King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Goodbye, Favre? The NFL's most beloved and interesting star says he's retiring, and a sports media that craves personalities doesn't want to believe him.

By King Kaufman
Published March 5, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

You know what would have been funny? If Brett Favre had signed a one-day contract with Atlanta so he could retire as a Falcon.

He announced Tuesday morning that he was retiring as a Packer after 17 seasons, the last 16 in Green Bay, during which he quarterbacked them to two Super Bowls, won one of them and became the most loved and admired football player of his generation.

Without quite being a Michael Jordan- or Wayne Gretzky-level player -- no football player has been, though Jerry Rice may have been close -- he reached their level of esteem. Cynical backlash stuff aside, Brett Favre has been beloved in a way that few athletes are anymore.

That love for him may have led to the almost funereal tone to Tuesday's coverage of the very-much-alive quarterback's announcement of a career change. ESPN and the rest of the sports media flipped into full-coverage mode, alternating between paeans to Favre's undeniable wonderfulness and glittering achievements and speculation about whether he's going to stay retired. He's not really going to retire, is he?

The first stage of grief, they say, is denial.

He's possessed of an everyman charm that few athletes even attempt to fake in this age of corporate-automaton superstars who, following Jordan's example, desire above all else not to offend, lest they endanger their endorsements.

Favre was happy to sell you something, mostly blue jeans and trucks. But his much-celebrated enthusiasm for the game, his Mississippi drawl, his sense of humor and his forthrightness and willingness to talk about his weaknesses and foibles have all made him seem more like that guy who lives down the street than some sort of icon. The guy who lives down the street might sell you a truck too.

He also had the streak. He started 253 consecutive regular-season games, a lap-the-field record for NFL quarterbacks. He passed Ron Jaworski's old record of 116 in what turned out to be the first half of his career. Considering the length of their respective sports' seasons, Favre's streak was almost exactly as long as that of Cal Ripken Jr., and, as with Ripken, it earned him the admiration of millions who trudge off to work every day without being celebrated for it or rewarded so handsomely.

Favre seemed to lack the sense of entitlement that most even semi-elite athletes carry around. Fans spend a lifetime listening to ballplayers whining about this thing or that and we think we'd trade places with them in a heartbeat and we wouldn't be like that. We'd appreciate the amazing abilities we had and the awesome gifts those abilities bring.

Of course most of us would be like that, because most of us complain plenty despite our own good fortune. Try living in, say, Burundi sometime.

But Favre wasn't like that. Can you think of a person who could have enjoyed being Brett Favre any more than Brett Favre has? It became a cliché over the years to say that Favre acted like a big kid out there on the field, but that's because he did, for so long. What other quarterback ever celebrated a touchdown by throwing a snowball or lifting his receiver onto his shoulders and carrying him around like a toddler?

It surely helped that he played in Green Bay, that NFL Mayberry where the populace owns the team and local kids still walk the players over to the practice field. But while Favre began his career with a year of carousing as a backup in Atlanta, you get the idea that he'd have been Brett Favre anywhere. Had he gone to New York, he wouldn't have become Broadway Brett. He'd have been McCloud.

He wasn't above criticism. He was knocked for being a diva over each of the last few springs and summers as he wrung his hands over the decision to come back or retire. But he always came back, and he was seemingly rejuvenated in the last two years as the Packers built a solid, defense-first team around him.

On the field he sometimes drew pans for his gunslinger ways. He never saw an opening -- or a triple team -- he didn't think he could fit a pass through, and while that thinking sometimes led to his most spectacular plays, it also sometimes made him an interception machine. But that mentality was also a key element in his charm and popularity. How could you not love his "It's only a game, why not just fling it downfield?" attitude?

Even more impressive was the way he changed his game toward the end, curbing the recklessness that had almost gotten out of hand as the Packers hit a down cycle and becoming, on the improving team, a ball-control quarterback. A good one. One who led the Packers to within -- well, to within one Favre interception of the Super Bowl last season.

The late-career bounce-back to effectiveness, the strong outlook for the Packers, and Favre's habit of playing Hamlet as the days got warmer made his sudden, early announcement Tuesday surprising and not entirely believable.

As various typists and chatterers noted in the hours after the story broke Tuesday, Favre didn't call a press conference. He just called his coach and let word leak out. Significant? He left a for-publication voice message for ESPN's Chris Mortensen in which he said he was fine physically but "I'm just tired mentally. I'm just tired."

But all NFL players are mentally tired right after the season. Will he feel different as training camp approaches? And was it a coincidence that Favre's sudden announcement came a day after the New England Patriots re-signed Randy Moss, whom Favre has been trying to get the Packers to sign for two years? Is he just frustrated?

It looked and sounded like wishful thinking. Those of us writing and talking about the machine-like NFL need guys like Brett Favre, guys with a little personality, a little sand. Guys who play better when it's snowing, who look like they're having fun out there. He hasn't been the only one of those, only the greatest of them.

Maybe he'll change his mind but I think the announcement coming so early signals decisiveness, at long last. That's the more Favre-like trait than the indecision of the last few offseasons, isn't it? Make a decision and live with it. How better to describe Favre's style, which led to bullet-like touchdowns and crazy scramble and shovel-pass plays, and also to slap-your-forehead picks. But almost always it led to the highlight reel.

He leaves with a longer highlight reel than just about anyone and just about every significant passing record, including, of course, interceptions. As he mentioned to Mortensen, there's not a whole lot more for him to do.

He already became Brett Favre. How does a guy top that?

Previous column: NBA do-over

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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