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Brett Favre: the hero without the happy ending

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By John Feinstein
Monday, January 25, 2010

Perhaps the best way to describe the football career of Brett Favre is to say that he has come to embody Hamlet, Shakespeare's greatest and most famous character.

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There is no doubting that Favre is heroic. That was never more evident than in the fourth quarter of Sunday's NFC Championship game, when he hobbled in and out of the Minnesota Vikings' huddle but somehow managed to keep back-pedaling and scrambling away from pass rushers to throw laser beam passes while getting knocked down by the New Orleans Saints again and again.

He is also tragically flawed -- the word "tragic" being limited to the context of football. For all the spectacular numbers Favre has put together during his remarkable career, he has won as many Super Bowls as Mark Rypien and Doug Williams and played in as many as Joe Theismann. Oh sure, Peyton Manning's numbers are exactly the same at the moment, and Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl. But none of them ever failed as dramatically as Favre has the last two times he reached the brink of a Super Bowl.

Certainly none retired and un-retired or considered and reconsidered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune -- and football -- the way Favre has in recent years.

Favre has always been a gunslinger, the guy who thinks he can make every pass, who sees three defenders in his way and believes they represent an opportunity to thread the ball perfectly to a surrounded receiver. That's why his seven interceptions this season entering the championship game were perhaps as amazing as any statistic he has posted in his career.

Two years ago, at the age of 38, Favre not only was the NFL's MVP; he was Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. But shortly after accepting that award, he threw an overtime interception in overtime against the New York Giants, who converted the mistake into a conference title-winning field goal.

That was Favre's last pass as a Packer.

The next six months had more twists than even Shakespeare might have imagined. He tearfully retired. He un-retired. He threatened to show up at Packers training camp whether they wanted him there or not. He showed up. He left. He demanded to be traded to the Vikings. He was exiled to New York.

Favre did everything but stand on a darkened stage and say, "To play or not to play, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to desert Green Bay for Minnesota or settle for New York . . . "

He finally landed with the Jets, a romance that lasted 11 weeks until an injury to Favre's arm and a bevy of interception blew up the Jets' season. This time he retired on a conference call. Perhaps out of the goodness of their hearts, perhaps out of naïveté, perhaps because they absolutely didn't want him back, the Jets allowed him to retire without retaining any future rights to him.

"Get thee to Minneapolis!"

The speculation that Favre would then join the Vikings started about 15 minutes after Retirement II was announced. His agent provided what felt like hourly updates through mouthpiece members of the media. At one point -- seriously -- ESPN exclusively reported for three straight days that Favre's agent had told them that Favre hadn't made up his mind. Favre had gone from Hall of Fame quarterback to Hall of Fame punch line.


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