Tuesday, March 4, 2008

At the top of his game

After 17 seasons in the National Football League, after 61,655 passing yards, 442 passing touchdowns, 5,377 completions, 8,758 passing attempts and 253 consecutive starts, Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Lorenzo Favre is hangin’ em up, retiring from the Packers and from pro football. Lambeau Field will never, ever be the same.

It wasn’t because of injury. There was no career-changing surgical intervention that promoted the decision. Favre had hit the wall of achievement; there was no one for Brett Favre to top except Brett Favre. “I know I can still play,” he told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen this morning, “but it’s like I told my wife, I’m just tired mentally. I’m just tired. … I was always trying to top what I’d done the previous week.”

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The true football fan will shed a few tears — inside if not for real —at the departure of the only three-time Most Valuable Player in the history of the NFL. The true fan will also relish the classy way that Favre bowed out.

Antonio Freeman, the receiver who caught 57 TD passes from Favre as a Packer, told ESPN that “it’s a great move because he’s able to retire whenhe wants to. He’s not being put out of the league, as a lot of NFL players are.”

Freeman alludes to an all-too-common occurrence among athletes generally: the tendency of some to overstay their welcome, to persist in a sport after the physical gifts that once made them indomitable had long since slipped away. One can’t help but contrast Muhammad Ali in his prime — a pugilistic force of nature, an incandescent presence in the ring — with Ali at his twilight, engaging in fisticuffs (or, in one laughable case, wrestling) instead of boxing, not so much a shadow of his former self as a fraction of it, running on reputation and bravado.

From his first start as a quarterback on Sept. 27, 1992 (two presidents ago), the native of Gulfport, Miss., showed he meant to perform at a high level. He retires with 160 wins as a starter, an iron man of football who went 36-9 playing games in temperatures 32 degrees or below.

Other high-caliber quarterbacks Favre passed along the way to statistical supremacy — Joe Montana, Steve Young, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady — had or have all the textbook gifts: strength, precision passing, toughness, intelligence under fire. But none of them had that little something extra Favre had.

More than any other quarterback in the game, Brett Favre possessed that unquenchable joy of being an NFL QB, the irrepressible passion that showed itself in different ways: low-fiving a referee, sticking out his tongue at the opposition, having a snowball fight with fans in a divisional game, madly sprinting around the field after a TD pass with the excitement of a little boy celebrating his first touchdown throw.

When he went wild, we all went wild, and for reasons that went beyond wins and losses. The little kid in Brett Favre never left the field. Maybe that’s what we’ll miss the most. But when there’s less to look forward to than there is to look back on, when the vistas in the rear-view mirror are brighter than the ones in front of you … it’s time.

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What’s next? Aaron Rogers, who’s been basically riding the Green Bay bench for about two seasons, is set to take over as starting quarterback. The word “replace” will invariably be used in news accounts to describe the changeover, but reporters and editors will need to get a thesaurus to find another word.

Aaron Rogers knows it. The Packers faithful know it. Fans of the NFL know it too: Brett Favre can’t be replaced, any more than an engine or a motor can replace the human heart. Brett Favre left the game he loved — the game he loves — on his own terms, under his own power, at the top of his game and the league. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Image credits: Favre: PSUMark2006 (public domain). Scoreboard: Public domain

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