Cast your mind back, way back. To a time before cellphone ubiquity, before the advent of email and the Internet. History had just ended, Dan Quayle was our nation's vice president, and William Jefferson Clinton still a relative unknown when Brett Lorenzo Favre started his first game for the Green Bay Packers on September 20, 1992. Fifteen years later just about everything has changed, both within the NFL and the world at large, but number 4 remains a constant. Every fall, rest assured, he will appear in the northern firmament at least 16 times bathed in Green and Gold.
During his unprecedented 258-game streak the native Mississippian won three consecutive MVP's and a Super Bowl and earned All-Pro honors six times, so the legend has grown. But ESPN columnist Patrick Hruby, among others, has had enough. Before turning fiercely anti-Brett, he begins his Monday blog entry thusly: "Usually good. Sometimes great. Always plays. Loves football." Any sportswriter or fan who cannot understand widespread appreciation for an NFL quarterback to whom these descriptions apply must be something of a failure at both. For are these not the very qualities we prize? I do. And these four phrases encapsulate Favre's career: He is usually good; although sometimes bad, he is also sometimes great; the man always, always plays; and last but not least he loves football with an abiding, joyous exuberance.
But Hruby is unimpressed and goes on to explain how Favre is neither a metaphorical raging against the dying of the light or some great bulwark against creeping metrosexuality, as the experts would have you believe. (Where are you getting this excreta, Pat?) After informing us that no quarterback in NFL history has won more games than Favre, without a trace of irony Hruby adds that the Green Bay QB has “long been more myth than man.” This is wrong-headed in more ways than one.
See, Favre's very appeal lies in his humanity, his shortcomings. He's the anti-myth, the everyman hero. Jordan and Federer, Woods and Gretzky. These guys are epic, mythic, more god than man: stunningly, deeply and diversely skilled athletes who at their best cannot be beat and at their worst are still a joy to watch because they are better at their job than anyone has ever been. Supermen. Geniuses, if you will. Brett's no genius; he's a holy fool, with a rocket arm, a bayou-sized ticker, and little else. The tale of his career is one of overcoming faults and adversity and bumbling, in fits and starts, towards glory.
In his rookie year, 1991, Atlanta coach Jerry Glanville tarred Favre as a partier after he repeatedly stumbled hungover into practice. Favre burped and farted and cracked jokes and Glanville famously claimed that only a plane crash would get the rowdy southerner into the game. Glanville might've regretted not keeping his word: Favre's first NFL pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown (sometime in the next few weeks, in fact, Favre will replace George Blanda as the all-time interceptions leader). In the routine physical examination after Favre was traded to Green Bay the following off-season Packers' doctors found Favre had the same degenerative hip condition that ended Bo Jackson's career. Packers GM Ron Wolf was advised to void the trade, but refused. A few months later Favre's first pass as a Packer became his first career reception, for a 7-yard loss.
Indeed, unlike many of the great ones, Brett Favre does not make quarterbacking look easy. He makes it look difficult. Nigh impossible, in fact. You won't find any of Tom Brady's cool customer or Peyton Manning's full-bodied confidence here; watching Favre one appreciates the anxiety that is part and parcel with staring down angry, hard-charging 250-lb. men for a living. He taps his feet and fingers in the huddle. He appears tense while under center and makes his audibles peculiarly obvious. The ball is snapped and Brett drops back to become the tin man, all herky-jerky -- bobbing, juking, twitchy-eyed. If he doesn't get rid of the ball within a few seconds he will start hopping and consider an exit strategy. A bad decision is imminent and it is here that any true fan -- and I've been a Packer fan since I could burp – begins to wince and readies a moan. A defensive lineman lunges at Favre, clasps his torso but somehow Brett twists away and after a quick peak down field fires a dart into triple coverage. The ball is tipped by a defender, smacks off the shoulder pads of a receiver, pops high into the air and lands just out of the reach of a diving safety. Then it's back to the huddle to start over again. "Look at this guy!" thinks the armchair QB, the former high school athlete, beer in hand. "If he can do it, so can I. I could do that."
Yet he plays with his heart on his shoulder pads. When he's happy, he's overjoyed, and viewers have borne repeated witness to his infectious, childlike glee. Sprinting 50 yards to tackle a teammate in the end zone. Running thirty yards cross-field with arms raised after a game-winning TD pass. Double, triple fist pumps and chest-bumping teammates after a 2nd quarter touchdown. The day after his father, Irv, passed away in 2003, Brett punctuated 399 yards passing and four touchdowns with bouts of sideline weeping.
Fiery and shaky and occasionally oops-a-daisy, Favre's open-hearted, nerve-jangling style makes first downs cause for celebration. Yet despite a catalog of minor and not-so-minor injuries, an addiction to painkillers, near divorce, and countless family tragedies (the NY Times recounted Favre's off-the-field troubles Sunday), over the years they have arrived with some regularity. Now, almost inexplicably, Favre has become the winningest QB of all time, with several major passing records in his pocket and more on the horizon. Perhaps more any other contemporary professional athlete, he personifies that most appealing of sports contradictions: regular, imperfect guy turned larger-than-life hero.
So, Pat, do me a favor. Try to forget everything you've read or heard or imagined about Brett Favre over the years and just watch. Watch this gray-haired ancient mariner stroll onto the field in his patented bandy-legged strut. Watch him trash talk opposing defenders. Watch him go a little gooey under pressure. Watch him jump up and down like a teenager and chest bump teammates after a touchdown. Knowing it won't be another decade and a half before he hangs up his cleats, watch this guy play football and ask yourself: how does he make you feel?
I bet you'll like what you find.