Every hero needs someone to champion his heroics. Samuel Johnson had Boswell, the Kennedys got their reputations buffed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Sidney Blumenthal massaged the Clintons. Fred Barnes defended George W. Bush when no one else would. Pauline Kael forever touted Brian De Palma. And Brett Favre has always had Peter King.
King and Favre are the sports world's leading symbiotes. For two decades and 78 retirements and unretirements—including Tuesday's signing with the Minnesota Vikings—the quarterback has given Sports Illustrated's football scribe unrivaled access to his life and inner thoughts. In return, King has lovingly documented Favre's on-the-field derring-do and off-the-field tractor-riding and lawn-mowing. For King, the QB has been both a meal ticket and a member of his extended family: The twosome dined together on the Fridays before Packers games and shared quality time on Favre's Mississippi property.
As Favre began to contemplate retirement, the writer and the source stayed close. When the quarterback has that sinking feeling he might want to retire, King gets the first phone call. "I'm just tired," the QB told the writer last year. "I wish I had some big dramatic reason why. But I don't."
But King's perpetual contact with football's leading Wrangler pitchman hasn't helped him divine Favre's ins and outs. "So now I've been wrong three times," King lamented last month. "I thought he was retired last year and he played for the Jets. I thought he was retired this year, and I said he'll come back to play for the Vikings unless his arm is a problem. His arm wasn't. And he still isn't going to play. That's why I give up." After Favre's move to Minnesota this week, it's time to update the tally: King has now been wrong four times.
A timeline of the King-Favre relationship—as seen in clips from Sports Illustrated and SI.com—reveals a gradual change over time. In the beginning, King writes like a proud parent documenting his child's first steps. In recent weeks, he's taken on the demeanor of a father who's forever getting strung along by a drug-addict son—he desperately wants to believe that he's hearing the truth this time, but he's been burned so many times before …
The early years
Sports Illustrated, Oct. 5, 1992: For the second time in eight days [Brett] Favre (rhymes with carve) stole the show, leading the Packers to victory. … Reining in Favre's enthusiasm may be Holmgren's biggest task. After the winning drive against the Bengals, Favre ran off the field jumping and screaming as if he'd won the lottery. The game, however, was only tied, at 23. … "I've got a lot to learn," says Favre.
Sports Illustrated, Dec. 19, 1994: Favre won't be perfect. But he has proved he can carry a good team. And who wouldn't give the moon today for a 25-year-old quarterback with guts and a golden arm, scars and all?
Sports Illustrated, Oct. 11, 1999: Favre turns 30 on Oct. 10, and few signs point to the only three-time MVP in the history of the league being any less of a player in his 30s. "Thirty's just a number," Favre says.
SI.com, Dec. 11, 2000: "If in two years, say, they want to trade me, I'd probably walk away. Retire." … And when you retire? "I'll be down in Hattiesburg. You'll never find me. You know the HBO 'Where are They Now?' segments on Inside the NFL? They'll do one on me, but they'll have to get Robert Stack,like on Unsolved Mysteries. I'll disappear."
An early warning sign
Sports Illustrated, Nov. 8, 2004: In 1995, SI dispatched me to Green Bay to do a story on a week in the life of a football team. I got close to Favre, spending a couple of long evenings at his home. And when he went into a rehab center the next spring for his Vicodin addiction, I thought, "I was around this guy for hours and hours, and I never knew. How could I have been deceived?"
Brett thinks about retiring
Sports Illustrated, April 24, 2006: You'd never have thought that a little indecision could tarnish the legend of Brett Favre in Green Bay. But with each day the 36-year-old quarterback spends on his family's 465-acre spread in Hattiesburg, Miss., without deciding if he will return to the Packers for one more season, the folks up north seem to love him less and less.
Sports Illustrated, March 12, 2008: He led the league in sarcasm, but open his veins and he'd bleed honesty, just as he did when he announced his retirement. "I'm just tired," he told me. "I wish I had some big dramatic reason why. But I don't. I know I can still play, but mentally, I'm just drained." … That's the guy I expect the retired Favre to be like. Doing battle with the dam-building beavers on his property. Edging the front lawn abutting the road in front of the house. Golfing.
