Huck Finn's Last Ride

For 15 years Brett Favre has been the NFL's answer to Mark Twain's barefoot scamp--forever young and reckless. But nothing lasts forever, and the chattering heads think it's time for him to retire. Pray that they're wrong
December 04, 2006

Good men, the lastwave by, crying how bright

Their frail deedsmight have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage againstthe dying of the light.

--Dylan Thomas

Go north, to whatseems the farthest reach of America, the topmost latitude of the world. Itisn't, but it can feel that way, even in the hot dazzle of high summer. Rollpast the dairy barns red as bud roses and the storybook milk cows spatteredblack and white, and the U-Pik strawberry patches and the outlet-storebillboards, and the hills swelling soft beneath them all. Drive north to GreenBay. ¶ That this is not the northernmost home of American professional footballis merely geographical fact. In our mythology it remains the Fortress ofSolitude--frozen in its ancient fame and its lonely arctic greatness--theholiest, most remote outpost in the NFL. ¶ Lambeau Field, the city's heart andthe first thing you see as you cross the Fox River, looms huge above thebridges and the tree line and the tidy homes strung along the tidy sidewalks.In late July of a new football season the noise of joy and human struggle fillsthese streets.

Before you've evenparked the car, you'll hear and feel the grunt and thud and the cheering.Packers training camp is under way. This little town, so distant from so manyof us that it feels set at the edge of the world--as all small places not ourown must--has again become the center of something.

The practice fieldis just across from the stadium. There are hundreds of people here, families infrom Appleton, Eau Claire, Racine and Fish Creek, Manitowoc and Wausau andWaukesha, the mothers and fathers and sons and daughters of Wisconsin standingfive deep in the summer funk. On the field is the football team, scores ofyoung men sweating and swearing and thundering back and forth in theiriridescent green and gold. One of them stands at midfield, lofting passes withan easy motion and a rhythm like received grace. Each ball cuts a long, sharparc through the air. "That's it!" yells a woman as the footballs riseand fall. "Way to throw!"

She yells this tothe man most of them have come to see, and on whom their season, and theirpsychic fortunes, will rise or fall. He is slender in the fat shadows of thebellies and bull necks around him, slight and nearly boyish. With histhree-quarter-length pants and low-cut socks and his shoes hidden in that deepgrass, he appears to be playing barefoot. From the sideline the close-croppedhair still looks blond, and the freckled right arm is still loose and strong,and the smile and the smirk still say, "All right, then, I'll go tohell." Thus, with every attribute in place but the bamboo fishin' pole,here is the NFL quarterback rendered as Huck Finn grown.

To read the dourcolumnists this year, though, Huckleberry should be taking his first snap undercenter this season from the comfort and safety of his Medicare-approvedpersonal scooter. Candy-apple red, perhaps, with a handlebar shopping basket, abicycle bell, and an AARP bumper sticker that reads: i brake for grandchildren.Because, they say, Brett Favre--Huck Finn grown and now grown old--shouldn't beplaying football. Our heroes must never grow old.

And yet here heis.

The BipolarRomantic Disorder gripping Wisconsin could be described thusly: We love Brett.But we love him in inverse proportion to the number of INTs he throws. We lovehim, but not at the expense of rebuilding the program. We love Brett, but notat the risk of another 4--12 season. We love him, but this is Titletown,U.S.A., after all. Business is business. They'd all be heartbroken if he leftthem, of course; he's one of the best there ever was. He has brought them adecade and a half of winning, of honor and glory, of mostly wholesomeexcitement and family thrills and civic pride. A Super Bowl trophy. Three MVPawards. But that 4--12 season in 2005 was heartbreak of a kind too. And, well,sort of embarrassing.

So through theimpatient winter and spring, wrestling the notion of retirement, he was cursedby anyone with a microphone or a keyboard for being, like Hamlet, indecisive orhalf mad; or worse, of feigning indecision or madness in service only of hisown selfishness. Still others saw him as Lear, an aging king wandering thewilderness, trying desperately to remember whom and what he really loved; andwho and what loved him in return.

