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Monday, December 29, 2003


Miracle in the Desert

That's what it's being called, and justifiably so. I'm not much for believing in miracles, but this one shakes my non-faith.

Most sports contests are pretty pedestrian. Looking at it objectively, you have some highly-overpaid athletes battling each other for a silly title that has no great significance. The athletes do their thing, and one side or the other wins. Fans may get emotionally involved, but hey, it's only a game afterall.

Then once in a while something occurs which transcends the run-of-the-mill nature of most sports. It isn't heroism, exactly, because weighty matters such as life or death or freedom or slavery aren't on the line. But it is definitely something extraordinary.

Call it heart. Call it a reaching and achieving far beyond expectations. Maybe even call it destiny.

Whatever you call it, that's the kind of a week it's been for the Green Bay Packers.

It started with the tragic news of the death of Irv Favre, Brett's father, just one day before an important game with the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football. The storyline quickly focussed on how Brett would react to that horrible news. He could have skipped the game, and no one would have blamed him a bit. He could have played, but been distracted and ineffective.

Instead, Brett opened himself up to his team-mates, and he dedicated the game to his father the way he knew Irv would have wanted. He played one of the most brilliant games of his entire brilliant career, and the rest of the team had his back, as they torched the Raiders 41-7. It was amazing to watch and to savor.

Still it was only one game, albeit a great one. The Packers were still fighting to make the playoffs, and it would not be surprising for them to suffer an emotional letdown. Brett Favre took several days off to attend his father's funeral, along with other players and coaches. Could he and his team do it again? And even if they did, would it matter?

One by one, events went against the Packers. They'd be in the playoffs if San Francisco beat Seattle on Saturday. It went down to the wire, but Seattle won. Next, the Packers would be in control if the Cowboys won on Sunday morning. The Cowboys lost. There were other games which would allow the Packers a wild-card slot if the outcomes went certain ways. They didn't.

All the possibilities had dwindled down to a Packer victory combined with a Minnesota defeat. The Packer victory was the easy part, since the game was being played in front of 70 thousand rabid fans at Green Bay's Lambeau Field, and Denver was resting half a dozen of its first-string players. But for Minnesota to lose to the lowly Arizona Cardinals was almost too much to hope for.

And indeed it was too much to hope for, for the first 56 of the 60 minutes of the game. Even though Arizona took a 6-0 lead into half-time, we all knew it wouldn't last. Sure enough, the Vikings finally got moving and built up an insurmountable 11 point lead. The Packers were thrashing the Broncos, but in the final analysis it wouldn't matter; the Pack's season was about to come to a crashing end.

Events had conspired to create an apparently hopeless situation. Had anything happened differently: if Seattle had lost or Dallas had won; had the Vikings been ahead by 21 points or down by 21; there would have been no uncertainty and no drama. Instead there was still a tiny, tiny, tiny sliver of hope. Just a "fool's hope", as Gandalf would say. All a hapless Arizona team needed to do was score a quick touchdown, recover an on-side kick, and score another touchdown in the last two minutes of the game. Theoretically it was not impossible...

I didn't expect it to happen, but it still somehow seemed wrong for it not to. After that magnificent Monday Night game, it would all come to nought. And then the TV announcers reported that the Cardinals had scored a touchdown on a fourth-down pass and cut the Vikings' lead to 5 points. The two-point conversion failed (which turned out to be good). But I had a bare inkling that impossible things might actually happen.

Then the second unlikely event transpired, as it was announced that the Cardinals had recovered the on-side kick. Still it would be so easy for them to throw an interception or fumble the ball (which they did, but the Vikings didn't recover it) or simply stall on their drive for the end-zone (which they did, running the count to fourth down with 4 seconds left).

Finally, with time expired, the Cardinal quarterback rolled out and threw a desperation pass into the end-zone, which the receiver caught but was pushed out of bounds before he could land (he probably would have landed out-of-bounds). It was ruled a touchdown, and the Vikings were defeated, and the Packers were Division champions and in the playoffs.

The emotion and celebration for Green Bay Packers fans and players alike has been fantastic. It shouldn't have been possible, but it was, and it almost defies rational explanation. One can believe in angels (and many are convinced that Irv Favre had a lot to do with the outcome) or one can believe in destiny. Disbelief is the more difficult course to follow.

This is what takes sports out of the realm of the hum-drum and into the realm of greatness.

And what of the future? The Packers have been given a nearly inconceivable opportunity. I don't think they will waste the "Miracle of the Desert". Next week they will beat the Seattle Seahawks in front of 70 thousand frenzied fans at Lambeau Field. The road to the Superbowl is open, and if Brett leads his team to another championship, we can all believe that Irv Favre is looking down and beaming with pride.

No, it doesn't get any less hum-drum than this.

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