On the morning of the 1991 NFL draft, Tim Isbell followed an unpaved road deep into the piney woods of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Biloxi Sun Herald photographer kept driving until he reached a ranch-style house a post pattern away from a stretch of water known as Rotten Bayou.
When Isbell arrived at Brett Favre’s childhood home, the family’s draft party was already revving up. Dozens of guests were devouring boiled shellfish, sipping cold beer and debating which NFL team would select the rocket-armed Southern Mississippi quarterback.
Irvin and Bonita Favre pointed out the coolers and the seafood smorgasbord to Isbell, but the photographer explained he didn’t come to eat or drink. He instead asked permission to shadow their son, who was holed up in his wood-paneled bedroom monitoring the draft and playing Nintendo video games.
“I wanted to be sure I was there when he got the call,” Isbell told Yahoo Sports. “Until he was drafted, other than going to the bathroom, Brett didn’t get out of my sight.”
Isbell estimates he waited on the floor of Brett Favre’s bedroom for more than five hours before his patience was rewarded. When Favre learned the Atlanta Falcons intended to take him 33rd overall, Isbell snapped an iconic photo that to this day gets spotlighted on TV or shared on social media and even inspired one No. 1 overall pick to memorably recreate it.
To Isbell, the image still resonates because it’s the antithesis of the typical NFL green room shot of a player clad in a dapper suit and seated with his family around a dainty round table. The picture of Favre wearing jorts and reclining on his childhood bed makes people laugh and captures the innocence of a future superstar.
It’s not just Favre’s rolled-up, mid-thigh jean shorts that are quintessentially 1991. Everything about the photo screams early 1990s, from Favre’s chunky cordless phone, to his family’s homemade “NFL Draft Day” T-shirts, to the posters of Dave Parker and John Elway hanging from his walls.
“The great thing about that photo is that it has given people so much joy and laughter,” Isbell said. “So many journalism photos are so serious and somber. It’s nice to know that people can latch onto something funny too.”
For Isbell, the opportunity to photograph Favre’s draft party was a plum assignment. While the fastball-throwing, fiercely competitive gunslinger hadn’t yet blossomed into a Super Bowl champion or an NFL MVP in 1991, he was already a larger-than-life figure in his home state.
This is a kid who landed USM’s last available scholarship and then won the program’s starting quarterback job as a true freshman; who played well enough as a sophomore and junior to draw the attention of NFL scouts, and then promptly flipped his Nissan Maxima and nearly killed himself; who bounced back to help lead the Golden Eagles to a 27-24 upset victory over Alabama five weeks removed from intestinal surgery and 30 pounds underweight.
Many mock drafts projected Favre as a first-round pick in the 1991 draft, but concerns about his accuracy and his health caused him to slip. When the Seattle Seahawks selected Dan McGwire from San Diego State with the 17th pick, Isbell recalls Favre derisively saying, “Dan McGwire?” Favre’s reaction was similar eight picks later when the Los Angeles Raiders nabbed Todd Marinovich from USC.
“Brett was already pretty confident in his abilities,” Isbell said. “He couldn’t believe that he wasn’t the first quarterback taken.”
Favre’s phone finally began ringing early in the second round. New York Jets director of player personnel Ron Wolf coveted Favre at 34th overall. Trouble was the Atlanta Falcons also wanted him one pick earlier.
During their phone conversation, Favre revealed to Wolf that the Falcons were calling on his other line.
“Ron Wolf told him not to answer the Falcons’ call,” Isbell said with a laugh.
Of course, Favre did take that call. And Isbell captured the joyous moment on film. He already had his camera poised and ready while Favre’s family and friends were still crowding into the quarterback’s bedroom.
Isbell’s photo led the Sun Herald sports section the next morning, but he had no inkling that it would have longstanding impact. In fact, Isbell didn’t even have it in his portfolio until more than a decade later when he flipped on ESPN radio in his car and perked up when he heard Scott Van Pelt dissecting the details of his photo.
“I heard the word ‘jorts’ come up,” Isbell said. “For the life of me, I didn’t know what jorts were. Once I got back to the paper, I had to Google it.”
Ever since then, Isbell’s Favre photo has become virtually unavoidable for football fans this time of year. Every April, it resurfaces on social media, on TV or even on ESPN’s live NFL Draft show itself. Former college quarterback Julian Edelman remade the photo with his face on Favre’s body. Darren Rovell has called it the “Greatest Draft Day Photo Of All Time.”
The most memorable recreation of Isbell’s Favre photo was the one done by Baker Mayfield and his family on the eve of the 2018 draft. The Mayfield clan went to great lengths to get every detail right, donning wigs and replica homemade draft shirts, tracking down an old-school cordless phone and camcorder and even plastering the wood-paneled walls with similar photos and bumper stickers.
“There are those people who are in your corner no matter what, you can’t do any wrong, even when you do wrong. And then there are those people that no matter what you do they’re going to dislike you and that’s not going to change.” - Brett Favre #DraftEve #MMO pic.twitter.com/6bCE9SxqI6
— Baker Mayfield (@bakermayfield) April 26, 2018
Mayfield’s recreated photo drew instant praise on social media — even from Favre himself. Wrote the 11-time all-pro quarterback: “Good luck tonight....and remember to send my Jorts back tomorrow.”
That stunt helped cement for Isbell that he’ll forever be known as the guy who took that Brett Favre photo. Isbell has published many more significant photographs in three decades as a photojournalist on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but none of his other photos are more beloved or well-known.
“When I’m dead and gone, I think they’ll still show that picture,” Isbell said.
Isbell and Favre have discussed the infamy of the draft day photo in passing over the years, but the photographer hopes their paths will cross again someday. He has an 11x14 print that he’d love Favre to autograph and pose with for a picture.
Says Isbell with a chuckle, “I think we both realize we are linked for eternity because of that photo. So I’d love to have a keepsake.”