On Tuesday morning, Foxsports.com reported that legendary Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre is set to retire from football. In the coming days, scores of writers will no doubt celebrate Favre's on-field heroics and his off-the-field life. Back in 2005, Robert Weintraub explained why the quarterback is the most praised athlete of his generation. The piece is reprinted below.
Brett Favre isn't just a future NFL Hall of Famer. The Green Bay Packers quarterback is also a regular dude. Just ask anybody who writes about Favre or talks about him on television. The Packers play Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs late on Sunday afternoon, a time slot that promises plenty of shots of Favre heroically framed in the rural Wisconsin gloaming while worshipful announcers compose loving odes to his talents as a player, husband, father, and man. It's enough to make you want to root for Randy Moss.
As the disconnect between multimillionaire athletes and ticket-buying fans widens, few players have retained the "jes' folks" status of the Packers star QB. Only a few football players—almost all of them white quarterbacks, from Bobby Layne to Kenny Stabler to Terry Bradshaw—are granted special friend and neighbor status. These are the guys whom you could just as easily envision working at the mill and chopping wood on the front stoop as hurling touchdown passes on Monday Night Football.
Because he's just a regular dude, Favre is one of us even when he screws up. Favre received almost no criticism last January when his boneheaded overtime heave cost the Packers last year's divisional playoff against Philadelphia. In this year's rematch, the Eagles demolished the Pack by 30 points, in no small part due to Favre's poor play. After the game, ESPN.com's Michael Smith wrote that the "impossible happened Sunday. My opinion of Favre grew." What towering feat did Favre accomplish? He showed his disdain for personal statistics by pulling himself out of the game when the Pack were losing 47-3 even though his 36-game touchdown streak was at stake. Keep in mind, this is the same guy who went into the fetal position to allow Michael Strahan to break the single-season sack record.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King is probably the quarterback's most eager lap dog and the writer most responsible for celebrating Favre's rural lifestyle. "On the morning he had to leave his beloved home and 465 acres in Hattiesburg, Miss., to report to training camp, he began to think this might be his last camp," King wrote in January 2003. "A private plane stood by at a nearby airstrip for the two-and-half-hour flight to Green Bay. … And there he was, sweating a stream while edging a mile of his property where it meets the road, refusing to leave till he finished the job." In short, Favre is the guy next door—I bet that private jet is up on blocks in his front yard.
To King's credit, he's conscious of his reputation as Favre's Boswell. "Oh no! King on Favre again!" he wrote in the same article. "King's all over this guy! Please, just one column without mentioning Favre's name! And we beg you: Don't tell us what entree you had with him! Sickening!" (The italics are not mine.) That self-awareness didn't stop King from contributing a chapter to Favre, the just-released memoir that No. 4 co-wrote with his mother, Bonita. As Favre's tome shot to the top of the bestseller lists, Terrell Owens' autobiography, Catch This!, failed to find an audience.
Favre and Owens make for an intriguing contrast. If you've watched even a single Green Bay game in the last few seasons, you've heard the misfortune that has befallen the quarterback recently: the death of his father, the death of his brother-in-law, his wife's cancer diagnosis. This year's Monday Night Football opener featured a halftime retrospective on Favre's relationship with his father, complete with home movies showing a mop-topped Brett in shoulder pads and Irvin Favre looking on approvingly from his easy chair. Another Monday night game earlier this year that unfortunately coincided with his wife's battle with cancer occasioned a sit-down with ESPN's Suzy Kolber that included such hard-hitting queries as "Where would you be without her?" and "How would you compare your toughness to your wife Deanna's toughness?"
While Favre is lionized for playing through tragedy, Terrell Owens' success has never been given the same kind of context. As Catch This! reveals, the fact that T.O. made it to the NFL is a miracle. Owens, who grew up destitute and fatherless in backwater Alabama, wasn't allowed to leave his front yard as a child for fear of getting whipped. Favre grew up in small town bliss surrounded by his loving family. Not to demean the loss of loved ones, but who has overcome more here? Why is every hurdle Favre has jumped over presented as the Pillars of Hercules, while a guy like Owens is dismissed as a loudmouth?
No one doubts Favre's Hall of Fame credentials—three MVP awards, a Super Bowl ring, 200-plus consecutive starts, and an ability to laser the ball between defenders even at age 35. On the other hand, it's fairly obvious that Favre has been propped up these past few years by his All-Pro running back, Ahman Green. Here's a guy who plays hurt and plays well, hails from a red state, and is by all accounts a solid citizen who runs youth football camps in his hometown. Yet Ahman gets props only for his yards—I have no clue what tragedies he's had to overcome. I guess he's just not a regular dude.