Though I am not a huge NFL fan (that love affair ended years ago when the league supported Fat Bastard Bud Adams in his theft of the Oilers and relocation to Tennessee...), but there are a few players and personalities I like to watch when I have the opportunity.
And now, the opportunity to watch perhaps my favorite ever NFL players is no more, as Brett Favre, longtime Packers QB, has announced he is retiring from the game.
I'll not waste time describing Favre's records (which are both many in number and staggering in scope), nor will I recite a litany of great moments from his illustrious career, Instead, I'll simply talk about the one thing that always made Favre so fun to watch, so fun to cheer for, so fun to point to and say "that's what sports is about."
It wasn't his arm, though by god that man could make pigskin fly like few ever seen. There are other QBs who boast flashier completion percentages or fewer intercepts or better QB ratings, but there are basically none who have spent a career threading impossible needles, making throws that no other QB would even attempt, much complete.
It wasn't his feet, though the typical Favre highlight always seems to include #4 slipping some onslaught of rushers, skipping to the side, and then firing a leather laser beam into the hands of some receiver who caught the ball purely in self defense lest it shatter his helmet.
It wasn't his head, as Favre was long maddening to watch (or coach, I would guess) for his tendency to make odd decisions, to force the ball into tight coverage rather than try a less risky play. The fact that he somehow made these dumb decisions work out right more often than not surely helps mitigate this aspect of his career, but let's not mince words: Favre often succeeded in spite of his decisions rather than because of them.
No, the thing that I always loved about Favre, always envied and adored and will now miss forever, was his heart. Heat, snow, rain, sun, fog, frogs and locusts-- it didn't matter the conditions or the situation: if Favre was on the field you knew he was going to be doing everything a human being could do to try and drag his team to victory. The Roman statesman Cicero once wrote "Where there is life, there is hope," and I can think of few other athletes who have ever personified that statement so clearly, so perfectly.
For 17 years Favre would just keep coming. No matter how banged up he got the week before, no matter what aches and dents and bruises and sprains and fractures he picked up while battling in the colosseum, Favre would just gear up and come back for more. It's hard to fully appreciate this number, but let's try: Favre started a NFL record 275 consecutive games at quarterback -- that's more than 16 straight regular seasons worth of games. Sixteen seasons.Sixteen seasons in which he was the undisputed marked man, the primary target in a hyper-violent nationally televised version of "kill the man with the ball," yet somehow he just keep getting up and coming back, play after play, week after week, year after year, until it became so normal that most folks started to take it as a given: just Favre being Favre.
His endurance and durability will likely never be seen again in the NFL at his position, but even more than the physical toughness I am speaking of a mental and emotional toughness. A quiet non-braggadocious sense that nobody was ever going to intimidate or out-tough him.
My favorite Favre memory is ironically one of his shortest and "easiest" passes. Christmas Eve, 1995: the Packers are down 4 to the Steelers late in the game, and again Favre is doing his thing, rallying the Packers back from the brink of defeat, leading the offense to the brink of the endzone, when three Steeler defenders break through and flatten Favre as he rushes to get off a pass attempt. That pass sails wide -- incomplete -- but Favre stood in a beat too long and takes the full impact of that trio of would-be tacklers. He hits the ground like he's hit by a bus. The trainers carry him off the field as his backup comes in for one ineffective snap, then Favre, still reeling and actually for-real no-bullshit spitting up blood from that previous impact, limps back to the huddle, calls a play, and lifts a one-yard pass to wide-open tight end Mark Chmura to give the Packers the come from behind win which sealed the division title and sent them to the playoffs. His team goes nuts, but Favre just winces and nods as he turns to head back to the bench, in too much pain even to lift his arms in celebration.
Life is often unfair, and usually difficult. Too often we see people fail, or let us down, or cut and run while pointing fingers and making excuses. For 17 seasons, I never saw Brett Favre do that. Instead I saw a warrior who went out every time the bell sounded and who gave up every bit of effort, every bit of hustle, every bit of perfect child-like love for the game, for the team.
Was he perfect? Far from it. The man surely did love his beer, and he wrestled for a while with an addiction to prescription painkillers (which is almost forgivable when you consider how often he probably **needed** those painkillers just to make it through one more week of throbbing aches and pains). He only won one Super Bowl in his illustrious career, and sometimes seemed to benefit perhaps a bit too much from a sports press in awe of his toughness and willingness to be the man in charge at the center of the storm. There will always be a compelling case that someone else was actually a better quarterback based upon some specific analysis of some specific set of stats or figures.
But none of that matters for me. When I hear the name "Favre" I'll not be thinking of stats or won-loss records or trophies or titles or awards. No, when I think of that name I'll always see #4 scrambling through the snow, ball cocked high and ready to fire, eyes locked downfield as he wills for a few seconds more chance, a few moments more mud-spattered hope in which to attempt one more impossible throw no human could ever hope to complete....
"Never, never, never quit."
-- Winston Churchill