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Top of His Game

In the end, Brett Favre did it his way, as he always has. When he was on the field, quarterbacking the Green Bay Packers, it was impossible for fans to take their eyes off him because so much of his genius was improvisational. And when it came time to walk away from football, Favre was just as unpredictable.

Over the last few years, pondering retirement had become an off-season ritual for Favre. This winter, however, the inner debate should have been a mere formality. In 2007, his 16th season in Green Bay, the 38-year-old Favre led a young and promising team to the cusp of the Super Bowl, and Packer Nation fell in love with him all over again. Statistically, he had his best season since Green Bay's Super Bowl-championship year of 1996. There was so much still to play for.

And that, ultimately, is what drove him from the game.

There is plenty left in Favre's rocket right arm, but the expectations of the sport's most passionate fan base exhausted him, and he was weary of the preparation required to summon his best. So last Thursday, Favre made another visit to Lambeau Field. This time the old stadium was ghostly quiet except for a windowless room packed with reporters and photographers for his retirement press conference. Despite a lifetime in the spotlight, Favre remains a shy country boy at heart. He drew laughs when he said he considered shaving and wearing a suit and tie for the occasion. Instead he was true to himself, turning out in jeans, hiking boots and an untucked shirt.

Favre's farewell was the last in a long series of memorable performances. Emotional, passionate, generous, raw, real -- Favre said goodbye the same way he played the game. Plenty of athletes speak in team-first platitudes, but when he said through his tears, "It was never about the money or fame or records. . . . It was never about me," the sentiment came from the heart. With a knot in his throat "the size of a basketball," he told America, "I've given everything I can possibly give to this organization and to the game of football, and I don't think I've got anything left to give. I know I can play, but I don't think I want to."

In truth Favre was feeling burnt out long before his final game, in which the New York Giants beat the Packers for the NFC title at frigid Lambeau, the winning field goal set up by Favre's inglorious overtime interception. Last November, when the Packers were 10-1 and the toast of the NFL, Favre's wife, Deanna, told SI, "I've seen a difference this year. Mentally and emotionally he is so much more drained. The pressure to keep playing at this high a level gets to him. On Sundays he just goes out and plays, and people only see the love he has for football. During the week I see the strain. He carries the world on his shoulders."

So heavy was the weight last season that Deanna installed a masseuse's table in the basement of the family home and regularly tried to rub away her husband's stress. (Why not bring in a pro? "Brett is a little weird about strangers touching his body," Deanna said with a laugh.) Favre's 2007 renaissance was due in part to the bigger role he'd been given in preparing game plans and the wider latitude he'd been granted to switch plays at the line of scrimmage. Such added responsibilities compelled him to spend more and more time studying opponents. On Sunday evenings, when he should have been enjoying the latest victory, Favre was already cramming for the next week's game. In his press conference he emphasized that he is still physically sound and allowed that he wouldn't mind showing up "for three hours on Sundays, [but] in football you can't do that. It's a total commitment. . . . There's only one way for me to play the game, and that's 100 percent."

While the Packers' bright prospects made it that much tougher to say goodbye, Favre has seen enough to know that coming back would guarantee nothing. As a kid he had a Dan Marino poster on his bedroom wall, and he remembers the glum ending to his idol's career, Marino watching from the bench in the dying minutes of a humiliating 62-7 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Troy Aikman, too, suffered through a miserable final season, enduring nagging injuries as the Dallas Cowboys went 5-11.

And Favre realized that, had he come back, the Packers' 2008 season would have been deemed a success only if he took them to the Super Bowl. Even for the likes of Brett Favre, that's a lot of pressure. Green Bay's fans are intensely loyal, but that doesn't mean they're not fickle. Following the 2005 season -- the worst of Favre's career -- the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website asked readers whether he should be traded. Of the 6,343 respondents, an astonishing 81.1% wanted to kick to the curb the Packers' living legend.

Now, of course, everyone wants him back, desperately. Favre's abrupt departure (he left for Mississippi immediately after the press conference, and Deanna said they would be taking a year off from regular Green Bay activities such as their charity softball game) has left a gaping hole in the little town, which for a decade and a half has defined itself in his image. In the days after Favre's announcement, local media reported on shell-shocked fans trying to make sense of the news. As Grey Ruegamer, a former Packers offensive lineman and now a member of the Giants, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "Beer and brandy sales are going up this week in Packer Nation."

Favre's departure has also been felt in the larger football world. He was that rare player liked and respected even by his team's most bitter rivals. Word of Favre's retirement broke on March 4, and soon the airwaves were packed with tributes that tended toward hagiography. While his Mississippi twang and aw-shucks charm conjured comparisons to Huck Finn, last week Favre felt more like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral. "Watching TV last night," he said with bemusement, "I thought, This is what it's like when you die."

Favre's detachment from his own celebrity has always been his most winning trait. Despite the millions he has made, he remains a man of simple tastes. A favorite date night for Brett and Deanna is to stay home and play Trivial Pursuit, and one of his greatest passions is maintaining his 465-acre spread in Hattiesburg, Miss. Favre doesn't hide his pleasure at the prospect of spending more time on the property, where innumerable oak trees are waiting to be trimmed. "He's obsessed with the land," Deanna said in November. "In the off-season he'll spend all day working out there. He's up early, and I don't hear from him sometimes until he calls, 'Hey, what's for dinner?' " Asked last week what he looked forward to doing, Favre said simply, "Nothing."

That agenda allows him more time for his most important priority: his daughters, Brittany, 19, and Breleigh, 8. On the morning of his press conference, before he flew into Green Bay, he took Breleigh to school in Hattiesburg. "Late as usual," he reported.

In fact, Favre has always had an unerring sense of timing. So many athletes stick around too long, displaying diminished skills and a depressing mortality, but he is leaving at exactly the right moment. How can we be sure? Because it hurts to say goodbye.

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