JUST SAY I'm somewhere in Afghanistan," Army Special Forces Team Sgt. Scott Olson told me one night last week, near the front lines of the war with the Taliban. Nothing more specific than that, he said, because people are trying to kill him, and the less they know of his whereabouts the better.
For the past several off-seasons I've been on Brett Favre retirement watch. Funny, then, that when news broke last week that Favre was leaving the NFL, I was half a world away, on a league-organized USO tour of American military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan. When I got a chance to check my voice mail, I found a message from Favre that began, "Peter.... Brett. I guess this news is out now, and I wanted to call and ... you know ... hey, I'm tired. I'm just tired. I wish I had some, you know, big, dramatic, exotic reason why. But I don't. I know I can still play, but I'm just tired. Mentally, I'm just drained."
I met Favre in 1995, his first MVP season, when I spent a week with the Packers for an SI story. In the ensuing years I got to know him well, and although I thought at the end of this season he would play another year, his retirement was not a bolt out of the blue. He grew to really hate two things about his job: the never-ending demands on his time, which only worsened as the NFL got bigger and his stature increased, and the pressure on a quarterback to deliver Super Bowls (plural) to his team. I was with Favre two nights before the Pack's playoff game against Seattle in January when a Green Bay TV crew rang his doorbell, seeking comment on a report that he'd decided to return in 2008. The story was inaccurate, but I saw the look on Favre's face: It just never ends.
Football players and soldiers have much in common, though the stakes are immeasurably higher for the latter. I watched the NFL players on this trip—defensive ends Mike Rucker of the Panthers and Luis Castillo of the Chargers and defensive tackle Tommie Harris of the Bears—deep in conversation with Army Rangers in Kandahar, each side fascinated with the other's jobs. Army basic training parallels NFL training camp. Barracks life mirrors the locker room. "Do you give as much s--- to rookies as we give to the young pups?" a Ranger asked Rucker. Sure do, Rucker told him.
March 16, 2008
And 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. On this evening Olson and his men were relaxing before a 4 a.m. departure to somewhere, to do something—maybe force Taliban elements out of a nearby small town, maybe flush insurgents from a mountain cave near the Pakistani border.
I asked about Favre. "My favorite player," said Olson, a soft-spoken, wiry 5'8" workout devotee with piercing eyes. "He enjoyed the game. He played with the kind of passion for football that we try to bring to our jobs. We watched his [retirement] press conference here, and you could tell by his breakdown how much he loves football."
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. No sense trying to re-create the past once you've decided to move on. If anything, the stress level will only rise if he returns.
"I can identify with him," Olson said. "I'm 32. I'll probably retire out of the military at 37. When I leave, it'll be sad. Where else will you find this kind of camaraderie and rewarding feeling about a job? I think it's the same with him."