Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Peter King: Mentally drained

Another season probably wasn't worth grind for Favre
Posted: Tuesday March 4, 2008 12:49PM; Updated: Tuesday March 4, 2008 3:51PM

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- When the news of Brett Favre's retirement broke halfway around the world, NFL defensive linemen Mike Rucker and Luis Castillo -- on a USO/NFL Tour to pump up the troops here and in Afghanistan -- stood huddled around a computer in the back of a pub on an U.S. Air Force Base. It was Karaoke Night, but they weren't interested in music. They had their eyes fixed to a Biloxi Sun Herald story reporting legendary Packers quarterback Brett Favre would retire after his storied 17-year career.

"Wow! I love the dude,'' said Rucker, the veteran Carolina Panther end, when he had digested the story. "Over the last few years, it's obviously been on his mind. It must be that he's tired, mentally and physically, and the game has worn on him. What I'll always love and appreciate about him is that he was a gunslinger who didn't change his game to appease his critics. I just got his autograph on a jersey last year, and that thing will go in a frame in my house and I'll treasure it forever. You talk about security -- that jersey will have security like the Mona Lisa has around it.''

Said San Diego's Castillo: "It's sad, but I will always cherish the one chance I had to play him this year at Lambeau Field. As crushed as we were to lose it, it's a thrill to have played in a game that he won in the last minute. I remember preparing for the game thinking what an honor and privilege it was to be playing him. And then it turned out to be a great game, all the way down to the end. What a competitor. It's as good as competition gets.''

This was as surreal a scene as it gets, 12 time zones away from Green Bay, with an airman warbling Raspberry Beret by Prince in the background, and Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, the third player on the USO tour, waiting to imitate Johnny Gill. But the moment the news broke, the players and some Packer fans stationed here gathered around the computer and looked stunned.

At this moment, Bishkek was Ashwaubenon and Oshkosh and Wausau, only not quite as teary, presumably. But just as eye-poppingly surprised. Everyone knew the 38-year-old Favre would retire soon, but after how well he played last season, most of those I talked to here thought he'd delay it at least one more year.

As a Favrophile over the years, I'll relate one story from late last season that I think says much about why Favre made the choice he made this week. Two nights before the Packers played Seattle in a playoff game, I was in Favre's home and the doorbell rang. News had broken that day that Favre had decided to come back for the 2008 season, but he denied that to me, and told everyone that all he said was that he was enjoying the game and his team this year. He hadn't determined his fate for 2008 and wouldn't until sometime after the season.

But now, a Green Bay TV station was at the door asking for comment on the story, and Favre's wife, Deanna, politely shooed them away. The look on Favre's face said: Does it never end? Take me at my word -- I will decide my future in the future, not now.

That, I believe, was at the heart of this decision. Favre still loves the game and knows he can play at a top-NFL level. But at the end of the day, he also knows if he had signed up for another year, he would have signed up to be the titular head of the Packers from late July 'til the bitter winter, with all eyes on him during every practice and every walkthrough, and his words in all press conferences being closely analyzed. I think he'd rather edge his 465 acres in Hattiesburg, Miss., and worry about how to contain the runaway beaver population than to have the bright lights on him, even in a small town like Green Bay, for five months a year.

Favre loved being just a guy. But it was next to impossible for the all-time touchdown leader and passing-yardage leader to be that. Putting the records far out of reach for the next generation of great passers -- led by Peyton Manning -- held no interest for him. Taking another shot at a Super Bowl held some interest for him, and that's why I believe he agonized over the decision in recent weeks. But another five-month grind to get to January, in his opinion, obviously wasn't worth what he'd have to go through along the way.

That didn't make it any easier to swallow for Packer Nation, even for those halfway around the world.

"My God,'' said Air Force Airman First Class Lyle Tonnon Jr., of Chicago, an avowed Packer fan despite his home zip code. "My legs are weak.''

"Dude, I'm shaking,'' countered Air Force Sgt. Brian Caliba.

"I want to cry,'' Tonnon said. "I just heard, and when I did, I put my head down on the pool table. I'm saying, 'No! No!' It's a shock. But I do know this: Wherever I'm stationed, when he goes in the Hall of Fame, I promise you I'll take leave and be there for his induction. He was the toughest SOB at the quarterback position, ever.''

When Harris, who sacked him twice playing in the spirited Bear-Packer rivalry over the years, was done singing, he said he wasn't surprised. "I thought he might come back, but I'm not surprised,'' he said. "I respect him even more as a person right now than I ever have, because he made a decision that's good for him and for his family.''

I asked Harris what he'd remember about competing against Favre.

"As a competitor?'' he said. "There was no one like Brett Favre. I remember playing him once and seeing him jump in his offensive linemen's faces. He just wanted everyone always to be their best. He's the competitor I always want to be, the kind of competitor I want to show my teammates every game.''

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