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QB continues to triumph amid adversity

Sometimes, when the sky is falling in pieces all around you, all you can do is laugh.

A week ago, Brett Favre was needling his mother, Bonita, who was in the middle of a book tour to publicize her New York Times best-seller "Favre."

"You're not a spring chicken anymore," the Green Bay Packers quarterback told her.

"You sound like I sounded some years back, talking to you," she responded.

"Well, if that's the case," the son told his mother, "then you won't listen to me like I didn't listen to you -- so we're even."

One day later, Bonita was flat on her back in a Madison, Wis., hospital complaining of severe stomach pains. And with that piece of bad luck -- food poisoning was ultimately the diagnosis -- her streak of consecutive book signings was stopped at seven. Bonita sat out the signings scheduled for La Crosse on Thursday and Green Bay on Saturday.

Her publicist, Zoe Feigenbaum, insisted she would continue this week.

"She's a tough one," Feigenbaum observed. "She wants to keep going.

"She's a Favre."

Indeed.

In his 13th season with the Packers, Brett Lorenzo Favre has become synonymous with triumphing amid adversity. In sport, courage and heroism are often overstated. But the depths of the adversity that has visited Favre's life and the level of performance with which he has responded is, upon inspection, quite breathtaking.

In the last 11 months, Favre has lost his father, Irv, to a heart attack; lost his brother-in-law, Casey Tynes, in an all-terrain vehicle crash on his estate in Mississippi; and learned that his wife, Deanna, had breast cancer. Favre has played through a series of injuries this season -- concussion, bruised hamstring, sprained hand, sprained thumb -- but on Monday night he will step on Lambeau Field against the St. Louis Rams and start his 200th consecutive game, an amazing NFL record he continues to push further and further out of reach. By any measure, Favre's success under duress surpasses all understanding.

How does he consistently rise to these great occasions with such poise and precision?

Last week, Favre sat down for an introspective interview with ESPN's Suzy Kolber for an NFL Countdown feature.

"I wish I had an answer," Favre told Kolber. "I don't know. The most talented players don't always succeed. It's more what's inside. So much of a professional athlete's success depends not necessarily how you deal with good, but how you deal with the bad.

"It was kind of a wake-up call. When it hits you directly, it makes you realize how precious life is. There was a time when I thought football was the most important. Football will be over at some point -- the family goes on.

"When you lose someone, or when there are setbacks, it kind of puts it in perspective. When you lose a family member or something tragic happens, that stays with you forever. You never get over it."

Favre is 35, already graying gracefully around the temples. His place in football history is more than secure. He's led his team to a Super Bowl victory and is ranked among the top five in four major passing categories: touchdowns, attempts, completions and yards. He has thrown for 365 touchdowns, meaning only Dan Marino (420) has more. Think of all the territory that takes in; Favre has seen his passes reach the end zone safely more times than Elway, Unitas, Montana's and so many other great quarterbacks.

But it isn't the quantity he producers year after year, it is the sterling quality of his numbers when things are less than perfect. Some of his finest seasons came when he was, by his own admission, drinking too much. He won the first of three NFL MVP awards while he was addicted to painkillers in 1995. There have been memorable contests when Favre entered games listed as questionable with formidable injuries.

"You just never know what the next day is going to bring," Favre told Kolber. "That goes for football, goes for off the field, and I gave up a long time ago trying to predict the future and trying to deal with things I couldn't deal with. There is only so much I can do. You know, the old saying, when it rains, it pours. When it comes, it comes in bunches. It seems that way in my case.

"I have been asked the question, 'How do you focus on football with everything else going on?' I would think it's much easier. It enables you to escape for a brief period of time to kind of get away. You have to go back and deal with it, but it's a good escape."

Last Dec. 21, Irv Favre, 58, died of a heart attack while driving near his home. The Packers were 8-6 and competing fiercely for a playoff berth. Twenty-six hours later, under the bright lights of national television, Favre memorably torched the Oakland Raiders for 399 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-7 victory.

Favre led Green Bay to a 31-3 victory over the Denver Broncos in the regular-season finale, then guided the Packers to a 33-27 overtime win over Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. Favre couldn't quite carry the team past the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional playoffs, when Green Bay fell, 20-17 in overtime.

Before the season, Favre said he thought the Packers were committed to reaching the Super Bowl, but Green Bay responded by losing four straight games after an opening victory at Carolina. The last of those losses, at home to Tennessee, was a game colored by more grief for Favre. On Oct. 6, Tynes was killed in an ATV accident in Hattiesburg, Miss. He was 24.

Eight days later, Favre discovered that Deanna has breast cancer. She had found a lump during a self-examination.

"I know that I handled it worse than she did," Favre told Kolber. "Learning of her diagnosis was like "Ah, where do we go from here?' I'm sure that deep down inside, she was probably really scared, and probably still is.

"But I felt helpless and still feel helpless. I want to go in and cure it right now -- I can't do that -- and that's pretty much the most difficult part."

Three days after the diagnosis, the Packers were 1-4 and playing at Detroit. If ever there was a chance for a distracted performance, this was it. Favre was polished and professional; he completed 25 of 38 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The Packers won, 38-10.

Two days before the game against Dallas the following week, Deanna underwent a lumpectomy Oct. 22 at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Favre responded with another terrific game against the Cowboys, completing 23 of 29 passes for 258 yards and two more touchdowns. Since then, Favre has been a bit uneven -- he threw three interceptions against the Redskins, but burned the Vikings for four touchdowns -- but the Packers are riding a five-game winning streak.

The most recent triumph, a gritty 16-13 victory over the Houston Texans, was typical Favre. The young Texans led 13-3 in the fourth quarter, but Favre rallied the Packers with three scoring drives. Ryan Longwell's 46-yard field goal as time expired followed a drive in which Favre completed six of seven passes -- the only miss being an intentional spike to stop the clock.

Packers head coach Mike Sherman said Favre, "gives you the confidence that he is going to do something special in those situations."

This has been the most difficult of his 14 NFL seasons, according to Favre. Tougher than 1999, when he played most of the season with an injured thumb and the Packers missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record. Tougher than last season when he played with a broken thumb and his father died.

These days, he and his daughters, 15-year-old Brittany and five-year-old Breleigh, are rallying around Deanna, who is still confronted by three months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation treatment. The prognosis after early detection, however, is optimistic.

"My wife is healthy, she's in the prime of her life," Favre said. "You think that it happens to other people, but it happens to everyone. God, he deals you with some blows that at some times you think you can't handle -- and there have been some things in the last year that we thought we couldn't handle -- but we've dealt with it up until this point."

Have these travails affected the choice between continuing to play or retire?

"(Deanna) keeps saying, 'Don't worry about me -- keep playing.' " Favre told Kolber. "I don't foresee my wife saying to me that it's time to give it up unless I just really suck, pardon my French.

"But there's times that I walk on and off the field thinking I'm the best and when things like the loss of my dad and Deanna's diagnosis and the loss of her brother come about, you go, 'God, I don't know if I've got it anymore. I don't know if I can go out there and lead us through the two-minute drill anymore.'

"I've got other things to worry about and (Deanna) says they're going to be there either way, so why not do something that you know you can do? She has said to me numerous times this year, 'I don't know if this is your last year or what, but it's your decision. I want you to play the best you've ever played,' which is probably putting more pressure on me than I can deal with because I don't know if I can play as good as I've played in the past.

"But I've told her that I would give it a try. There's still a lot of football to play, and we've fought our way back, so we'll see what happens."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.