Moonshine, tears flow at Lambeau South

KILN, Miss. -- There is a bar in Brett Favre's hometown called The Broke Spoke. Before we go any further, here are a few things you need to know about the place. There are bras and panties hanging from the ceiling. Some of the panties are, well, large. There is a rebel flag with a white-tailed deer on it.

In the parking lot before lunch Sunday, Deanna Favre's distant cousin calls me over to his Dodge pickup. He reaches inside and pulls out a plastic milk jug of the famous Kiln moonshine. White Lightning. He grins. "It'll run this diesel," he says.

It's game day in "The Kill." There is a country-boy ballet going on: icing down about 180 cases of beer, opening 22 pounds of chicken gizzards, chopping up the sausage and the onions, getting the roux into the pot for the gumbo. There is a gallon of that homemade liquor in the office. They'll need it later. "Every Sunday at halftime," owner Stevie Haas says, "we pass out shots of moonshine, and we call a friend in Wisconsin and do a shot over the phone."

People arrive early, bundling against the below-freezing weather. Nothing can keep them away. They haven't had a day like this in The Kill in a long time. Many figured their favorite son would never again see a Super Bowl, so Sunday has the feel of a high school reunion -- people looking for something they thought they'd lost forever. "Everybody is anticipating that feeling," lifelong resident Ginger Ladner says.

Her husband, Greg, nods. He has watched as the little places like Kiln have disappeared, dried up or been annexed. People have moved away or forgotten what made their hometown special. But not Kiln. Every Sunday, the folks in this town have seen why they are special. Favre's success has been their success. "You don't know what he brought to this community," Greg says. "Look around. You'll see tonight."

He points at the beer coolers and the big silver pot of steaming gumbo and the cars stacking up in the parking lot.

"For the last 17 years," he says, "you've had all of this."

Some of the cars have Mississippi tags. But just as many are from Wisconsin. Of all the things Favre has done in his career, perhaps nothing is as unexpected as the relationship that has formed between a little hamlet in South Mississippi and Green Bay Packers fans. It started in 1997, when Wisconsinites streamed south toward New Orleans for Favre's first Super Bowl. Back then, The Spoke was the kind of place where a stranger might get his butt kicked. "This was a trashy biker bar," regular Rodney Lacoste says. "The bullet holes in the sign are real. That Super Bowl made us famous."

A love affair began that weekend. It has grown over the years, with folks from Kiln heading north for games and folks from Wisconsin heading south. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the eye passing just a few miles from the bar, Packers fans loaded up and came to help their friends. Something ties them together. Maybe it's the working man ethos, or the love of camouflage, or that they all like a cold Budweiser after a long day. "The Kiln people and the Green Bay people click," Ginger says.

But Favre can't play forever, and a once-unthinkable question hovers over Sunday's party: Is this the last time? Dave Ancinec wasn't taking any chances. On Tuesday, after years of promising he'd go watch a game in Kiln, he loaded the RV in Racine, Wis. On Thursday, he arrived. Stevie and his wife, Mabel, told him to just park next to the bar. Now, they've got him chopping onions. It's the first time he has helped make gumbo. In just three days, they've made him feel like family. "I called back home," he says, "and everybody's jealous as hell."

The sun sinks lower and lower, night falling on Kiln. People light a fire in the parking lot, then two, then three, then four, then five. The bar fills up, with smoke, with fans, with a guy wearing a duster and a bowler hat, peach cobbler in one hand, a longneck in the other. Soon, several hundred people wait inside for kickoff. Outside, a hundred or so more fans pile in close together on the bleachers in front of the big-screen television. Stevie stands behind them. He has been thinking about the past 17 years a lot today, about all the friends they've made. Deep down, he believes this is bigger than Brett Favre. That these relationships will last long after Favre has taken his last snap. It would just be too much to bear if today was the day it all ended. "I think it's for a long time," he says.

The nerves are palpable when the game begins. The same people who cheered Favre down the road at the high school now crowd around televisions. The uniform has changed. The cheers have not. "Go, Brett, go!" they yell. The last orange traces of the sun disappear behind the pine trees. The lead goes back and forth. As halftime approaches, the Dixie Cups come out and in goes the moonshine. Hundreds of shots sit ready.

Stevie walks to the bar and calls for quiet. He holds up the phone. For the first time, the room gets still. Every game, they do a shot with someone from Wisconsin on the line. They've got numbers stapled to the kitchen wall of people they've called in the past. Tonight, they've got a special treat: Brett's brother, who is watching the game at Lambeau.

"We got Jeff Favre on the phone," Stevie shouts. "We're gonna do a shot with Jeff Favre."

Hundreds of people raise their cups. Presumably, a thousand miles away, connected by a lifetime of memories and a telephone line, Jeff Favre does, too. They count down: "Three … two … one." Everyone swallows the White Lightning and screams. The liquor burns going down, like it has here for generations.

The phone keeps ringing. More people call from Lambeau wanting to do a shot. The last guy has some of the Kiln moonshine with him. It's warm in the kitchen. It's minus-4 degrees at Lambeau Field.

"The moonshine ain't froze, is it?" Stevie asks.

They both know better. Stevie laughs, and his Wisconsin friend laughs, and they do a shot together. If the night could have ended there, it would have been perfect. Two friends, from completely different parts of the country, joined together for a moment because of a game. But real life rarely has a happy ending. The Packers can't pull away. Favre can't drive the ball down the field. The Spoke is a bit stunned. Even though many of the people remember Favre as a boy, they now think of him like that bronze statue over at the high school. A myth, not a man. One of the bartenders pleads with the television: "Come on, Brett. Work that magic one more time."

On this night, though, there is no more magic. When the New York Giants end the dream in overtime, after the curses fade into the night, Stevie manages a bitter laugh.

"Life goes on," he says.

Near the bar, Ginger turns to Greg. There's no point staying. The feeling is gone.

"Let's go home," she says.

Mabel is crying.

"Sorry," someone tells her.

The televisions show replays, the final seconds of their season, and maybe of this 17-year love affair, rolling again and again. The guy running the stereo finds Stevie.

"We gonna play music or not?" he asks.

"Don't matter to me," Stevie says.

"It's your party," the DJ tells him.

Over behind the bar, their friend Dave speaks up. On the screen, Eli Manning is celebrating. There is no sign of Favre.

"Turn the f---ing TVs off," he says.

The fires in the parking lot burn low, flames turning to smoldering embers. Diesel engines rumble as the people clear out. In Green Bay, Favre says he's not sure if he'll ever play again. In Kiln, there's an old man named Burl who thinks about the game, and about all the love they've given Favre, and all the joy he has given them in return.

"He's still our hero," he says.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. Photographer Joe York is a producer/director of documentary films at the University of Mississippi Center for Documentary Projects. He is the author of "With Signs Following: Photographs from the Southern Religious Roadside."