On Brett Favre

The Baltimore Sun

If you're able to read this - that is to say, if there is, in fact, life after Brett - we're forced to accept today that we've officially entered a new era.

Great athletes come and great athletes go. Even when they rewrite record books or redefine positions, most are able to fade into the sunset. But with the departure of Brett Favre - who was everything to everyone, who won Super Bowls and healed sick children, who saved the NFL and invented the forward pass - we're forced to admit that an era is over.

Hyperbole aside, by all accounts, Favre was the last of a breed.

I'm not talking about the three Most Valuable Player awards or the 442 touchdown passes. And I'm not talking about the 61,655 passing yards or the 275 consecutive starts.

Favre will go down as the last professional athlete who consistently received the benefit of the doubt. The last one your grandfather would have liked just as much as your son might have. The last one who could do no wrong ... or who could do wrong and still receive clemency quicker than a senator's son.

Before this detestable age of cynicism, Favre was appreciated by fans of all teams, a rarity in a sports world usually eager to spew hate and bile from the nearest barstool or computer keyboard. If your team lost to Favre, it was somehow acceptable. In an ESPN.com poll yesterday, 80 percent of respondents said they rooted for Favre. In this country, you can't get 80 percent of the population to agree on liking oxygen, let alone any one person.

"He played with a certain passion," former Green Bay Packers general manager Ron Wolf said yesterday, "a passion that you just don't see every day."

Wolf is the one who traded for Favre in 1992. He saw something special then, and it was just a matter of time before everyone else saw it, too.

"I thought I was going to get a franchise-caliber quarterback, a guy who would be the face of the entire franchise," said Wolf, now retired to Annapolis. "I had high expectations for him, and he didn't disappoint."

A certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, Favre is one of those rare athletes who marked time for a generation of fans. His longevity and his success provided a shared timeline. When Favre won his first MVP award, maybe you were finishing college. When he hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, maybe you were at the same Super Bowl party as your future wife. Or maybe you remember watching that Monday Night Football game with your dad shortly after Favre had lost his.

In 17 years, it wasn't that the game changed around Favre as much as the relationship between athletes and fans changed. And still Favre remained a universal favorite. He was always a throwback. His style, his attitude, his toughness.

He was flawed, yet perfect. Not in the way Tom Brady's chin is perfect. Or Peyton Manning's commerical-friendly smile is perfect. Favre is as perfect as a pair of faded blue jeans - comfortable, reliable, familiar. He looks like the guy shopping in Aisle 10 of your nearby Wal-Mart or the guy ordering a Bud bottle at the end of the bar.

As long as Favre's plant foot was rooted in that everyman innocence, his faults would be overlooked in a way no other player should ever expect.

Athletes haven't changed; Favre and others have always been filled with good and bad. But the way we process their feats and foibles has changed. Our patience, our tolerance and our willingness to believe has been suspended.

Because of athletes who rely on performance-enhancing drugs. Because of coaches who cheat. Because of officials with gambling interests.

Because in our sports world today, we pay more attention to what's wrong, instead of what's right. That's the real reason Favre is a throwback. With him, the focus was always on the positive. Those 288 interceptions - an NFL record, by the way - might as well have taken place on another planet. We preferred to focus on that last-minute drive in which Favre slipped a tackle and, as he fell to the ground, whipped a sidearm pass through the arms of the defensive end, safety and cornerback for the game-winning touchdown. That's the image of Favre that will hang on the memory's refrigerator door for years to come.

I think back to May 14, 1996. In his autobiography, Favre says that day he was "shaking more than Elvis in 'Jailhouse Rock' " as he told reporters that he was entering the NFL's substance-abuse program. He was 26 at the time, already accepted as the league's toughest player. Finally, there was a slight hint as to how he was able to fight off pain and play through injury. Painkillers - five, six, 10 a day.

At the time, it was Favre's competitive edge, his way of getting into the huddle every Sunday. In theory, it's not that different from today's athletes relying on human growth hormone or some other performance enhancer to recover from an injury.

Today's athlete is lambasted for leaning on artificial means. For Favre, it was just another part of the lore. It illustrated how badly he wanted to be in there. And when he overcame his addiction, it was just another accomplishment added to the list.

I don't point this out to dredge up ancient history, but simply to illustrate that Favre's treatment was atypical. There might be others who put up amazing numbers, who come from Nowhere, Miss., and who look like your neighbor down the street. But they won't be like Favre.

"He played at the citadel of professional football, in Green Bay, Wis.," Wolf said. "There were a lot of great players who played for the green and gold, but today they'll all tell you that the best player to wear those colors was Brett Favre."

Never another like him, which says as much about us as it does Favre.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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