(This article was written on my blog after the Green Bay Packers' victory over the Minnesota Vikings on September 8th, 2008.)
There was something different about Lambeau Field Monday night, something different in the feel and energy.
The Packers have, forever, been a tribe, a collective, something for people who love the quirkiness of people who put foam Swiss wedges on their heads and wait years and years to freeze in one of the least important American cities with a professional sports franchise.
But, without Brett Favre, it all feels less important.
This is a good thing.
I grew up a Packers fan because my allegiances coalesced around the age of six, when I was watching the Florida Gators, Atlanta Braves, and Packers (and, to a lesser extent, the Orlando Magic) dominate their respective sports.
I've always, though, made as much of a connection to the fulcra of those teams as the colors they wear: Greg Maddux, for his bespectacled brilliance, and Chipper Jones, for the good ol' boy ethos he marinates in; Danny Wuerffel, the perfect pilot of the most efficiently mechanical offense in college football; and, of course, Favre, the mercurial, reckless, relentlessly and stupidly ebullient kid on the playground who never grew out of it for a second.
Of all these, the greatest was Favre. He was around for longer than Wuerffel, greater than Chipper, showier than Maddux.
He was co-opted by Wrangler Jeans and Peter King, anointed a hero against his will, bedecked in bronze that he came to enjoy, drenched in the pathos of his father's death, and, of course, cast in a Shakespearean production of his own creation, a bizarre mix of Hamlet and Fred Astaire, if retirement and the mainstream media were Ginger Rogers.
And he made the Green Bay Packers less a tribe and more a brand; Favre was Number Four, the conquering gunslinger who the media loved to exalt as he exasperated the fans. Every game was a Big Game, every throw tagged as either awesome or abysmal as it left his hand, every playoff push an orchestrated effort to get Favre an elusive second Super Bowl ring.
Favre became both the emblem of the Packers and bigger than the team, a walking storyline with more ink and hot air than articles about the Hindenburg explosion and a distraction from the rest of the rising Packers, who, in 2007, had their best season in a decade cut an overtime short of the Super Bowl by a classic forced interception from Number Four.
Then, tearfully, he was gone; then, perhaps, back; then, a New York Jet.
And we were left with Aaron Rodgers and what we thought was a hole in our hearts and our backfield.
Monday night, it was all different.
Monday night, Rodgers was the model of consistency. He threw darts to open receivers and a bomb or two when necessary. He weathered flurries of shoddy play, dealt with a first and 33, led a balanced attack and made zero mistakes.
And he made the Green Bay Packers lesser and greater at the same time.
By letting go of what we've clenched for so long, we fell back into the comfortable arms of our fellow Packer Backers. Long before Gators and Red Sox claimed the term "Nation" for their own, Green Bay was America's Team, a working-class, no-frills crew that minted Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer, Forrest Gregg, and Ray Nitchske as stars and included a lot of the American sporting public as fans. (Remember, even Steelers fan John McCain could name the Packers' offensive line under significant duress.)
Now, every Monday night at Lambeau will neither be an exercise in Favre fellatio nor an epic-to-be freighted with the "wise master vs. young star" plotline; instead, last night was a gloriously Favre-free, NFC North rivalry game, pitting two very good young teams with championship aspirations.
This was an experience unparalleled in my time as a Packers fan except by the transcendent snow game against the Seattle Seahawks, full of flurries of joy, or the Super Bowl win that featured a young Favre running around the Superdome like a madman who couldn't grasp the concept of helmets.
And it was light, and it was football, and it was fun.
The over-the-shoulder zinger Rodgers threw to Korey Hall?
Man, that was cool.
That weaving Will Blackmon punt return?
Sweet, especially the move at the sideline.
The Lambeau Leap Aaron Rodgers took in the fourth quarter?
Obviously, it's the moment of the season so far, and it will take a lot to top it.
It was a game, and a great game, and a fun game.
I, as a Packers fan, have high hopes for this season, but as long as it's almost as fun as Monday night was, I will not be disappointed. Thanks to Aaron Rodgers, pro football is, once more, a game.
And this game is fun.