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399 Yards of Deception: Football, Fatherhood, and Facing Grief

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, ‘Fat, Crazy, and Tired: Tales From the Trenches of Transformation,’ Van Lathan reflects on a legendary Brett Favre outing, losing his father, and what we owe ourselves as we mourn

Getty Images/Van Lathan/ESPN/Ringer illustration

On December 22, 2003, the Green Bay Packers played the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football. The game itself was pretty inconsequential as far as NFL games go. Neither team had any real Super Bowl aspirations. There were no huge records that were going to be broken, and no football-related story lines to speak of. The game itself ended up being a stinker as well. The Raiders were enduring a miserable season and got walloped, 41–7, in the type of game that makes people complain about Monday night matchups—except no one was complaining about this game. The entire sports world was amazed. It became arguably the most legendary and memorable Monday night rout in the history of the NFL. The reason people talked about, and still talk about, that game is simple: grief.

Brett Favre, the quarterback of the Packers and an all-time NFL great, was playing this game not just as his team leader, but as a grieving son. His father, Irvin Favre, had died the night before of a sudden heart attack while driving in Brett’s home state of Mississippi. Within hours, Favre had addressed his teammates, letting them know about the situation and telling them that he would be playing the next night against the Raiders.

He played and was brilliant. He threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns. Of those 399 yards, 311 of them came during the first half, which saw Favre completely overwhelm the Raiders with his right-armed brilliance. The game instantly became the stuff of legend. Favre was hailed as a hero for showing up to work and being amazing at a time when no one would have begrudged him for going into a hole somewhere to hide and cry. The game was legendary not because the Packers beat the Raiders, but because Brett Favre beat grief.

I kept it in my mind how brave Brett Favre was, and how everyone remembered him for rising to the occasion and showing up for the people in his life despite a devastating loss. I kept saying it to myself: Three hundred ninety-nine yards. Three hundred ninety-nine yards. Excellence in the face of trauma. Show up. Everyone needs you. Don’t let them down.

One day in July 2021, while I was writing this book, I got a call at six in the morning. Too early to answer, I thought. But then I heard Khalika’s phone ring, too. Whoever it was had reached out to me and didn’t get me, so they reached out to her. She was completely knocked out. When I looked at my phone to see who had called, it was my sister. As soon as I saw her name as the caller, I knew my father was dead.

My father had congestive heart failure for around 20 years. A hospital stay would have been no reason for my sister’s frantic back-to-back calls. We’d done this over and over again, and the common denominator was that I’d assumed that he would always be around for a call later on. This time, my brain and my heart were doing a delicate dance with each other. They both knew what was going on, but I still had to pick up the phone and get the confirmation.

I called her back, and her voice confirmed the story: “Daddy died. He’s gone.” I didn’t stay on the phone too much longer after that. I turned to Khalika and told her, and then my body started doing whatever it wanted to.

I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t hear, and it felt like I couldn’t see. My brain wasn’t registering the things my eyes met. I looked at the TV, and my brain said, Your father died. I looked at my dog, and my brain said, Your father died. I sat on the floor for an hour, then got up and went and lay in my hammock, and eventually fell asleep. When I woke up, my friends were around me, gluing me together every second I threatened to break.

The next day, I flew back to Louisiana and began the process of laying my father to rest. I had to drive to his hometown of Maringouin, Louisiana, and pick out the box he was going to rest in. While driving on the I-10 freeway, across the Mississippi River bridge, I thought about Brett Favre’s legendary performance, and I couldn’t understand how he did it. Every single aspect of this was excruciating for me, and I wanted to quit. I wanted to write a check to someone and have all of it taken care of while I sat in my sorrow somewhere. Only I couldn’t. I’d heard from a half-dozen people about how I was “the man of the family now” and how I needed to show up. So here I was, showing up.

Legacy Lit Books

Two of my best friends were making the ride with me, and while they talked to me about old times, I kept thinking about Brett, a man who didn’t hesitate when it was time to step up for his teammates. Not only did he step up, but he had one of the greatest games of a Hall of Fame career.

Now it was my time. Everyone was watching me, and now I had to throw some touchdowns.

We got to the funeral home, and it looked just like you’d expect it to: drab, low lit, and dour. There was a spirit of death inside the place, which you’d expect because they’re in the death business. We moved into the office and began to talk about how Dad would be laid out, which casket to choose, what to say in his obituary, who to invite, and which priest would do the Catholic Mass. The conversation surrounding the death of the man who literally created me was being had very cavalierly. I lasted about 20 minutes, then I broke.

I felt my body getting ready to crack, so I ran out of the funeral home and into the South Louisiana afternoon. The air was moist and humid, a contrast from the cold and sterile environment I’d just been in. I looked out over a field and just stood there in it—grief. There was no rewind. No fast-forward. In order to meet this moment, I would have to greet this moment. A thought popped into my mind as I stood there:

Man, fuck that football game.

I had looked at what Brett Favre had done as overcoming grief, as beating it with his right arm. I thought that’s what I had to do. But when it came time for me to face the Raiders, I ran.

I went back into the room, but I legit counted the seconds until it was time to leave. I checked out totally and just went blank and numb. I wasn’t engaged and alert, like Brett had to be. Sharp and excellent, like he was that Monday night in Oakland. I was frail and small, and everyone saw it. For about a minute, I felt like a weakling. Then I remembered something: My father had died.