To interviewBrett Favre in the basement at Lambeau is to sit awhile face-to-face with thephenomenon of American celebrity. There is the private person, of course, andthere is the public persona. Often enough these two are utter opposites, evenwhen each can fit the other like a second skin. Favre is, though, as heappears.

In the chairacross the table is a young man. Thirty-six, soon to be 37, he is certainlyyoung, except as measured by the accelerated standards of professional sports.By the harsh arithmetic of the NFL, Favre is Methuselah.

Off the field andout of the shadows of those double-wide linemen, he is, at last, large. Talland broad, he is also gray-haired. He is wearing a forest green T-shirt, baggygold shorts and flip-flops. On one thick wrist he wears a large dive watch. Hesits back in his chair, relaxed but a little wary, alert, summer tan and easyin his body and ready to field questions. Never having seen him before, onemight reasonably conclude that Favre was at a job interview for the position ofassistant scuba instructor on a cruise ship.

Upstairs, though,in the Lambeau Field Atrium, a cathedral of memory and commerce, the fanswander the shops and restaurants reverent as acolytes, knowing to their boneswho and what Brett Favre is. They buy his autobiography and his autograph, hiscookbook and his bobblehead with authentic game day stubble. They buy hisjersey and his jacket and his pint-sized souvenir helmet. At Brett Favre's TwoMinute Grill, they buy his cheeseburgers. And as the video highlights unspoolon the monitors hung from the ceiling, they tip their heads back, stillchewing, and stare at his great moments on the field as if watching an eclipse.He is already memorialized, enshrined even as he sweats and groans throughtwo-a-days.

Q: There has tobe a point for an older player, during the first couple of weeks of camp, whenyou're shaking the rust off, and your passes are two feet too far or two feetshort, that you ask yourself, Is this the new me, is this the new reality?

A: Yeah--Is thisthe beginning of the end? I hear that all the time. When you've played 16 yearsyou know that it's just a matter of time before arm strength, or your legs,give out. You're always wondering.... I come into camp now, my mind's stilltelling me I can make that throw. But will my body tell me that? My game'salways been about throwing from awkward positions and making throws that otherpeople wouldn't make.

He pauses."And if I can't do that, I can't play."

Whenever Favrejogs onto the practice field with that delicate, slightly pigeon-toed gait, helooks like a man with a stone in his shoe. After starting 241 consecutive NFLgames, he is as well-conditioned as he's ever been, but he carries forward allthe antique injuries, the catalog of his mortifications: right side, left side,top, bottom, feet, ankles, knees, hands, shoulders, hips, ribs, arms--sprained,sprung, pulled, bruised, broken, separated, cracked, torn, cut, shattered.Annually, if mostly lightly, concussed. By lore and acclamation, the toughestman in the game. Having admitted in 1996 that he was addicted to painkillers,it might take him a while longer to realize that what he may be addicted to ispain.

On Family Nightat Lambeau, Aug. 5, more than 60,000 fans turn out to sizzle the brats andwatch an intrasquad scrimmage. The Packers look good. But then, they're onlyplaying the Packers. Against his teammates, firing left, right and center, longand short, Brett Favre looks like himself. But is he? Against other teams,ominously, he goes 1--3 in the preseason.

First game of theregular season, home at Lambeau against the Bears, and the stadium is ringedwith the tailgating faithful. Inside, as part of the pregame ceremony, ReggieWhite's name is unveiled, to great cheers, on the stadium's upper deck. Tolesser cheering are then introduced some members of the Packers' 1996 SuperBowl--winning team. Don Beebe receives a polite round of applause. Mark Chmurais politely, but roundly, booed.

