Like regular people, great athletes retire in all sorts of ways. Some do it gracefully. Some do it tragically. Some do it almost invisibly. And some do it endlessly.
Oceans of ink and billions of pixels have been spent deconstructing Brett Favre's on-again, off-again retirement. As far as I can tell, the conversation about a Favre-less NFL has been taking place since at least September 2002, when the quarterback told SI's Peter King that he was homesick for Mississippi. From that season forward, Favre saw the need to hold news conferences or grant lengthy interviews devoted to his future status. The amount of reluctance and suspense and dithering varied from year to year to year, but ultimately, the result was the same. Yes, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.
I have little interest in whether Brett Favre plays for Minnesota in 2009. Ultimately, I think athletes should play as long as they are comfortable playing and as long someone is willing to pay them to do it. George Blanda kicked a 41-yard field goal at age 48 (his nickname toward the end: The Fossil). Satchel Paige threw three innings for the Kansas City Athletics at 59. We recently learned that Oil Can Boyd, five months shy of his 50th birthday, is attempting a comeback. I interviewed the Can three years after his big-league career had ended, while he was pitching for the Sioux City Explorers of the independent Northern League. That was 15 years ago.
If you have a rubber arm or a titanium leg -- and a very high pain threshold and a freakish devotion to an incomprehensibly difficult craft -- why not do it as long as you can? As Winston Churchill said, "I leave when the pub closes." If Favre had simply kept his mouth shut, columnists would have spent the offseasons analyzing his statistics and record and deciding what the quarterback and the team "should" do. And their words would have the proper effect on team's decision and Favre's legacy: none.
That's partly because Favre's performance has remained NFL-worthy -- you could even argue he had a better season at 38 than he did at 30. Last year while playing for the New York Jets, Favre was more bad than good and given the way it ended we can forgive Favre his reluctance to quit. Admitting the ebbing of talent and onset of bodily deterioration is hard enough for weekend jocks. For someone whose life is defined by his body, it can be an enormous psychological load. In the NFL, with its retirement gift of endless aches and pains and worse, for some players quitting can feel like a seat in heaven's waiting room. So we get the desire to play. What we can't fathom is Favre's failure to understand that the opera bouffe of the last few years has tarnished how we will forever think about him.
In 2006, I suited up for training camp as a kicker with the Denver Broncos to write a book about life in the NFL. During my summer with the team, I had two fascinating conversations about retirement. One was with an offensive tackle named Adam Meadows. After seven seasons as a starter for Indianapolis, Meadows was attempting a comeback. Two years earlier, he had signed with Carolina after major shoulder surgery but was in such pain he quit after a few days of training camp and returned a $2.5 million bonus. The Panthers offered to let him practice minimally or not at all. He declined.
"When you play football long enough, you see guys take advantage of that situation," Meadows told me. "I didn't want to be that guy. I didn't want the guys in the lockers next to me go out there and bust their tails five, six days a week and then on day seven, when they're calling out your name and the fans are yelling and the smoke's going and the jets are flying over, run out there. I think you make your money Monday though Saturday. Sunday's fun. Sunday's what it's all about.
"Toughest decision I ever made. Right decision. I felt like a 1,000-pound gorilla jumped off my back -- the burden of the team paying you and you can't perform to their and your own expectations."
Meadows told me he was returning because he missed life as an athlete -- the camaraderie, the competition, the challenge -- and because he felt well enough, again, to play, despite the inherent risks of resuming an NFL career. Meadows had analyzed his body and his emotions desires clearly and privately and come to an adult decision. He demonstrated maturity and character and respect for his teammates and coaches and front offices. He wasn't a household name, but his actions also demonstrated respect for the fans of the teams he played for.
The other words about retirement that stuck with me came from the Broncos' quarterback at the time, Jake Plummer. We talked a few days after he was benched during the 2006 season (despite a 7-4 record) for then rookie Jay Cutler. Plummer was 32 at the time, and while he hated some of the NFL's occupational annoyances -- the critical media, the claustrophobic work place, the emotionally over-invested fans -- he still loved playing football. But he was also completely rational: A decade into his career, he could imagine a life without it. "When you get into your 10th year," he told me, "some guys realize, 'Oh, God, I'm going to have to give this up soon,' and they can't live without it and they start going harder and harder."
Plummer talked about the many things he wanted to do but couldn't because of the demands of the NFL: spend more time with his dad, who was being treated for alcoholism, and his mom, whom he adores; play his favorite sport, handball; backpack, ski, see the world, work with kids, maybe coach some high-school football. He talked about how fortunate he was to have made so much money and stayed healthy. If he did retire, he said, he wouldn't make a big deal out of it. He disdained athletes who did, especially the ones who quickly returned. "Give me a break," he said. "Why'd you retire? You need that much attention? You need that ego boost?"
Plummer retired with a statement and a short news conference. He wound up losing $3.5 million -- bonus money he had to return to the team Denver traded him to, Tampa Bay -- and has lived up to everything he told me that day: He's traveled to Peru and Thailand. He's played in handball tournaments. He's hung out with his family in Idaho, where he lives. Last month, he signed on as the quarterbacks coach of the Sandpoint Bulldogs, the local high-school team.
Plummer finished his career 35,874 yards, 304 touchdowns, eight seasons and one championship short of Brett Favre. But when it comes to leaving a sport with dignity, respect and a sense of purpose, Favre is the one who has a long way to go to catch up.