The New Orleans Saints’ strategy in last month’s NFC championship game was primitive and perfectly suited: Take advantage of quarterback Brett Favre’s 40-year-old body by inflicting a caveman’s clubbing. Hundreds of pounds of muscle and anger and adrenaline hit him at high speed a total of 17 times, and Favre, perhaps playing the last game of his career, managed to withstand the punishment until the third quarter, when he severely hurt his ankle. He limped on the sidelines and was basically immobile and should have taken himself out of the game then, regardless of the stakes. But it was never going to happen, because pain in public for Brett Favre has always been dependable publicity.
The more Favre got whipped, the more you could hear the brains of the sportswriters sifting for the clichés of glory and tragedy that have passed for analysis since the days of Grantland Rice. The next day, John Feinstein wrote on the Washington Post website that Favre had “come to embody Hamlet” and described him as “heroic” and “tragic.” Larry Canale wrote on a New York Times blog that Favre “was as game as ever, and he would not quit.” James Penrice at Catholic Online wrote that it was time to “give Favre his due as a man whose spiritual strength overcomes the weakness of mind and body.”
Oh My God ...
Brett Favre wasn’t heroic. He was a hubristic fool. He wasn’t a warrior. He was an arrogant braggart who, whatever the homespun hokum of his Mississippi roots, perversely reveled in his pain to the point where his agent publicly disseminated pictures of his injuries like cheesecake photos--a deep-purple ankle lumpish and swollen, an equally deep-purple hamstring. The pictures did what Favre hoped they would: further reinforce his image as The Gladiator, The Samurai, The White Knight for whom guts in football, however stupid and wanton, is what counts.
The sportswriters should be partially excused. They were writing on deadline and searching for an angle, which Favre supplied: the removal of his uniform pants after the game like a slow striptease; the disclosure that, when he hurt his ankle, he could hear a crunching sound inside; the walk through the tunnel of the Superdome to meet his wife and children as if it were a tracking shot straight out of Scorsese. He has always been clinically grandiose beneath the “aw-shucks” country boy cover. He knows what sportswriters crave, not just the junk food of the noble warrior but the soul-aching confessional, which largely accounts for why he admitted to being a Vicodin addict in 1996. He knew that, when he decided to play a football game the night after his father died in 2003, it would not be perceived for the act of self-absorption it was, but as an act of courage after he carefully spun it as that’s what pappy would have wanted.
Favre has crafted his public persona as carefully as Tiger Woods, only more so. Unlike Tiger, Favre knew when to out himself, in his case, for drug use, before someone else did it for him. He relished the soap opera of whether he would come back last season after saying he had retired, acting like a general being begged to return to the field of battle.
Woods is still a great competitor and winner, his superhuman confidence on the golf course earned. Favre has the same confidence on the football field, but it has caused him to have a schizophrenic career, sometimes great but not great overall. Supporters will point to the NFL records he holds for passing yards and touchdowns. He will get in the Hall of Fame. But, if the goal is to win it all, which it is, Favre should have done it more than just once in 19 seasons.
He has thrown a record 30 interceptions in postseason games, not because he was always hurried in the pocket, but because of his delusions of magnificence in thinking he could always connect, even when three defensive backs enveloped a receiver. To their credit, many sportswriters pointed this out in their accounts of the championship. He did it with less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Saints, throwing a pass across his body that had no chance of completion and a much greater chance of interception, which is what happened and what led to his team’s loss in overtime, 31-28. He threw a devastating interception two years earlier in a playoff game against the New York Giants. And the same against the Philadelphia Eagles in a playoff game a couple of years before that.
Against the Saints, he could have scrambled for at least several yards to set up a likely winning field goal and a trip to the Super Bowl. But he could not scramble because he could not run. He could not run because of the combination of the ankle injury and the Saints’ merciless rush. It was their sadism versus his masochism, football S&M, and the sadists always come out on top.
Even still, Favre’s playing in agony was a spectacle the public loved--and a remarkably pernicious one at that. The millions of kids who look up to him, from Pop Warner to high school, will believe that the only way to play is at the expense of your body and that any thought of later consequences is the domain of cowards. And the NFL--which has taken its share of criticism recently over what appears to have been a complete disregard for the long-term effects of injuries in pro football, particularly head injuries--can rest easy that the ultimate impact of investigations into the game’s brutality will be minimal. Fans don’t want a less bloody product. Water the game’s violent core down and what do you have?
Soccer with more scoring.
Brett Favre buys into that vision of football as well as anyone, for now. Ten years hence, when, like so many other former players, he may only be able to hobble from place to place, he might reconsider. But, if he can’t walk, will it really matter?
Buzz Bissinger is the author of Friday Night Lights, A Prayer for the City, and, most recently, Shooting Stars, co-written with LeBron James.