Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why We Loved (and Hated) Brett Favre

As the dust has settled on the retirement of Brett Favre and his glorious Packer career, there are still the dying battle-cries going between those who have been perceived as the “Favre Lovers” and the “Favre Haters”. Why has this odd battle between all self-proclaimed Packer fans continued for so long? Why has the legend of Brett Favre split the fan base in such a polarized way?

In an amusing anecdote, an old childhood friend of mine was quoted by Peter King in January talking about what Favre has meant to the Packer fandom, going as far as to admit he dreamed of going mall shopping with Brett. Other than that little slip of T.M.I., my buddy talked about how inspirational Favre has been, how the dreams of this little town have ridden on his shoulders for so long, how he would be unable to go to work the day after Favre would announce his retirement.

And, so it was true on that day. But, as the Peter Kings and John Maddens of the world glorified Favre’s name, while the Dr. Z’s and Sal Palantonio’s piled on with words intended to diminish his accomplishments, the question that I ask is “why”?

Why did Favre turn some Packer fans into zealot-crazed Brett fans, who toiled to find any excuse for his mistakes or decline in play? And why did Favre turn other Packer fans into cult-like missionaries crying against anything he said or did, actually calling for Aaron Brooks to be brought back as a better option than Brett?

The answer, in my opinion, doesn’t actually come from his play on the field. Oh, you will certainly find many who will categorize every single interception and every time he didn’t pull out a game in the final minutes, but that’s not where it started. Some will point to his flippant press conferences, saying he undermined his teammates and coaches with politically incorrect, honest opinions.

It all comes down to one thing: Brett Favre let us in.

He let us in, and we saw him as more than a name and a number. We knew Brett Favre more than we’ve known any quarterback, any player in recent memory. For most of us, it increased our own emotional investment in him, our own reasons to root “for” a player as well as a team. He became larger than life, when in actuality, he was one of the only “real life” players we watched.

Most of our quarterbacks nowadays are supposed to be stoic field generals. We tend to frown upon the emotional and wild personalities, such as Ryan Leaf and Tony Romo. What do you know of the life of Peyton Manning, beyond his television commercials and the fact he wears #18 for the Colts? Is he married? Does he have children? Has he ever said anything to really tick you off? What has he gone through in his life that drives him?

But we don’t know those things. Tom Brady has personified that now-you-see-me-on-the-field, now-you-don’t-off almost perfectly until this past season, when his relationship and parental issues crept into the news. We don’t expect that from our offensive leaders. We expect strong, stoic leaders who do and say the right things.

Oh, sometimes, you get a guy like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson, guys who try to “let us in” with their antics on the field, but NFL fans know an act when they see it. Anyone notice how quiet Chad Johnson got when he stopped producing and his team stopped winning in 2007? Look-at-me antics aren’t letting us see the real person inside, just the caricature they want us to see.

But starting with Brett’s somber press conference, with his coach, his GM, his owner, and his fiancée at his side, announcing that he was addicted to painkillers and was seeking treatment, Favre let us in to see the human side of his life, the painful side, the things we don’t allow anyone else to see. Even coming forward as he did regarding his painkiller addiction was far different from the “no comments” and other assorted denials we hear when today’s players get caught. Denial is the politically correct way to deal with such accusations. Admitting you have a problem is the difficult and correct way to deal with it.

As time went on, the snowball of humanity grew. We saw him play with injuries that most players would have sat down with. We saw him continue to play with a youthful exuberance on the field that we wish other uninspired players would learn from. We saw him go through a very public death of his father, a very public death of his brother-in-law, his wife’s very public battle with breast cancer, and his family’s loss in Hurricane Katrina.

That snowball grew for everyone: not just his fans and growing fanatics, but the paparazzi-like media, who started treating every story about Favre as if it were about Paris Hilton or Britney Spears. Why? Because they knew there was an audience for all things Favre, and they write about what is going to sell copies.

On the other side, though, are the Packer fans who grew contemptuous of this snowball. They, too, spent some time with their Favre jerseys on, cheering him on. But around the early 2000’s, the backlash started. As that media snowball made the Packers into “Favre’s Team”, soon Favre started getting the blame whenever the “Green Bay Favres” didn’t win a Super Bowl. And in some ways, they had reason to do so.

Many football fans don’t want to get involved with their players. They don’t want to know where they came from, where they live, who they’re dating, or what they eat for dinner. All they care about are the cold, hard statistics, the biggest being wins and losses. As we saw Al Harris get eaten up by Plaxico Burress in the NFC Championship game in January, many of us started immediately brainstorming replacing Harris at corner, whether by the draft or by free agency.

Easily substitutable. Pay no mind Harris was a hero in the 2003 playoff game against the Seahawks and had played at a Pro Bowl level for some time. When an NFL player falters, he is expendable. Period.

It’s like we view our players as Madden players. When your starting quarterback falls below an overall rating of 90, don’t you start looking for another digital field general? Do you care about that other quarterback? No…he’s a name and a number, both of which are easily replacable.

Until we start talking about Brett Favre, who for many fans was completely irreplaceable, not just because of his play on the field, but because he allowed us to feel something beyond the name and number. For most of us, this created perhaps the fiercest loyalty to a player in decades, and for most, in memory.

For others, it was a ball and chain. It was an inconvenient loyalty that drove them crazy when the statistics said there is no reason any quarterback with 29 interceptions in a season should ever see a start again in their career, and yet, there he was again.

The insanity worked both ways, both for the Favre Fanatics who would have rather seen the whole team sacrificed, the future mortgaged, to give Brett a chance to prove himself as worthy of his hype, his reputation, his loyalty. And, there were those who took any comment, any bad decision, any “holding the team hostage” to discredit that hype, that reputation, that loyalty.

There would never have been a battle if it weren’t for one thing. Brett Favre broke the rules. He broke the mold of the great quarterbacks, the stoic, impenetrable façade that all are supposed to have, like Starr, Unitas, and Montana. He became more than a name we chanted, a number we wore on our own backs.

We cared. We cared about this man and his triumphs and his failures. We cared because he let us in and see parts of his life we would have kept secret. We saw him take his weakness and turn it into strength, and we cheered him for it, for making us a part of it.

And in some cases, we turned bitter at him, felt used and let down when he didn’t live up to the feelings we were supposed to have, when the facts and statistics didn’t support what we, deep down, wanted to feel.

As Favre rides off on his tractor into the sunset, hopefully the zaniness on both sides of the coin will take a deep breath and appreciate Brett Favre for the things he really was: a gunslinger, a winner, a risk-taker, an improviser, an ironman….and a real person, just like us.

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