Across the field,standing with his arms folded, as if waiting for a bus, is Brett Favre. Heplayed with these guys. But rather than standing with them now in Dockers andsport shirts, 10 or 15 or 50 pounds overweight and looking forward to aLeinenkugel in the stands, he's trying to calculate the likelihood 20 minuteshence of Brian Urlacher's snapping his spine. The Bears are introduced to achorus of well-mannered Lutheran booing.

Nobody knows yethow good Chicago is, but before the jet exhaust from the F-18 flyover hascleared, the Bears score an easy touchdown on a 49-yard pass. Now they know.The hallmark moment for the Packers comes when Favre's center steps on Favre'sfoot and flattens him. Things get no better. Final, 26--0 Bears. The Packers'first home shutout in more than 15 years.

At the postgamepress conference, rookie Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy is asked if at any pointhe thought about pulling Favre for young Aaron Rodgers, the backup. "Ididn't consider Rodgers," says McCarthy, his face sour, his answer final.Favre isn't even out of the shower yet, and the columnists are agitating for acoup.

Ten minuteslater, Favre arrives. His hands on the podium are as raw and red as afishmonger's. "I was optimistic," he says. "I thought we mightsurprise a lot of people." He looks to the back of the room, and beyond it."We can do better than that," he says. But his eyes say he isn'tsure.

The next week atLambeau, the Saints roll in. Again, no one is sure how good they might be. Forthe game's first 15 minutes they are awful, and the Packers take a 13--0 lead.Thereafter, however, the Packers ease themselves, mistake by mistake, out ofthe game.

Later, in asullen locker room, Favre says, "We've got to find ways not tolose."

On Internetmessage boards, posts like this begin to appear: Jury's in. Favre's out.

But the truth, asever, is more complicated. Favre, still mobile, smart and strong, is playingwell enough to rank mid-pack among big-name quarterbacks. Surrounded byinexperience and playing behind an offensive line that starts three rookiesmost weeks, he is, by the hard evidence of the numbers, outplaying press boxfavorites like Vick, Roethlisberger, McNair, Plummer and Manning theYounger.

Week 3 sendsGreen Bay to Detroit. Favre arrives at his team's fancy hotel wearing a stripedsport shirt, baggy khaki pants and scuffed walking shoes. Had he not steppedoff the team bus, hotel management might have thought he'd come to skim thepool.

Over one shoulderhe totes a battered canvas bag. In that small olive-drab duffel are huntingmagazines and crossword puzzles sufficient to thwart boredom until game time.His pregame meal is already on its way up to his room. Cheeseburger. Fries.

Q: Is it toughbeing on such a young team?

A: There was atime when I thought, I'll play forever. This game's easy. What are they worriedabout? Why study this play if I won't ever run it? But sure enough, you run it.And so you learn to expect the unexpected. Be ready for any situation. It'snever as good as it looks; it's never as bad as it seems. That said, I don'tknow if we're good enough, right now, to win a lot of games. Some people say,'Hey, in a couple of years, this team....' Well, I'll probably be cutting thegrass by then.

Q: What about therumors you'll be traded?

A: There arethose who say, 'He shouldn't have come back. Serves him right they're losing.He knew what he was getting into,' and those who say, 'I wish he'd get with agood team and finish out his career right.' And I guess there's a third taketoo, of those who just don't give a s---. All three, I guess, are fair.

You know it'sgame day in Detroit when the hometown fans pissing in the alley behind the oldJL Stone Company building turn their backs politely to the boulevard. Just upBrush Street at Ford Field, the Packers are trading sucker punches with theLions.

Learning a newsystem, a new offense, Favre has new reads and new checkdowns and new routesand new teammates and a new head coach. There are rookies colliding everywherearound him and strange new diagrams from the immense playbook running togetherin his head and unlined faces of players he hardly knows looking back at himfor the ball. There are moments in the pocket when it's easy to see hisfrustration. Seven-step drop, quick, but then his feet stop moving and hestands briefly flat-footed. Who are these people? Then a short pump fake, ashake of his head--This has to be wrong, doesn't it?--then the throw, almostangry, a recrimination, to a stranger running to the wrong spot at the wrongtime. Walking back to the huddle, he's still shaking his head. Was that him orme? he wonders.

