The Saddest Man in Professional Football


On Sports

My love for Brett Favre—it was always Favre, and only incidentally his team, that I loved—made me something of an oddity in Northern California. “What a bum,” my grandfather, a 49ers fan, would grumble, examining my first serious crush. “The man can’t even shave for Monday Night Football.” This was true. Favre’s manly scruff was a trait I found charming as a child, seductive as a teenager, and slightly depressing as a young adult.

It’s also the key to his allure. Brett Favre can play perfectly without being perfect. He has—still—one of the best arms the NFL has ever seen, but he isn’t a Tom Brady touchdown-making machine. He’s not a robot from the Manning factory. He’s just a guy, trying to do his job, who often forgets to shave in the morning. He’s played hurt, he’s played sad, he’s played bearded, and yes, he’s played terribly.

In fact, how terribly he sometimes plays is part of the magic. In the early days, with the Packers, he would throw four interceptions in the first half, come back in the third quarter with a few well-placed passes to put the Pack within six, and then, with thirty-five seconds left on the clock in the fourth, he would go into the no-huddle offense, calling audibles just before the snap, sneaking forty-yard completions into double coverage, emerging breathless, victorious, arms raised. Even then, his heart was more powerful than his body.

But after a heartbreaking NFC Championship loss to the Giants in the winter of 2007, a game essentially ended by an interception (last-minute interceptions had, by that point, replaced his Hail Mary completions), even I knew it was time for him to retire. I also knew that he wouldn’t be able to until he had made it back to the Super Bowl. Favre has one Super Bowl ring, which he won in 1996, as a shaggy-haired twenty-seven-year-old. He took the Packers back the following year, but they lost. He spent the next decade trying to prove that victory wasn’t a fluke, but with close of the 2007 game, he had squandered his last chance.

We both cried when he announced his retirement. And when he changed his mind, it was tempting, given my emotional investment, to feel betrayed. It seemed like a classically cocky move from an aging athlete who didn’t know when to quit. But it wasn’t.

Most people know when it’s time to retire. At thirty-eight, Brett Favre had just given up the one thing he had likely been perfecting since he was an impressionable eight-year-old. He was a confused middle-aged man doing one of the most pathetic, desperate, moving things a human being can do. He was a guy begging for a second chance. He was the saddest man in professional football.

When Favre pleaded with the Packers to take him back, detractors focused on Aaron Rodgers, Favre’s backup, who was ready to be QB1. But Rodgers is young—only twenty-six. He has seasons to prove himself; Favre doesn’t. And though more than a decade older, Favre is still the better quarterback, still better than most quarterbacks. Last year he led the Vikings to the NFC conference game. He threw an interception in the last seconds of the fourth quarter, and his team lost. I cried because, at this point, watching Brett Favre play football may be the only thing sadder than being Brett Favre. Every loss is proof that desire gets you less than ten yards. Every completion, every victory reminds me of his tearful pleas, even as he makes good on their inherent promises. He is asking for just one more season, one more game, one more chance. And because he’s still good enough, because his heart aches for redemption so badly it (almost) trumps logic, physics, and modern medicine, I am still saying yes.

Editor’s note: This post originally stated that Brett Favre threw an interception in overtime in the 2009 NFC Championship game. We regret the error.