Favre's Star Power
When it comes to recognition, the NFL prefers its players to fall somewhere between low profile and anonymous, the easier to stage replacement games if necessary and the better to let other leagues, like the NBA, deal with guaranteed contracts. But Brett Favre, for most of his 17 years in the league, was the grand exception, instantly and unmistakably identifiable. Part of it had to be the premature gray that puts you in mind of George Clooney, who simply must be the one to portray Favre on the screen, if it ever comes to that.
Favre isn't retiring as the greatest quarterback in the history of the league; Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and John Elway, among others, would rank ahead of him on any credible list of greatest quarterbacks. But Favre has been as identifiable as any of the above at any time, on the field and off it. It helped that he played in Green Bay, the smallest but most pro football-obsessed community in America. It helped that he won a Super Bowl fairly early in his career, that he butted heads with opposing defensive linemen who wanted to eat him for lunch and jumped into the arms of offensive linemen like some eighth-grade boy in the schoolyard.
It helped that he was part Cal Ripken and part Mickey Mantle, that he carried that Mississippi accent all the way up to Dairyland, where the Cheeseheads found that a guy from a tiny town near the Gulf of Mexico isn't all that different from guys living in a tiny frozen town on a bay off Lake Michigan. It helped that Favre walked around that flannel kind of town without a posse or bodyguards, usually wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. It helped that he was a guy who played the night after his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack and cried when his wife learned she had breast cancer and dealt publicly with something as embarrassing as being addicted to painkillers.
It helped that not many football players get a larger-than-cameo role in a hit movie as "Fa-Vre" did in "There's Something About Mary." Any way you cut it, Favre was a huge, huge star in a league that is so star-averse it has a rule that prohibits players from removing their helmets on the field. Of course, none of it would have mattered a lick if Favre couldn't play, but he could-- to the degree that the history of the NFL absolutely cannot be written without him.
Every meaningful record a quarterback can have, Favre retired with Tuesday, presuming you really and truly believe he isn't coming back. No quarterback has started more consecutive games. No quarterback has won more games, thrown more passes, completed more passes, passed for more yards or touchdowns -- or thrown more interceptions -- than Brett Favre. And nobody has won three straight MVP awards -- not Jim Brown, not Roger Staubach, not Tom Brady, nobody.
Okay, Favre didn't win four championships, like Montana or Terry Bradshaw. He didn't lead his team to five Super Bowls, like Elway, or even win three like Troy Aikman or Brady, who still has time to win enough games to sit at the big table with Graham, Unitas, Montana and Elway. He didn't win a historic game the way Joe Willie Namath did. But he was out there every single game, not in a dome or the South Florida sun but in the snow and freezing cold without gloves, an athlete in the mold of Fran Tarkenton and a gunslinger of a passer who could have played in the American Football League.
By all rights, being a Chicago boy who lives and dies with the Bears, I should have hated Favre all these years because the Packers, and for that matter all the Cheeseheads, are to us what the Yanks are to the Sawx -- and vice versa -- but I couldn't. Favre was too good, had too great a flair for the dramatic, was too honest on the days when he stunk up the joint. Cheesehead or not, I found myself, the older he got, cheering for him, probably the way Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden gave it up for Michael Jordan, because not many football players can operate at a level where they could put on a show as consistently as Favre could. If Warren Sapp and Michael Strahan, who were paid to rip off Favre's head, came to love him even as they chased him around for more than a decade, how could the rest of us not find him irresistible?
Okay, the praise got to be a little much after that 2003 Monday night game following the death of his father, Big Irv. We in the media can overdo anything. As magical as the night was, one would have thought Favre was the only player to ever perform immediately following the death of a loved one, which in reality happens somewhere in the league at least once every season. It became fashionable to let Favre slide after bad games, of which there were many in three of his last four seasons. Praise was heaped when Favre made a simple dump-off pass; there was silence when he threw up one of the wounded ducks, like the one that appears now to be the final pass of his career.
Favre was too good to be praised when he didn't deserve it. Maybe that, too, is evidence of how good a player he once was, especially when he and Reggie White led the Packers to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1996 season.
What saved the story's ending is the way Favre played the 2007 season, without the taint of something like "Spygate" and without the ego-driven theater that now accompanies so much of what the Cowboys do.
But it's the "ending" that makes the retirement fairly stunning, and leads to questions about how final his decision is. The Packers are legitimately good again, talented enough at running back, along the offensive line and on defense that Favre doesn't have to carry the team. There's evidence he might have been willing to come back had the Packers stacked the deck with personnel the way the Patriots did last season. That would suggest that Favre still wants to play, that he's still thinking not only about playing, but winning. And if he's feeling that way now, it's fair and natural to wonder if Favre, come late summer, will be able to resist doing something he's done marvelously for so long, something that made him that rarest of athletes -- an icon of professional football.