Sports Illustrated, March 17, 2008: Army Special Forces Team Sgt. Scott Olson … can relate to Favre. He's the Army's version of a quarterback, leading a well-trained 12-man unit, creating a strategy to attain an objective and then—like a quarterback audibling in the face of the unexpected—changing the plan on the fly if the need arises. … Olson and his men felt for Favre. They wondered if he'd pull a Michael Jordan and come back. Very doubtful, I said. He's had enough.
Brett thinks about unretiring
SI.com, April 4, 2008: Brett Favre, startled this morning to see the enormity of a report on a morning sports show that he might play football again, said he is not considering coming out of retirement. … Most days he eats breakfast at home with wife Deanna and daughter Breleigh, drives Breleigh to school and spends the day working on his property, mowing and edging and clearing land. "Deanna says I'm married to my property,'' he said.
SI.com, July 7, 2008: [H]is arm has felt pain-free and strong. That, plus the fact he hasn't found anything else to do in retirement other than the chores on his 465 acres in Hattiesburg, is making him think he wants to play football again.
Sports Illustrated, Aug. 4, 2008: Tortured is too strong a word to describe what Favre, leaning against the polished marble counter in his spacious kitchen, and his wife, sitting, often shaking her head, were going through on Saturday night. But agonized isn't far off. "I don't know what I'll do," said a weary Favre, running a hand over his customary six-day stubble.
SI.com, Aug. 7, 2008: As he walked down the tunnel in Cleveland Browns Stadium Thursday evening, seconds before meeting his new team, Brett Favre looked beat. Could you blame him? Twenty hours earlier, he'd made a life-altering decision, welcoming a trade to the New York Jets. … And now, after a one-hour flight to Cleveland—in khaki shorts and gray T-shirt, the whites of his eyes pink from fatigue—Favre paused a few steps from the entrance to his new life. "I'm worn out,'' he said. "Just worn out.''
Brett thinks about retiring again
SI.com, Jan. 3, 2009: Speaking to Brett Favre Friday night from Mississippi, I got the distinct impression that he was going to retire from football, this time for good.
Brett retires again
SI.com, Feb. 11, 2009: "Yeah.'' That's the text message I got back this morning from Brett Favre after I sent him one that said, simply: "Can I confirm the report that you're retiring for good?'' … Could he change his mind? Sure. Will he? I sincerely doubt it, even if his arm starts feeling right again.
SI.com, Feb. 16, 2009: I've saved the four-minute voice-message from him on my cell phone the day he quit, and when I've played it for people, I've asked, "Does that sound like a guy who was retiring with a lot of doubt in his mind?'' And everyone says no.
Brett thinks about unretiring again
SI.com, May 4, 2009: I don't know what he's going to do. But I, like some of you, am suspicious. There's no good reason to ask for his release from the Jets unless it's to leave open the option to play again. … I know you're sick of this story. We all are. But my gut feeling is Favre never completely got this Vikings fixation out of his system.
Brett decides to stay retired:
SI.com, July 28, 2009: I give up. … So now I've been wrong three times. I thought he was retired last year and he played for the Jets. I thought he was retired this year, and I said he'll come back to play for the Vikings unless his arm is a problem. His arm wasn't. And he still isn't going to play. That's why I give up. Don't ask me anymore what I think about Favre, whether I think he's going to play or whether I think he's going to mow the grass for the rest of his life. I don't know because I honestly don't think he knows.
SI.com, Aug. 4, 2009: [W]hen I was settling in to watch some practice tape … my cell rang. It was Favre, saying he just didn't trust his body to make it through 16 games, not given the way it felt after he worked it hard the past few weeks, getting it ready for the Vikings' grind. And he was pretty sure this was the end, but come midseason, if some team calls, who knows? Favre was down. He just sounded beat, like he had nothing left to give, and a little depressed. "I'm sure I'll regret it down the road," he said.
Brett unretires again:
SI.com, Aug. 18, 2009: Favre's the wishy-washiest player in memory—and the Vikings are his enablers. It's ridiculous.