If rehashing the same old story is beating a dead horse, then the Brett Favre saga is tantamount to HBO’s ‘Luck’ in reoccurring equine cruelty. But in the wake of last Monday’s Packers/Seahawks debacle, it dawned on me just how drastically things have changed in the five years since Brett Favre picked up his football and went home to Mississippi.
Not so much in the game itself, but in how we connect with athletes in general. In 2007, I got the news that Favre was retiring by listening to Jay Glazer on the radio. Last Monday evening, once my blood pressure reached non-threatening levels, I knew just where to go to get what I was looking for: Twitter.
And sure enough, there it was. TJ Lang dropping f-bombs. Josh Sitton doing the same. Jermichael Finley posting his usual nonsensical drivel. I didn’tcare. I came to Twitter because I knew the emotion of the game would be enough to cause at least a few athletes to — if only for a second — turn the PR filter off and post what they were thinking. Or maybe more accurately, post without thinking.That, after all, is part of the appeal of Twitter and social media. We’ve gotten so accustomed to athletes giving us cliché’, banal responses that when we finally get to see one say, ‘You know what? FUCK these refs!’ it’s actually refreshing.
It’s also incredibly rare. And who can blame them? When one wrong tweet can sabotage your marketability and you’ve got a thousand reporters and even more hack bloggers out there (points at self) just looking for the tiniest nugget to stir shit up, it’s no wonder players like Tom Brady have become equally adept at giving bland, politically correct answers as he is at reading defenses.
So while social media has drastically increased our ability to peek through the window into the lives of athletes, it’s caused the large majority of them to draw the blinds. And that in turn, has caused the concept of athletes as heroes to diminish. Either we already know everything about them and there’s no mystique. Or we know nothing about them and there’s nothing to relate to. And if they’re not engaging with us, WHAT ARE THEY UP TO? WHAT ARE THEY HIDING? It’s all led to our increased cynicism towards athletes in general.
And then there was Favre.
As I was watching the Internet implode last Monday, it reminded me of a story about him. When I was younger I worked at a car dealership as one of those grease monkey, oil changer, car washing guys. Basically, one of those guys you NEVER want inside your car. Anyway, a salesman at that dealership (and an avid Packer fan) had a picture that he showed me of Favre that was taken during Favre’s heyday. It was of Favre, completely passed out, laying on top of a bar at one of the Packers’ many Milwaukee-area rumpus rooms of the mid- to late-90’s.
Looking back, the amazing thing wasn’t seeing our starting QB laying piss drunk on top of someone’s bowl of peanuts. No, the amazing thing was my complete non-reaction to it. I really couldn’t have cared less. That was just, “FURV BEIN’ FURV.”
Today, that kind of picture would cause a shitstorm of ‘How much do you want for this?’ offers to Deadspin along with a thousand stories from talking head blowhards like Skip Bayless wondering if, “Favre is committed to winning???” It would all be so predictable and annoying.
And that was the thing about Favre. He was completely immune to this stuff right up until he retired from the Packers in 2007. For 16 years Favre was revered as a hero to the people of Wisconsin. But the thing he never figured out, was that it was only partially due to what he did on the football field.
No, people loved Favre because like only a handful of athletes today, he was an open book. When Favre’s father died, people empathized with him because they knew the pain of losing someone. When his struggle with addiction went public, people defended him for simply being human. And when he yet again, threw another interception, people excused him because what Favre reminded us above all else, was that he, like us, was flawed.
A friend of mine wrote a terrific piece last year about Walter Payton’s legacy. He said:
“We don’t need to know that men are imperfect. We learn that day after day from our own lives, and the lives of people around us — be they friends, family, coworkers, or even strangers on the street.
What we need is to know that men can be perfect. That they can rise above the walls that hold us back and the potholes that trip us up.”
But where Payton’s legacy is defined by perfection, Favre’s was in reminding us that not only are we all imperfect, but that it’s okay to be imperfect. That greatness can still be achieved even with the greatest of physical or character flaws.
And that’s the great tragedy in all this.
That Favre left his mantle at precisely the right time. Just before social media took off. Before our athletes became talking robots. And before the title of ‘hero’ was forever diluted by deleted tweets.
But suppose for a second that Favre did achieve what he wanted by coming back. Suppose that he doesn’t make that oh-so Favre-like cross-body throw to the Saints and the Vikings go on to win the Super Bowl. Guess what, he’s still a backstabbing, unappreciative, cock-shot-sending egomaniac. Oh, except he has two titles instead of one.
Obviously, we know how his narrative played out. And certainly, no athlete’s legacy has been more defined by ‘what could have been’ on the field than Favre. But it’s the off-the-field stains that now tarnish his legacy. Which is ironic because before he became a petulant, vengeful, philanderer, it was largely the off-the-field things that defined his legacy.
The amazing thing is, that legacy could have grown even more simply by doing…nothing. Favre could have sat back, allowed the landscape to shift as it has, and watched as his name was consecrated to an even higher status as other athletes either self-destructed before our eyes, or became cold, hollow figures behind a facemask.
Instead, he missed his chance at being the last remaining sports hero. All because he just couldn’t stay away. All because he wanted what? More titles? More records? These things will eventually be eclipsed by some other quarterback physically capable of more than Favre was. But statistics, as we know are only part of the equation. Unfortunately, Favre’s ego blinded him to this reality.
He came back to chase wins and touchdowns. And in doing so, Favre missed his opportunity to become something much more — A legend.