Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Ironman Favre takes last bow

Retiring QB legend personifies all that is great about sports

March 5, 2008
Chicago Sun-Times Columnist

I'm pretty sure Brett Favre is the most beloved NFL star ever. Maybe that's a thin branch to tread, but think about it.

Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Gale Sayers. How many others?

Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Emmitt Smith, ''Mean'' Joe Greene, Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski?

None revered, appreciated by all, the way Favre is.

Every football hero before Favre lacked something, either in personality, endurance, struggle, geography, timing, enthusiasm, humor.

You think of Barry Sanders and you sigh. You think of Dick Butkus and you wince.

Think of Brett Favre? You smile.

Of course, Favre has all the quarterback records.

Good Lord, his bio takes up 30 pages of the Packers' 2007 media guide.

Without question Favre is the most durable quarterback in NFL history. You can get a measure of his consistency by considering he was one of only seven quarterbacks to start all 16 regular-season games -- in 1993.

And, of course, he hasn't missed a start since.

So suddenly we are left with the vacuum created by his quick, unexpected, yet ultimately reasonable voice mail to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, stating his own legacy left him stressed out, with ''big shoes for me to fill.''

That message itself showcased one of the reasons Favre was beloved not only in Green Bay, but also -- a lot less noisily -- in enemy strongholds such as Chicago, Detroit and Minneapolis.

How could anyone detest a competitor who so loved his competitors and the competition?

Universal admiration evident

Favre always told it the way he saw it, even if it didn't fit somebody's preconceived notion of what superstardom should be.

Always, Favre's football activities were colored with joy, infectious puppy-dog-with-a-new-toy joy.

You could go to a Packers postgame news conference, and Favre would talk to the media with care and some introspection, even if he was battered to a pulp (which often was the case).

Then you could go into the locker room and see all his family and friends come through. And then, when just about every Packers employee except the janitors had left, you could talk to him about almost anything you wanted.

One time I talked to him about the orange and camouflaged and animal-skin-covered fans in Lambeau during yet another deer-season game.

Favre waxed on about how he had looked out his window at the team motel early that morning and had seen a nice-sized buck not far away -- and how it had stirred the country hunter in him.

''Boy, I wanted to be out in a deer stand,'' he said wistfully.

People love Favre for the troubles he has seen -- the family deaths and illnesses and his own addictions and his gridiron wounds that one time had him coughing up blood before throwing a touchdown pass.

They admire him most of all for overcoming those hurts, for moving on, for refinding his joy of the game -- and, thus, life -- time and time again.

How could you boo Brett Favre, with actual malice, and mean it?

You couldn't.

Reckless but brilliant

The Bears played against Favre so many times that 21 quarterbacks started at various times in the years that Favre calmly sat at the throttles for the Pack, yielding the keys to no one.

From Kramer, Krieg and Krenzel to Moreno, McNown, Matthews, Miller, blah, blah and blah.

And Favre.

Is there a critic anywhere who doesn't salute such resilience, such constancy in this stupidly changing world?

Favre became something symbolic to everyone -- kid brother, gunslinger, genius, wild man, father, statesman, saint.

That he is going out at close to the peak of his game, even at 38, separates him from virtually every legendary athlete who has preceded him -- Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Michael Jordan, etc.

But always it comes back to that irrepressible joy of the game and the way it was manifested in Favre's life as part brilliance, part recklessness, all-encompassing.

It's a fact that Favre's attempts to do what couldn't be done nearly unhinged early coach Mike Holmgren.

And yet Holmgren ended up laughing with Favre as much as cursing him.

There was that playoff game in Detroit in 1994, and Favre, who had thrown 25 interceptions for the season, needed to lead the Packers from a 24-21 deficit with a minute to play. He already had thrown a third-quarter interception that Lions cornerback Melvin Jenkins had returned for a touchdown. Why not one more?

So as Favre rolled left and, under pressure, started to throw a simple dump pass to tight end Ed West, it seemed reasonable.

Then he stopped and let fly with a cross-field heave to streaking wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, who was uncovered because (a) nobody could throw the ball that far and (b) nobody would try to throw the ball that far.

Sixty yards in the air, at least.

Touchdown. Packers win.

''I told myself, there's gotta be something better,'' Favre said to us with a grin after the game. ''That's my problem. Sometimes there's not something better.''

Here's hoping all his retired days are nothing but good.

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