In the presidential campaign, the debate is over properly inflated tires. David Broder has expressed his dismay (did anyone not see this coming?) over the way American politics have taken the low road. David Gergen — who, it seems, will never shut up — has pulled on his chin and found a dangerous message of racism behind the argument that Obama is mostly an insubstantial media creation. Which is something Gergen, of all people, should recognize.
Time, in short, to leave the muck of politics for the green fields of sport — where the news is all about Brett Favre.
Favre, who played quarterback in Green Bay for 16 seasons, is no longer a Packer. This week, he was traded to the New York Jets. As a Packer, Favre was more than a star — he was a force of nature. He holds National Football League records for, among other things: most career touchdown passes (442); most wins by a starting quarterback (160); and most MVP awards (3).
But the most impressive of his many records is this: he started an astonishing 275 consecutive games under center. For more than a decade, every player on the other side of the ball wanted to put him on the ground hard enough to send him to the sidelines for the rest of that game and the next couple as well. This, it should be pointed out, isn’t “dirty football.” (Not necessarily, anyway.) It’s just football. It’s a game, as John Madden is inclined to chant in his broadcast litanies, “for tough guys.”
For historians of the game, Farve recalls some of the great old tough-guy quarterbacks — like Bobby Lane, who was the last of the breed to play in a helmet that lacked a face-mask. Lane was a master hell-raiser off the field, one of those rare people who could hoot with the owls until late at night and still soar with the eagles after the sun came up. Asked once how he managed to play so well after partying so hard, Lane replied, “I sleep fast.”
In his younger days, Favre was known to enjoy the party scene. There is a roadhouse in his hometown of Kiln, Mississippi called the Broke Spoke that has become a kind of shrine to Favre. When I stopped in for a beer a few years ago, the walls of the place were decorated with Favre jerseys and a few interesting bras that had been left behind by ladies who had partied too hard. Or, perhaps, just hard enough.
Favre eventually matured — he went through a difficult stretch with prescription drugs and his wife’s breast cancer — and but never lost his exuberance for the game. In an era of robotic “game manager” quarterbacks whose role is to carry out the wishes of dictatorial coaches, Favre was a free spirit and — as he is inevitably described in the media — a “gunslinger.” He believed in his own strong arm and that if his guy was double-covered, no sweat: He could squeeze it in there. At times, he seemed to prefer the busted play to the scripted one. He could be counted on to drive his coaches — especially Mike Holmgren who coached the Packer team Favre led to a Super Bowl win in 1997 — to distraction and beyond. For Favre, it seemed, football never stopped being a game.
Until it did. Which was last week. When it became all business.
Favre had retired, melodramatically, after coming within one game of returning to the Super Bowl last season. He had taken weeks to make up his mind and, it seemed, less time than that to change it. When he announced he was un-retiring, the Packers were underwhelmed. They were heavily invested in developing young quarterback Aaron Rodgers and were prepared to “move on,” as we are all wont to say.
According to the public narrative, Green Bay fans desperately wanted him back, the front office wanted him gone, and feeling dissed, Favre wanted to land with a team that had Super Bowl chances.
The front office, it seems, got its wish. The fans are bitterly disappointed. And Favre has a very tall hill to climb with the Jets, who won four games last year and play in the same division as the New England Patriots.
Football classicists see intimations of Sophoclean doom in all this. Aging quarterbacks never seem to take their glory with them when traded. Joe Namath limped feebly into the sunset as a Ram after taking the Jets to the most famous football upset of all time in the 1969 Super Bowl. Johnny Unitas, the iconic modern quarterback, was an embarrassing shadow of himself in a San Diego uniform. Joe Montana, wearing a Chief’s uniform, looked as mortal as Craig Morton.
But Jets fans now have reason to hope, which is what they have mostly done since that Namath Super Bowl 40 years ago. And, oddly, both New York football teams are now in the hands of quarterbacks from Mississippi. If the gods cared anything about football, they would amuse themselves — and all of us fans — with a 2009 Superbowl matchup between the Giants and the Jets. Brett Favre out of Southern Mississippi against Eli Manning from Ole Miss.
A barstool at the Broke Spoke would then be the hottest ticket on earth.
Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected since its initial posting.
– Geoffrey Norman is editor of vermonttiger.com.