Favre and No. 4: Accidental history

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Brett Favre waves after receiving his gold jacket at the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinees' dinner on Thursday in Canton, Ohio.

Scott Heckel, The Canton Repository via AP

Brett Favre waves after receiving his gold jacket at the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinees’ dinner on Thursday in Canton, Ohio.

Several of Brett Favre’s iconic No. 4 jerseys reside in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. After Saturday, No. 4 also will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Favre’s Green Bay and Southern Miss No. 4s have been retired, never to be worn again, which is as it should be.

Here’s the thing: Favre never would have worn “4” in the first place if he had had his druthers. Back in 1987, a 17-year-old seventh string quarterback could not be choosy.

You may know the story, but you may not.

Favre was signed by Southern Miss as an afterthought. He had played for his daddy, Big Irv Favre, at Hancock North Central High. Big Irv believed in running the football until the opponent couldn’t stop it. And nobody could stop Hancock’s power-running attack. So Big Irv’s son, the quarterback, rarely threw the ball. Few people knew that the kid who threw three or four passes a game already possessed one of the strongest throwing arms in the history of the sport.

Rick Cleveland

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Two days before National Signing Day, when high school players sign college scholarships, Favre thought he was headed to Delta State. He had no Division I offers.

And then Southern Miss lost a committed quarterback, who decided to sign with Alabama instead. That opened up a spot. Then-USM assistant coach Mark McHale, who had watched Favre throw in pre-game warm-ups, lobbied hard for Favre to get that scholarship. Jim Carmody, the head coach, relented, at least partly because McHale assured him that Favre was a tough, strong kid who could play safety or linebacker if he couldn’t cut it at quarterback.

McHale was right, by the way. Favre would have been a ferocious safety or linebacker. Turns out, he could cut it and then some at quarterback.

But nobody knew that when Favre showed up for fall football camp in Hattiesburg. Hell, nobody knew how to spell — or pronounce — his name. It was spelled Farve as often as Favre. It was pronounced Fav-ray as often as Farve.

So, Favre found himself in the equipment line. The jersey provider asked his name. Favre told him. He asked him his position. Favre said quarterback. What number would you prefer, the guy asked Favre.

“Well, I wore number 10 in high school,” Favre said. “I’d like to have No. 10.”

Not happening, the guy said, Reggie Collier wore No. 10 and it’s been retired. Nobody at Southern Miss will ever again wear No. 10.

Favre, who had followed Collier as a kid, said that made good sense to him, and then asked what quarterback numbers were available.

The guy looked down his list, and then responded: “To tell you the truth, the only number we have left for you is number four.”

Brett Favre first wore is now iconic No. 4 jersey at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Southernmiss.com

Brett Favre first wore his now iconic No. 4 jersey at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Said Favre: “Well, four it is.”

“Hell, I was just happy to have any jersey at all,” Favre said last year prior to his induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. “I’d have worn 99 if they told me to.”

So, football’s famous Gunslinger, the three-time NFL MVP, the all-time Iron Man of professional football, became No. 4 by default.

He began that fall listed as the seventh string quarterback. By the first game of the season, he was third string. By the end of the second game, he was first string. Many people, including this writer, believe he saved the USM football program, sparking new interest, drawing much larger crowds and leading the Golden Eagles to landmark victories over such powers as Alabama, Auburn and Florida State.

It’s an odd football number, No. 4 is. Until Favre, no really famous football player ever wore it.

Interestingly, sports’ other most famous No. 4 is Lou Gehrig, baseball’s legendary Iron Horse. Hockey superstar Bobby Orr also wore No. 4.

Favre didn’t really want it back in 1987 but he’s more than satisfied with it now.

Said he, with a wry smile, “No regrets. I’d say it worked out OK.”

Rick Cleveland writes a weekly sports column running Fridays at Mississippitoday.org.

  • Charles Pearce

    Can’t get enough about over-looked players becoming hall of famers — Rick, you are at your best when sharing stories like this.