After 16 seasonsof giving the Green Bay Packers all he could give, Brett Favre knew it was timeto quit, and he left football the way he'd played it—raw, passionate andhonest
This is an article from the March 17, 2008 issue
IN THE end, Brett Favre did it his way, as he always has. When he was on thefield, quarterbacking the Green Bay Packers, it was impossible for fans to taketheir eyes off him because so much of his genius was improvisational. And whenit came time to walk away from football, Favre was just as unpredictable. ¬∂Over the last few years, pondering retirement had become an off-season ritualfor Favre. This winter, however, the inner debate should have been a mereformality. In 2007, his 16th season in Green Bay, the 38-year-old Favre led ayoung and promising team to the cusp of the Super Bowl, and Packer Nation fellin love with him all over again. Statistically, he had his best season sinceGreen Bay's Super Bowl--championship year of 1996. There was so much still toplay for. And that, ultimately, is what drove him from the game.
There is plentyleft in Favre's rocket right arm, but the expectations of the sport's mostpassionate fan base exhausted him, and he was weary of the preparation requiredto summon his best. So last Thursday, Favre made another visit to LambeauField. This time the old stadium was ghostly quiet except for a windowless roompacked 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 tiefor the occasion. Instead he was true to himself, turning out in jeans, hikingboots and an untucked shirt.
Favre's farewellwas the last in a long series of memorable performances. Emotional, passionate,generous, raw, real—Favre said goodbye the same way he played the game. Plentyof 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 aboutme," the sentiment came from the heart. With a knot in his throat "thesize of a basketball," he told America, "I've given everything I canpossibly give to this organization and to the game of football, and I don'tthink I've got anything left to give. I know I can play, but I don't think Iwant to."
In truth Favre wasfeeling burnt out long before his final game, in which the New York Giants beatthe Packers for the NFC title at frigid Lambeau, the winning field goal set upby Favre's inglorious overtime interception. Last November, when the Packerswere 10--1 and the toast of the NFL, Favre's wife, Deanna, told SI, "I'veseen a difference this year. Mentally and emotionally he is so much moredrained. The pressure to keep playing at this high a level gets to him. OnSundays he just goes out and plays, and people only see the love he has forfootball. During the week I see the strain. He carries the world on hisshoulders."
So heavy was theweight last season that Deanna installed a masseuse's table in the basement ofthe family home and regularly tried to rub away her husband's stress. (Why notbring in a pro? "Brett is a little weird about strangers touching hisbody," Deanna said with a laugh.) Favre's 2007 renaissance was due in partto the bigger role he'd been given in preparing game plans and the widerlatitude he'd been granted to switch plays at the line of scrimmage. Such addedresponsibilities compelled him to spend more and more time studying opponents.On Sunday evenings, when he should have been enjoying the latest victory, Favrewas already cramming for the next week's game. In his press conference heemphasized that he is still physically sound and allowed that he wouldn't mindshowing up "for three hours on Sundays, [but] in football you can't dothat. 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 seenenough to know that coming back would guarantee nothing. As a kid he had a DanMarino poster on his bedroom wall, and he remembers the glum ending to hisidol's career, Marino watching from the bench in the dying minutes of ahumiliating 62--7 playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Troy Aikman, too,suffered through a miserable final season, enduring nagging injuries as theDallas Cowboys went 5--11.
And Favre realizedthat, had he come back, the Packers' 2008 season would have been deemed asuccess only if he took them to the Super Bowl. Even for the likes of BrettFavre, that's a lot of pressure. Green Bay's fans are intensely loyal, but thatdoesn't mean they're not fickle. Following the 2005 season—the worst of Favre'scareer—the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website asked readers whether he shouldbe traded. Of the 6,343 respondents, an astonishing 81.1% wanted to kick to thecurb the Packers' living legend.
Now, of course,everyone wants him back, desperately. Favre's abrupt departure (he left forMississippi immediately after the press conference, and Deanna said they wouldbe taking a year off from regular Green Bay activities such as their charitysoftball game) has left a gaping hole in the little town, which for a decadeand a half has defined itself in his image. In the days after Favre'sannouncement, local media reported on shell-shocked fans trying to make senseof the news. As Grey Ruegamer, a former Packers offensive lineman and now amember of the Giants, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "Beer and brandysales are going up this week in Packer Nation."
Favre's departurehas also been felt in the larger football world. He was that rare player likedand respected even by his team's most bitter rivals. Word of Favre's retirementbroke on March 4, and soon the airwaves were packed with tributes that tendedtoward hagiography. While his Mississippi twang and aw-shucks charm conjuredcomparisons to Huck Finn, last week Favre felt more like Tom Sawyer attendinghis own funeral. "Watching TV last night," he said with bemusement,"I thought, This is what it's like when you die."
Favre's detachmentfrom his own celebrity has always been his most winning trait. Despite themillions he has made, he remains a man of simple tastes. A favorite date nightfor Brett and Deanna is to stay home and play Trivial Pursuit, and one of hisgreatest passions is maintaining his 465-acre spread in Hattiesburg, Miss.Favre doesn't hide his pleasure at the prospect of spending more time on theproperty, where innumerable oak trees are waiting to be trimmed. "He'sobsessed with the land," Deanna said in November. "In the off-seasonhe'll spend all day working out there. He's up early, and I don't hear from himsometimes until he calls, 'Hey, what's for dinner?'" Asked last week whathe looked forward to doing, Favre said simply, "Nothing."
That agenda allowshim more time for his most important priority: his daughters, Brittany, 19, andBreleigh, 8. On the morning of his press conference, before he flew into GreenBay, he took Breleigh to school in Hattiesburg. "Late as usual," hereported.
In fact, Favre hasalways had an unerring sense of timing. So many athletes stick around too long,displaying diminished skills and a depressing mortality, but he is leaving atexactly the right moment. How can we be sure? Because it hurts to saygoodbye.
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