There’s no playbook for that. There’s no way to handle that. There’s nothing I had to do. Nothing needed to happen. Sure, he had to get buried. He had to have his cowboy hat when he died. He needed his boots and his suit. Those things had to happen, but I didn’t have to do them. If I wanted to roll up into a ball and cry, I’d earned that right from being his son for 41 years. I didn’t have any orders to follow, just feelings, and the best way to honor my father was to follow them.

The fact that Brett Favre’s game is so legendary speaks to who we want to be as humans. We want to believe that by sheer will we can transcend the most devastating things that happen to us. We want to believe that at our worst moments we can produce our best selves. We need to believe that because we know that our worst moments will never stop happening. Being human is the grief Olympics, and you get medals not for winning, but for how well you lose.

So I set out on a new journey. Not to beat grief, but to grieve well. Maybe that’s what Brett was doing after all. Maybe football, something he’d shared an immense love for with his father, was Brett’s way of saying goodbye. Maybe throwing for all those yards wasn’t him defying grief; maybe it was him surrendering to it. For me, surrendering to my grief meant making peace with some things. This was insanely difficult.

Even at my age, there are so many firsts left in my life. Now every first for me is something my father will never see. My children will never know my father. He’ll never have a cameo in a movie I produce. He’ll never come to Christmas at my home. He’ll never even see me own my own home. There’s an entire piece of me that he won’t know—which is weird, because he was one of the only human beings in the world who could say he’d been around for every piece of me.

I mourn my father. I mourn the man he was and the example he set. I mourn the rough way he communicated with people, including me. I mourn the 5,000-megawatt smile he had. Hell, I even mourn the fearmongering, uncompromising dickhead he often was. But more than any of that, I miss what we hadn’t done yet. I miss vacations we never took. Baseball games we never went to. Meals we never ate together. That’s what grief is. It’s saying goodbye to promises you never knew you wanted to make. I’ve been doing that ever since that day at the funeral home.

People from everywhere told me that I wouldn’t go a day without thinking about him, and for now they’re right. I recently got booked to do a gig in Japan, and the first thought I had was that my father never saw Japan. Make no mistake about it, my father had zero interest in seeing Japan; the very mention of sitting on a plane that long would’ve angered him to no end. But now, he’ll never go. He can’t change his mind. That whole stream of thoughts happened in about 30 seconds. It was like an emotional reflex. One that will probably be around for a little while. One that I have to make my peace with.

Van Lathan

I talk to my father now more than I ever did when he was alive. That’s a morbid and weird thing to think, and a harder one to type. As much as I revered my dad, he was hard for me to communicate with. I felt inadequate at the mere mention of him. He represented a type of manhood that I never felt like I could represent, even if I wanted to. For most of my life, it was as if we spoke two different languages, and neither one of us wanted to take classes in the way the other guy talked. After a while, we stopped attempting the translation. There was no beef per se; there just wasn’t as much warmth as I think either one of us would’ve wanted.

In the place of the warmth, there was silence, which is normally what people use as a placeholder when there’s no warmth. He was calling a lot in the months before he passed away, and we had some good conversations. Still, most of the time when he’d call, I’d find a reason to either cut the convo short or send the call to voicemail. Now it’s different. I talk to him constantly.

I took a bone-handled knife that he owned with me from Louisiana. My dad had this thing he used to do with the knife. He’d spin it on his palm, then catch it and flick it out at the same time. This was dangerous. The knife was sharp. But, man, he’d nail it every time. Of course, now that I own the knife, I’ve tried to do the same thing. I made a ritual out of it. I looked in the mirror and spun the knife, trying to wield it like the first bearer of my name. After about three times of failing, I asked for help: “Jesus, Dad, how do you do this shit?” I caught myself after I did that, looked in the mirror, and cried a little. That’s also grief. An unanswered question between father and son.

Now when I talk to my father, I say things to him that I never had the balls to say when he was alive. Even though there’s nothing coming back, the words are more than sounds—and they are just as difficult to say. I realize that as much as I miss my father now, the truth is that I’ve missed him for years. I’ve missed him since I was about 15 years old. I tell him I wish things would’ve been different with us. I tell him I’ll remember and honor him until they remember and honor me. More than anything, though, every single day, I tell my father I love him.

When I started writing this chapter I was determined to tell everyone what I’ve learned about grief. If I’m being honest, I haven’t learned that much about grieving. I have, however, learned about me. I’ve learned that I’m not the kind of guy who throws for 399 yards the day after his father passes away. I’m the guy who runs crying out of the funeral home after someone asks what kind of casket to put his dad in.

Grieving this hard has taught me what I can handle and what I owe myself. I owe myself space. Space to play football or not play football. Space to talk to Dad or be silent. Space to handle everything or handle nothing. I can’t do anything more than that, and I can’t do anything less. There’s still a tough road ahead of holidays, birthdays, weddings—all without Van Terry Lathan Sr. That’s hard. That’s final.

I can’t run from that, and I shouldn’t run toward it, either. I’ll just walk. And if you see me crying or talking to my father, gimme some space.

This chapter is excerpted from Fat, Crazy, and Tired: Tales from the Trenches of Transformation by Van Lathan, Jr., which is available for purchase on April 26. Copyright © 2022 by Van Lathan. Reprinted with permission of Legacy Lit Books. All rights reserved.

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