And moments, too,like this: Favre drops back into a collapsing pocket, chaos everywhere aroundhim, and sets up. Up on the balls of his feet, he stands very still while thenoise and the violence grasp at him, then steps forward into a long throw. Theball sails and hangs and lands without a sound in the hands of rookie widereceiver Greg Jennings. He goes 75 yards for a touchdown, and hope gains a fewyards on reality. Favre runs the length of the field to gather him up. It isFavre's 400th career TD pass.

Most of thesecond half looks like a pickup game. Over an afternoon riddled with badchoices and bad bounces, Green Bay clings to a thin victory, 31--24.

"It's justgreat winning," Favre says outside a locker room smelling of Seabreeze andbaby powder, and looks like he means it. "It's a hell of a lot easier tolose a game than it is to win it. We gotta find ways to end these games. But,man, that was fun."

ThenPhiladelphia. A Monday night game, and down below the press box Eagles fanswarm up by shouting pregame obscenities at ESPN's pregame broadcast team. Asthe sun sets, Philly's trademark vibe of imminent weirdness sets in. The hometeam comes pouring out through the inflatable Levitra tunnel for itsintroduction.

For the firsthalf, it's mostly Packers. Favre is 15 of 26 for 126 yards. Five minutes intothe third quarter, though, the momentum shifts. There is no tipping point, noclear instant in which the worm turns. The Eagles simply score 24 unansweredpoints and win going away.

With 6:19 to playFavre gets planted hard and hobbles off with a shoulder stinger and a ringinghead. "Man, that was a rough one," he says 20 minutes later. "I'vegot a splitting headache. I just need to get in bed and get some rest."

In anothertoo-quiet clubhouse, this one smelling of wintergreen and wet feet, he leansagainst a wall. He eats a hot dog. He keeps his back to the room. Questions,sound bites and sentence fragments float past him on the steam from theshowers, the damp postgame catechism:

"Whathappened out there?"

"They justmade some plays...."

"Talk aboutwhat you do now...."

"This team'sgonna do well this year...."

" ... gamelike that, you've got to be able to finish...."

" ... sure Imade a mistake or two."

Favre turns,still bleary, to survey the scene. The room, and his thoughts, are slightly outof focus. His bell has been rung, hard, tolling another game played, anotherbattle fought and lost, another step toward the end of things. He sits gingerlyon the edge of his locker. He bends but can't reach to tie his shoes. He sitsup slowly, waits, then puts his hands to his knees and pushes himself upright.He wobbles there a second. After midnight, laces flapping, he shuffles into thetrainer's room.

In this age ofcorporate quarterbacking, wherein all directives come down from the headoffice, and the position is really no sexier or more autonomous than that of aregional operations manager, Favre remains a "gunslinger." No Green Bayoffensive series of more than four or five plays can be broadcast on televisionwithout the use of that word. "He's always been a gunslinger," theannouncer will say after Favre completes another 27-yard slingshot off his backfoot among four converging defenders, or launches a ball into the third row ofseats.

An evocativesignifier of Old West courage, swagger, improvisation and marksmanship,gunslinger also implies a sort of willful and counterproductive recklessness.In an era of quarterbacks praised for their clock-management skills and theirlow-key willingness to meet the weekly yardage quota nine feet at a time, it'sa compliment that takes away as much as it gives.

Swashbuckler isanother chestnut of the broadcast booth. In fact, the nature and number ofclichés Favre attracts would make for a potent drinking game. And since hehimself has long since sworn off, hoist a few in his honor. Drink a shot ofredeye when you hear gunslinger. A dram of rum for swashbuckler. A glass ofwine whenever an announcer uses the phrase vintage Favre. Drink a mug ofOvaltine when you hear He looks like a kid out there. Chug whenever you hearHe's just trying to make something happen or He threw that one off his backfoot. And if you're a Packers fan, drink a double shot and turn off thetelevision when you hear He tried to force that one in there.

