’s more reserved now.
“I played with probably a lot more enthusiasm and excitement,” he said, “and I don’t know why that is.”
That was the case against Brandon. Favre was actively involved in calling plays. But, at times, he appeared withdrawn, checking his cellphone and sending texts. During one offensive series late in the first half, Favre stood 35 yards from the line of scrimmage. Barr and his players don’t seem to notice.
The player who draws the most life out of Favre is McCarty, who is committed to Favre’s alma mater, Southern Miss, to play baseball. After each offensive series, McCarty and Favre meet to iron out footwork or explain the read progressions.
In the third quarter, with Oak Grove, then the state’s top-ranked team, trailing Brandon 7-0, McCarty threw an interception. Favre walked over to him.
“You needed to put a little more air on it,” Favre said to his quarterback.
Later, when McCarty threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, Favre gave the quarterback a reassuring pat on the helmet.
For Favre, he wrestles with explaining his high-level football knowledge to young players. McCarty said Favre has “a playbook that is probably four days long.”
“That’s been the toughest thing for me,” Favre said. “I spent 20 years in the NFL, where I was always scheming. You had all kinds of time with philosophy and changing plays. You don’t have that kind of time here, not to mention these kids are really inexperienced.
“I’m always looking at the defense, and the Rolodex is rolling. There are things I can see that I can do, but it’s a lot different. I have to process in a real short amount of time what we can do, not what I can do.”
Against Brandon, currently ranked No. 2 in the Super 10, Favre’s spread offense struggled. The Bulldogs’ defensive line pressured McCarty often. With the minimal time he had, McCarty and his talented receivers never got in rhythm.
Oak Grove, which entered the game without a loss, fell behind early before losing 42-23. After the game, Favre, wearing a pullover and shorts on this chilly night, avoided most of the handshake line, shaking a few hands here and there. He was visibly cold. And the cameras and eyes again zeroed in on him.
After one reporter approached him for an interview, Favre shook his head and said “I’m about to freeze.” He ran off.
He found an assistant coach with keys to his Chevy — Favre doesn’t travel with the team buses — and ran up the stairs.
In a blink, he is gone.
“It’ll never be totally normal for him,” Barr says, “but it’s more normal than you would think.”
John Talty also writes for the Clarion-Ledger.