Hayseed Turned Diva

By Mike Wise
Thursday, August 7, 2008

There should be a manual for sporting deities called "How to Step Away Gracefully," written by maybe Nolan Ryan or Jim Brown or Larry Bird, and it should be a must-read for every icon like Brett Favre before he retires. Because this unseemly saga that pushed into early this morning, with Broadway Brett headed to the New York Jets, severely damaged the myth of the heart-on-his-sleeve hayseed who restored glory to Green Bay.

Each telenovela with Greta Van Susteren, each new text message to "Mort" or some other soul whom Favre believed would buy his sorrowful tale of being wronged by a team he voluntarily retired from, deeply hurt the small-town fable of one of the most exciting, unpredictable players in modern NFL history.

Favre, in weeks, has morphed from the go-long-till-you-hit-the-barn legend of Kiln, Miss. -- a real-life Wrangler jeans commercial -- into the old guy who now needs the game more than it needs him.

The most lauded and legendary Packer since Vince Lombardi will show up in New York any second now, the way Johnny Unitas showed up in San Diego after Baltimore, throwing passes to the other team. Or the way Michael Jordan showed up in Washington after Chicago, icing his knees and his ego before he ruined his ending.

Willie Mays emerged in the New York Mets outfield at 41, chasing an athletic prime he could never run down the way he ran down Vic Wertz's deep shot to center field in the 1954 World Series.

After Mays fell down clumsily in the outfield in his last season with the Mets, blinded by the glare of the sun, the Say Hey Kid said, "Growing old is just a helpless hurt."

How Favre must feel that ache today, mostly the pain from having no idea what to do with his existence after leaving the grandest stage an athlete can imagine.

Whatever happened with Favre, it was certain to be emotional, and it was going to be out there for everyone to see. Everything about his career and life has been emotional and public.

Favre's early addiction to painkillers, his father dying before a Monday night game in 2003, his wife's battle against breast cancer, even his mother's house being demolished by Hurricane Katrina, have preceded a tearful, genuine man letting us into his world. Via television, Favre might have cried in our living rooms more than family members.

As differences became irreconcilable in Green Bay, paving the way for the Packers' trade with the Jets, it's hard to decide whether his behavior reflects an egotistical gunslinger who can't stand someone else stepping into his limelight or whether he's merely a sweet, immature kid -- 38 going on 18 -- who suddenly realized he hasn't made any plans to be a retired legend. Maybe he's lost at sea, this tortured Hamlet character, fighting himself internally as much as he was fighting the Packers.

Maybe it's a little of each. Either way, Favre has got to know his decision to play again has affected more people than himself.

He has preempted Green Bay's offseason, Aaron Rodgers's development and, inexplicably, part of Darrell Green's Hall of Fame induction speech on the NFL Network. He caused a minor distraction in Tampa, where, correct me if I'm wrong, the Buccaneers have a quarterback who went to the Pro Bowl last season, and now a major one in New York, where Chad Pennington will need to find a new employer and the growth of potential starter Kellen Clemens will undeniably be retarded by Brettmania.

But of course Pennington and Clemens are supposed to make way for Favre, the way Favre expected Rodgers, the Packers and the NFL to make room for him again.

See, Favre is not just making a cameo in "There's Something About Mary" this offseason, he's the lead in "It's All About Brett," and the protagonist is a guy who has no use for the needs of the many or even the few. He's out for the one.

This is harsh because it hits home, because Favre stood for everything the approaching- or over-40 jock represented -- the guile and grit, how he impressed upon the kids that their boundless athleticism alone can't get the job done.

He was George Foreman dropping Michael Moorer to recapture the heavyweight title he lost to Muhammad Ali more than 20 years earlier, Ryan throwing his seventh no-hitter at age 44.

Favre played masterfully last season, flinging passes and touchdowns from all angles, escaping doom weekly, playing Indiana Jones like he had for two decades. He turned back time the way Jimmy Connors belied his age at the 1991 U.S. Open, beating back a 24-year-old kid named Aaron Krickstein in a five-set heirloom to make the quarterfinals at age 39.

But when the general manager everyone is excoriating for how he has mistreated Favre puts the defense and skill offensive players around an aging quarterback for one last run, and Favre can't deliver in the frozen tundra of the NFC title game -- against Eli Manning, no less -- well, memo to No. 4:

You had your shot. A young, unproven Giants team in freezing temperatures on your own field with a shot to go to the Super Bowl is as good as it's going to get.

Ted Thompson and the Packers, no question, should have handled a transplanted civic treasure like Favre with more couth and class. Knowing Favre's history as an emotional, impulsive guy, how do they not have a Plan B in case their Hall of Famer in waiting wants to come back?

And Favre isn't done physically. Magic came back to the Lakers after his HIV-induced first retirement, faking Latrell Sprewell out of his jock the very first night at the Forum, making all the old-school cats proud about putting the young, disrespectful kid in his place. Same with Jordan, the night he pinned Jerry Stackhouse's layup try against the glass.

But they both came across as out-of-touch geezers at the end, whose respect among their teammates waned -- so much so that not one of Jordan's Wizards teammates wanted to chip in on a retirement gift.

We don't get to write the final act for the great ones. It's their ending, not ours. And if they want to scratch that itch -- no matter how inglorious it is for us to watch -- so be it. It's their right.

And although imagining him in a Jets jersey seems out of kilter now, Favre will still be fascinating to watch in New York, breaking free, rolling out, considering possibilities no offensive guru imagined. He seems forever trying to pull off the saw-the-lady-in-half trick. More often than not, she comes out in one piece. But every now and then, the career interception leader ruins the magic and the memories.

Here's hoping that doesn't happen with the Jets and the unforgiving environment that goes with playing pro ball in Gotham. Especially to Brett Favre.

Before the messy breakup with the Packers, Favre stood for something in a greed-driven sports landscape. His back story was too authentic, it seemed, to ruin the go-long myth.

Blame Favre. Blame Green Bay. But foremost, blame the addictive lure of the game and its accompanying fame. That's an intoxicating cocktail for any elite athlete, even a homespun legend from Kiln, Miss., who couldn't give either up before his final act as Broadway Brett.

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