St. Louis beatsthe Packers the following Sunday. A bad loss. In the last minute the Green Baypocket collapses deep in Rams territory, and the ball is batted from Favre'shand. This is variously described by the sporting press as a "backsidecontainment failure" or a "Favre fumble." He walks off the fieldshaking his head.

And so anotherlove note to Favre from the Internet, the endless electronic American id:Knowing the team is so bad, why bother coming back? Is it ego or stupidity?

The Packers' byeweek at last arrives. Favre visits Hattiesburg, Miss., to watch his eldestdaughter, Brittany, a senior at Oak Grove High, play in a regional volleyballtournament. He spends most of the rest of his free time in a tree stand far outin the Wisconsin woods. The leaves fall and the deer come and go beneath himwhile he sits in solitude.

His wife, Deanna,and his younger daughter, Breleigh, have errands to run, however, and plenty todo. Even in the midst of such a titanic struggle as an NFL season and thelosing campaign against time itself, there's school and the grocery shoppingand, on a rainy autumn afternoon, gym class.

Deanna Favre,tough, beautiful and practical, waits in the car while Breleigh tumbles andcartwheels. She keeps her hands on the wheel while talking about the decisionthat led them all back to Green Bay for another year.

Q: How has thisfall been for you, watching the Packers play?

A: It's been alittle bit difficult, because I've been with Brett for so long, and we're usedto winning. Last year and this year have been stressful, seeing how frustratedhe is from the lack of wins.

Q: Any secondthoughts about his playing this year?

A: I think I'vechanged my mind as many times as he has. But in his heart he still wanted toplay, and still believed he could.

Q: Is he havingfun?

A: He has hismoments.

Q: Does thecriticism of him bother you?

A: I do take itpersonally. Breleigh's in the second grade; kids come up to her at school andsay, 'Your dad stinks! The Packers stink!' She comes home crying. Brittany, theday after the New Orleans game, walked into one of her classes and theteacher--the whole class is sitting there, the bell rings, it's quiet--looks atBrittany and says, 'Must be pretty bad if you let the Saints beat you.'Hello?

The Favres livein a nice house in a nice suburb a few minutes from the stadium. Nothingspecial. Could be anybody living behind those pale bricks. Banker, lawyer,regional operations manager. And it is somehow heartwarming to see thatneighborhood teenagers, in the runup to Halloween, or as a pointed comment onthe season to date, have TP'd the tree in the Favres' front yard.

In Week 7 it's awin at Miami, so surprising and joyful that after one touchdown Favre hoistswide receiver Donald Driver over his shoulder. And a week later, a win thatsurprises no one, at home against the Cardinals. Then a loss to woeful Buffalo,away, followed by a win against the Vikings indoors at the Hump.

Down in thePackers' locker room, as stylish and contemporary and transient-seeming as anyfirst-class lounge at the Copenhagen airport, and where the Dupont Registryyacht catalogs sit side by side with the backgammon boards and the balls ofdiscarded ankle tapes, they rally each week around Favre. Driver, who hasplayed eight seasons with the Packers, many as the marquee wingman in Favre'sflying circus, distills the ideal of teamwork to its earnest essence when askedif he and Favre are, after all the yards and all the years, friends."No," he says empathically. "We're brothers."

Then it's thePatriots and another bad shutout at home. Favre goes out for the first timethis year, with ulnar nerve damage to his throwing elbow. In other words,insult to injury, a hard shot to the funny bone. It was a game no one expectedthe Packers to win, but still.

So Favre,indestructible, and poised to break almost every career passing record infootball, headed into the Monday-night game against Seattle with 2,368 passingyards, 13 TDs and seven interceptions. Playing in accord with the tip sheets,Seattle wins.

