Sunday, January 13, 2008

Favre: One More for the Road

It gets cold in Green Bay. Damn cold. Think of Wisconsin and you probably think of someplace remote, covered in snow. So, it seemed appropriate Saturday night when the Green Bay Packers came out of the tunnel to snow fall. And I imagine the crowd at Lambeau Field did not mind the snow one bit, welcoming the sight of their ancient winter companion. From there Bret Favre took the controls and never looked back. The Packer quarterback led the team to a 42-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks, knocking them from the playoffs.

But the backbreaking moment for the Seahawks occurred right before half time when Favre completed a short shovel-passed to tight end Donald Lee for a touchdown. What would have been an atypical accomplishment seemed almost patented in Favre's hands. Stumbling through the snow after avoiding a sack, Favre gathered his energy for one last effort before falling to the ground: under-handing the ball five yards forward to Lee, who caught the pass and walked into the end zone. This is the type of thing Favre is known for. But to watch him do it at 38 years old, producing something from nothing, electrifying the fans of Green Bay, yet again, seemed like something out of Ernest Thayer.

There have been articles written about Favre, and his gunslinger style. The rocket-armed quarterback from small-town Mississippi, who rode into Green Bay and led the team to a Super Bowl championship. Recklessness was his style, the brand that sometimes caught the best of him, but more often than not he managed to somehow spin straw into gold. And there have already been articles written about this game. And I imagine that particular faltering, improbable shovel-pass has been shown, and is being talked about on ESPN right now.

Many are tired of all the Favre hype and this will only unnerve them further. But love him or hate him, Bret Favre has represented something sorely gone missing in modern sports. He is a throwback, a gritty competitor, and he awkward and pure. He is not flawless, not manufactured in a lab. His style will not be emulated, but his heart will. And to see such things achieved, by sheer act of will, is a testament to the best of what sports has to offer. Favre wears his scars on his sleeve, and in his advancing age it takes all the more effort to rise above them. As athletes like Marion Jones head off to prison, linked to steroid abuse, Favre continues playing, breaking records, and improvising on the fly. And he does this at 38, and he continues to come back every week and start again, in a brutal contact sport. His record of 274 consecutive starts, including playoff births, is nothing short of incredible. He will be done when he is ready to be done.

There is no end to what you can say about Favre's contributions to football and to sports in general. But his meaning to the state of Wisconsin is describe or fathom. I moved to a small town in the middle of that state when I was eleven. I may as well have landed on the moon. I learned there are three pillars to Wisconsin life--football, hunting, and beer--but the greatest of these is football. People in Wisconsin treat the Packers as a form of religion, with a life-linked seriousness matched only by college football in southern states. There's just not that much to do in Wisconsin. It is not sunny California, it is not eclectic New York City. To live and die in Wisconsin is not an entitlement, it is not a distraction, but a birthright faced with pride and stoicism. And Football gives the populace something less benign to ponder.

When I was 16 I worked at a local grocery store at that small town in Wisconsin. Every Sunday I had the early morning shift from 6:30 am to 2:30 pm. And so by the time I left work most Packers games were winding down. I remember listening to Favre's fist comeback win, in his 2nd game as the Packer's quarterback. With a minute left the Packers were down by six to the Cincinnati Bengals. Favre produced a touchdown drive from the eight yard line and Green Bay won the game. Favre led the Packers to a six-game winning streak, which at that time seemed incredible. The Packers went 9-7 that year and barely missed the playoffs. The whole state was caught up in the mania. Of course, the rest is history. This was the start of 13 consecutive non losing years, six consecutive playoff births, two Super Bowl appearances, and one championship.

Much has been written about these years for the Packers, who, for a time were America's team. Favre became the embodiment of the NFL competitor, while winning three-straight MVP awards. And all of this occurred in an almost improbable sports setting of Green Bay, population 100,000, the last vestige of small-towns to still have a professional sports franchise. In an era of market-driven hype and corporate stadiums, the Packers are an anomaly, publicly owned by the people of Wisconsin. You can see what someone like Favre would mean to the community and to the state. Fans from huge cities like New York can say they love sports, and they demand their winners and are willing to pay for them, but in Wisconsin there really is only football, and when the season ends the only thing left to look forward to is spring.

Favre has gone from man to myth right before his people's eyes. I imagine my friends will someday tell their children about Favre's days, and of his exhilarating victories and his crushing defeats. Like all great legends, his career a metaphor of our own uncertain lives. He made the most out of what he had, and that's all any of us can try to do. His career rose and rose culminating in a championship. Back then there seemed to be no end in sight. But now we know there is a decline. Age sets in. Those around you change. Favre, with gray stubble, sets off to answer the bell. And now, at 38, with nothing much left to prove, he plays on, one more time for the road. And we are each reminded of our own fading powers over time, our own missed opportunities, and our own mortality.

Favre will not be able to play forever, although he has promised to come back next season. One long-shot scenario has him exiting at the end of this season: one last Super Bowl victory. This is highly unlikely given the power of the teams in the rival AFC. But no one gave John Elway much of a chance in 1997, when his Broncos defeated Favre and the favored Packers in the Super Bowl. Maybe this year history will come full circle. But to expect that is to miss the point. It is to miss the magic of games like yesterday, with Favre scampering through the snow, throwing off-balance for another improbable touchdown in front of the fans who now revere him as the embodiment of everything they believe in. Maybe what we have learned from Favre and his originality is the cliche: not the end, but the journey. It is the collection of good days and unexpected moments which make a life. Favre, collectively, may be remembered as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but each moment will forever belong to Wisconsin.

No comments: