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Several weeks ago, when legendary head coach and broadcaster John Madden announced his intention to walk away from the NFL following a four-decade run of nearly unprecedented success and popularity, he did so with scarcely a sound. Appearing on his on his own local radio show, he made the announcement
succinctly, gracefully and without ceremony. "You know at some point you have to do this — I got to that point," Madden said. "The thing that made it hard is that I enjoyed it so damn much."
I wonder what, if anything, went through the mind of Brett Favre when he heard this. Did his jaw audibly crack open from incredulity? For Madden and Favre clearly have a different conception of what the term "retirement" means. Popular definition holds that the act of retiring is to "withdraw from office, business, or active life, usually because of age". This feels like an adequate description of what Madden has done, but it does no justice to the absolute miasma of a clusterfuck that Favre has staged in last several years — a veritable Verdi opera of waffling, public crying, backroom intrigue, farewell tours, commitments and double-crosses and general weirdness on a scale typically reserved for the very most mentally unstable.
I have been hard on Favre for a long time, and I maintain that he is the most overrated major professional athlete I have ever witnessed in my time watching sports. But up until this off-season's current iteration, I had always shrugged of his multi-year "will he or he won't he?!" retirement narrative as garden-variety attention-seeking narcissism along the lines of Roger Clemens
or Terrell Owens. No longer — I don't know what Favre is doing anymore. This is no longer a retirement, it's an art project. A Dadaist public freakout so strange I have been forced to go back and reconsider whether or not he might have genuinely gone Colonel Kurtz crazy. Consider the evidence:
1) He Keeps Lying
There was a time, as late as last summer, when it seemed plausible (if not entirely credible) that Favre simply didn't know if he wanted to play or not. His remarkably histrionic retirement press conference
following the end of the 2008 season certainly suggested a man fraught and torn, and the mortifying spectacle of his weeping and wailing made it difficult to imagine how he would manage the nerve to backtrack and play ever again. Well, the peculiar joke was on us, of course, and five months later he was suited up for the New York Jets. A year on, having blown his wad vis a vis an emotional farewell, Favre appears to now be resolved to toy maddeningly and senselessly with the media concerning his intentions. He gives long and earnest interviews to ESPN discussing how he has shut the door completely on a possible comeback, while simultaneous reports surface of him holding workouts in public. He texts
his "friend" Trent Dilfer from NFL Live to emphatically deny any interest in playing and proceeds immediately to meet with Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress
about their starting job. On and on it goes in an endless cycle of meaningless behavior. Most curious about the entire pathology is that it does Favre absolutely zero good in the short term and conceivably a fair amount of harm in the long. Always a media darling and (for whatever reason) a symbol of "authenticity", Favre seems almost driven to recast himself as weasely, calculating and disingenuous — a dream villain for the reality show he has made of his life.
2) He Hangs Around High Schools
Brett Favre is a 39-year-old man who is not to my knowledge employed by Mississippi's public school system. Yet every year, he pretends to retire, then he goes down to a high school in Hattiesburg and starts knocking around with the junior varsity. Depending upon one's perspective this behavior ranges anywhere from mildly worrisome to utterly depraved. It certainly makes very little sense from a football perspective: if it his intention to lead the Vikings deep into the NFL playoffs this coming season, why is he training with children born years after he was drafted? More importantly, why does he elect to hold his media circus directly after a 6th period bell, alongside the Drill Team and Coach Hambone from Phys Ed? Whether this represents a yearning for Wooderson style L-I-V-I-N or just a general regression into what appears to be an ever more childlike state, the business is emphatically creepy. "This is Rachel Nichols reporting live from Oak Grove High," is not a phrase we need to hear uttered on ESPN even one more time.
3) He Has A Vendetta Against The Packers
Why on Earth would Favre be so angry at his former team? The team for which he was the iconic symbol and flagship for fifteen years, who offered him an enormously lucrative personal services contract after he retired (the last time) and only refused to take him back after years of his ambivalence threatened the future of the entire franchise. Let us accept as a proposition that Favre nurses a barely defensible grudge against Packers GM Ted Thompson
for not allowing him to hold the team at bay for another period of months last season. Why is he so intent on exercising his wrath by signing with the archrival Vikings, an insult so flagrantly cruel and malevolent to his former fans that it can barely be articulated?
In this matter, I defer Stephen Thompson, Wisconsin native, passionate Packers fan and current NPR staffer: "I liken the idea of Favre as a Viking to being 13 years old, having your parents split up, and finding out that your mom has decided to get back at your dad by appearing in pornos with his worst enemy - and hammering the point home by mailing the footage to each of your eighth-grade classmates," Thompson muses. "The only people who maintain any reason to like Favre are the Packer fans who lived and died by him for a decade and a half. If he plays for the Vikings — the sole point of which, clearly, is to 'stick it to the Packers' — then what's left for him? Who's left for him? It's one of the saddest things I've seen in sports."
And one of the weirdest.