Now 4--7 withfive to play, there are hints and glimmers of the solid team they might one daybecome. And while their teeter-totter inconsistency is evident and theiryouthful progress slow, the ambivalence of Green Bay fans to their mythicquarterback hardens and softens from day to day and series to series and playto play. They can't bear to see him go. Nor can they bear to see himfalter.

The packers'record is fittingly ambiguous in a season this crazy, in which none of theexperts have been able to predict a thing. The Packers are a little better thananyone gave them credit for being. Only the talking-head handicappers and theHawaiian-shirt radio talkers seem disappointed that they aren't better. Orworse.

The rest of us,like Brett Favre, try to take our joy in the play. The story of Favre'sincomplete pass at retirement this off-season, and the upset, confusion andoutrage it caused among so many strangers has, for the most part, come andgone, overtaken by other, more urgent quarterback controversies. But that storywill return, told in the same unforgiving way, in the next season or the nextor the next. Because the story of Brett Favre's end was never just about him.It is about us.

We need ourheroes and household gods forever young, forever strong, forever smart orbeautiful. Because we ourselves are not. The end of an elite athlete's careerat 25 or 35 or 40 mirrors too perfectly the diminishments and compromises wewill see all too well in ourselves at 55 or 65 or 70. The aches and pains andconfusion, the missteps, the injury and illness and loss, the memories flownand the flowering of cowardice in the face of uncertainty, all the greatness sofar behind you.

Young poets mockthe inexorable unwinding of time, until, if they're lucky, they become oldpoets. Old poets are smart enough to mock only themselves.

Because maybeworse than bad eyes, bad ears, bad back, bad hair, bad heart, is bad faith.Doubt. The delicate stress fracture of the will and the hairline crack alongthe backbone. Do I dare to eat a peach? Mettle fatigue. This is how youcalibrate your own descent, in the sad calculus of who you once were, but cannever be again.

Which is why theimages of Unitas at the end, or Namath, or Ali or Joe Louis, or any of hundredsand hundreds of others, were too much for us. Not because we couldn't mustersufficient sympathy, but because we had altogether too much empathy. To seetheir sad end warned us too vividly of our own.

And now Americais angry at Huck Finn for going gray. And for reminding us, yet again, of ourown mortality.

There will come atime when Brett Favre can no longer play. This is not that time. But at the endof this season--or the next or the next or the next--he will step away at last,having earned the peace of an endless off-season. The cold and the snow willovertake Green Bay, and the stadium at this edge of the world will stand emptybehind us, the last thing we see in the rear-view mirror as we cross thatriver, the light at last failing in the trees.

But until thatmoment, Brett Favre will be throwing, in a way, for us all. Throwing hopeforward, in a single clean step or with a motion as rushed and awkward as manfalling out of the tub, as hurried and off-balance as the rest of us. Bankingon the past while trying to read a second or two into his future, drillingclean arcs on our behalf into the weakening light and the rising odds, everystand he makes in the pocket another little long shot fired against theinfinite and inevitable. Every throw a moment for hope, a defiant line, brightin the air, against chaos and diminishment and the final goodbye.

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His hair still looks blond, and the smile and smirkstill say, "All right, then, I'LL GO TO HELL."

He is certainly young, but by the HARSH ARITHMETIC ofthe NFL, Favre is Methuselah.

By lore and acclamation, Favre is the TOUGHEST MAN inthe game.

Packers fans can't bear to see him go. Nor can theybear to SEE HIM FALTER.

TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr.;JAMES V. BIEVER NOTJUMPY
Despite being Green Bay's best player since Bill Clinton was inaugurated, Favremade his first Lambeau leap only this season (right), after scoring againstArizona in Week 8.
PHOTO JOHN BIEVERSURPASSING Even while playing behind a young line, Favre is on track to break most of the NFL's major career QB records. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. IN CAMP, Favre had a new offense and a new coach. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERFAVRE HAS a streak of 252 consecutive starts. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERHE STILL makes throws no one else would dare try. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.HIS COACH says Favre could play till 2009.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)