The story behind the most memorable NFL Draft Day photo
On the morning of the 1991 NFL Draft, Tim Isbell drove an unpaved road deep into the pine woods of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Biloxi Sun Herald photographer kept driving until he reached a ranch-style house a model post away from a body of water known as Rotten Bayou.
When Isbell arrived at Brett Favre’s childhood home, the family mess was already racing. Dozens of guests devoured boiled shellfish, sipped cold beer and debated which NFL team would select the rocket-armed quarterback from southern Mississippi.
Irvin and Bonita Favre pointed to coolers and the seafood buffet at Isbell, but the photographer explained he didn’t come to eat or drink. Instead, he asked permission to follow their son, who was locked in his wood-panelled bedroom, watching the draft and playing Nintendo video games.
“I wanted to make 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 take his eyes off me.”
Isbell estimates he waited on Brett Favre’s bedroom floor for more than five hours before his patience was rewarded. When Favre learned that the Atlanta Falcons intended to place him 33rd overall, Isbell snapped an iconic photo that to this day is spotlighted on television or shared on social networks and even inspired a #1 overall pick to recreate it in a memorable way.
For Isbell, the image still resonates because it’s the antithesis of the typical NFL green room photo of a player dressed in a dapper suit and seated with his family around a delicate round table. The photo of Favre in jort and lying on his crib makes people laugh and captures the innocence of a future superstar.
It’s not just Favre’s mid-thigh roll-up denim shorts that are quintessentially 1991. Everything in the photo screams early 1990s, from Favre’s big cordless phone to the homemade “NFL Draft Day” t-shirts. of his family, to the posters of Dave Parker and John Elway hanging on his walls.
“The great thing about this photo is that it gave people so much joy and laughter,” Isbell said. “So many journalism photos are so serious and dark. It’s nice to know that people can latch on to something funny too.
For Isbell, the opportunity to photograph Favre’s draft party was a plum mission. While the fiercely competitive fast pitcher had yet to become a Super Bowl champion or an NFL MVP in 1991, he was already a larger-than-life figure in his home country.
He’s a kid who landed the last available scholarship from USM, then won the program’s starting quarterback as a true freshman; who played well enough as a sophomore and junior to catch the eye of NFL scouts, then quickly flipped his Nissan Maxima and nearly killed himself; who rebounded to help lead the Golden Eagles to an upset 27-24 win over Alabama five weeks after bowel surgery and being 30 pounds underweight.
Many fictional drafts projected Favre as a first-round pick in the 1991 draft, but concerns over his accuracy and health caused him to slip. When the Seattle Seahawks selected San Diego State’s Dan McGwire with the 17th pick, Isbell recalled 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 pretty confident in his abilities already,” Isbell said. “He couldn’t believe he wasn’t the first quarterback taken.”
Favre’s phone finally started ringing at the start of the second round. New York Jets director of player personnel Ron Wolf coveted Favre at No. 34. The problem was that the Atlanta Falcons also wanted him an earlier pick.
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 call from the Falcons,” Isbell said with a laugh.
Of course, Favre took that call. And Isbell captured the joyful moment on film. He already had his camera ready and ready as Favre’s family and friends still crowded into the quarterback’s room.
Isbell’s photo ran the sports section of the Sun Herald the next morning, but he had no idea it would have a long-lasting impact. In fact, Isbell didn’t even have it in his wallet until over a decade later, when he turned on the ESPN radio in his car and perked up when he heard Scott Van Pelt dissect the details of his photo.
“I heard the word ‘jorts’ coming,” Isbell said. “All my life I didn’t know what jorts were. Once I got back to the newspaper, I had to google it.
Since then, Isbell’s Favre photo has become virtually unmissable for football fans at 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 Julien Edelman redo the picture with his face on Favre’s body. Darren Rovell called him the “greatest draft photo of all time”.
The most memorable recreation of Isbell’s Favre photo was the one made by Baker Mayfield and his family on the eve of the 2018 draft. The Mayfield clan went to great lengths to iron out every detail, donning wigs and replicas of homemade shirts, tracking down an old-fashioned cordless phone and camcorder and even covering the paneled walls with similar photos and bumper stickers.
The recreated photo of Mayfield drew instant praise on social media, even from Favre himself. Wrote the 11-time all-pro quarterback“Good luck tonight…and don’t forget to send my Jorts back tomorrow.”
This stunt helped cement Isbell that he will forever be known as the guy who took that Photo by Brett Favre. Isbell published many other important photographs in his three decades as a photojournalist on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but none of his other photos are more appreciated or known.
“When I’m dead and gone, I think they’ll still show that photo,” Isbell said.
Isbell and Favre have discussed the infamy of the draft day photo over the years, but the photographer hopes their paths will cross again someday. He has an 11×14 print that he would like Favre to autograph and pose with for a photo.
Said Isbell with a chuckle, “I think we both realize we’re bonded for eternity because of that picture.” So I would like to have a souvenir.