How is it possible that Brett Favre has never played in Washington, not at RFK, not at FedEx Field, not in the preseason, not the regular season, not the playoffs? How dare the quirky NFL scheduling system give Washington the Atlanta Falcons and the sad-sack Detroit Lions so many times over the years, but never the indestructible and incandescent Favre?
It's our loss not to have had him here for 14 years, to have seen him only from a great distance through an unprecedented three MVP seasons and two Super Bowl seasons, the first of which produced a championship.
It's crazy that Favre's extraordinary show has played in Indianapolis and Jacksonville but not here. So tomorrow afternoon figures to be his first, last and only appearance in Washington, the one chance for folks here to see not just a quarterback who ranks among the NFL's top five all-time in victories, touchdown passes and winning percentage, but something even rarer: an NFL superstar.
There aren't many of them. In fact, you don't even need 10 fingers to count the NFL players who could just as easily be featured in People Magazine as Sports Illustrated: Favre, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. That's about it, and only Favre has made a big enough pop culture impression to be featured in a movie, "There's Something About Mary." Yes, Brady has twice as many Super Bowl rings, but it's Favre who brings to the field every Sunday the best of Cal Ripken and the best of Roger Staubach.
It's Favre who for 14 seasons has outrun linebackers, head-butted Warren Sapp, fired passes between cornerbacks and safeties with such daring they were too stunned to react. It's Favre who has avoided pass rushers as if he had eyes in the back of his head, Favre who commands a huddle like General Patton and played the final minutes of 30 or so fourth quarters like Indiana Jones negotiating the Temple of Doom.
Lately, part of what endears Favre to us even more has to do with negotiating the complexities of human drama. It has been 10 months of personal trauma we wouldn't wish on anybody, from the pre-Christmas death of his father, Irv, to the fatal ATV accident on Oct. 6 of his brother-in-law, Casey Tynes, to this week's revelation that his wife, Deanna, will undergo chemotherapy to fight breast cancer.
Yes, the guy down the block could have equal tragedy in his life but doesn't have to deal with it publicly, doesn't have to play the Raiders on national TV Monday night before burying his 58-year-old father, having just gotten the news a day or so before.
You didn't have to be a Packers fan, or know much of anything about Favre, to have your eyes grow a little moist that Monday night last Dec. 22 when he threw for four touchdowns and nearly 400 yards in that 41-7 victory over the Raiders. You didn't have to be a Cheesehead to feel Favre brought honor not just to his own father that night, but to every son who lost his first throw-and-catch partner.
Fact is, the sportsmen we find most irresistible are the ones who stand a little taller in the pocket, so to speak, the ones who play hurt and inspire teammates and pat the opponent on the helmet after a good lick. That he can do it while mourning his father or in the midst of his wife's crises only humanizes him. It's no wonder, in a sport where helmets hide faces and the league makes certain the uniform is the consistent attraction, that Favre in the 2003 and 2004 Harris Poll surveys of sports fans, finished No. 3 as the nation's favorite sports figure behind Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
Washington will surely understand if nobody outside the metropolitan area is rooting for the Redskins on Sunday when the Packers visit. Overwhelmingly, they'll be rooting, if not for the Packers, then for Favre. "The adversity that I and my family have faced, not only last year but this year," he said in a conference call the other day, "has easily surpassed the adversity that a person would face on a football field. It certainly brings into perspective and prioritizes life in general . . . Unfortunately . . . it takes a tragic or personal setback to put those things into perspective . . . When things happen like that to you, studying film, preparing for this defense or trying to get the team back on track is important, but it seems secondary."
Favre, like a great many athletes, finds the field to be a haven, the place he can temporarily shut out everything and do what he does best. And because he is as important to the Packers as any quarterback is to any team since John Elway was to Denver in his prime, Favre's teammates seem to sense when he's vulnerable emotionally and rally around him. When Favre makes his 196th consecutive regular season start Sunday, despite a sprained right wrist, it figures he'll play well because he almost always does.
The toughness Favre has exhibited is both physical and mental. Troy Aikman, the former Cowboys quarterback and now the top analyst on Fox network broadcasts of NFL games, said of Favre: "You can't compile a list that's foolproof, but of the important criteria you're looking for in a quarterback I think you have to begin with the ability to be accurate throwing the ball and you have to be extremely tough to play the position. I'm not talking about the streak of games, specifically, because there are injuries you cannot play through at times. But I'm talking about a mental toughness. It's a high-pressure job, playing quarterback. And when I think about Brett's attributes, I think first and foremost about his toughness, his love of the game and his passion for competition."
Aikman, who has been retired since 2000, had a long talk with Favre recently. "He told me I look like I could still play, and I told him I cannot take the hits and come back the next week," Aikman said. "And he told me, 'I've always got something wrong with me now, but my ace in the hole has always been my arm. I've never lost my arm strength. My arm is there for me. My arm has bailed me out of a lot of jams.' "
It's the arm, of course, that makes other quarterbacks, even great ones, jealous. It's the arm that allows Favre to fire 40 yards downfield while backpedaling. It's the arm that catches a safety off guard when it looks like he's got the receiver covered. It's the arm that gets Favre in trouble when he throws interceptions into triple-coverage. But it's that golden arm that is still firing (13 touchdowns, six interceptions this season) even though Favre just turned 35.
But as Aikman pointed out, the arm is attached to a body and mind that are as tough as elephant hide. Favre doesn't wilt, doesn't ever give in, even when his team is demanding he lead them at the same time his wife or his mother needs him. The Redskins, to beat the Packers, have to figure out how to beat Brett Favre. And it's that struggle, at last, that will play out here.