Like so many great professional athletes, Brett Favre just didn't know when to let go.
If he had retired after the 2007 season, his last with the Green Bay Packers, he'd have been lionized as the greatest quarterback in NFL history. He had a great public image; his football talents as a gunslinger were top-notch; he held a passel of league records and a Super Bowl ring. His place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was unquestioned, only requiring him to wait five years after his last game.
Instead, now the last indelible image of him may be the photo that accompanies this post -- Brian Urlacher and a horde of Minnesota Vikings standing over a motionless old man, wondering whether he'll get up. It's an embarrassment rather than a celebration. What's worse, over the last three years we've been subjected by the Worldwide Leader to the ridiculous "will he or won't he come back" merry-go-round every August and the Jenn Sterger scandal -- on which we'll get a ruling from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell any day now, or maybe we won't, since Favre is not likely to play again.
Or is he? Instead of being revered, Favre has become Rasputin; how many times does he have to be pushed into the Neva River before he dies?
Mike Mulligan at the Sun-Times brings up another valid point -- NFL teams can't continue to play fast and loose with injury reports like they did with Favre. Mulligan says "out" should mean, well, "OUT":
Favre, in his 20th NFL season, was replaced by rookie Joe Webb, whom the Bears spent the week preparing for. There is a pretty significant difference between the two, and while it didn’t matter on this night, what would the Bears be saying today if it had mattered?
The injury report can be downright indecipherable with teams often less than candid about wanting opponents to know who’s playing in a diminished capacity. There’s a fear a player might be targeted or an injury seen as quarry. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady might never match Favre’s remarkable starting streak, but he has been on the injury report for years. Pats coach Bill Belichick has been known to put virtually the entire team on the list, and he doesn’t stand alone in that practice.
Beyond this is the perhaps unanswerable question: why do older athletes do this? Favre's playing well past the time during which he was a capable pro athlete reminds me of Willie Mays, butchering plays in center field during the 1973 World Series; one of the enduring images of Mays is his kneeling at home plate, arms raised, after a Mets teammate was thrown out trying to score. Whining, rather than triumphant. There are other examples: Michael Jordan, playing a couple of meaningless seasons for the Wizards, when he could have had one of the best "last shots" ever, the one that won the 1998 title for the Bulls. Hank Aaron, hitting .229 at age 42 for the 1976 Brewers. Ernie Banks, reduced to a .193-hitting player/coach role for the 1971 Cubs. Even Ryne Sandberg was a shadow of his Hall of Fame self in 1997 at age 37 for the Cubs, his once-fine defensive range not even close to what it was in his prime.
Why do professional athletes keep playing far beyond their time? I suppose the competitive drive that makes men like this the Hall of Fame athletes that they are, compels them in some way to keep competing, keep going out on the field, keep playing, not wanting to admit that their youth and talent is gone, that they can't keep up with their colleagues and competitors, some of whom are young enough to be their children.
Even with the bizarre and unnecessary televised comeback dramas of the last three summers, had Brett Favre retired after the 2009 season -- the year in which he came one interception short of leading his team back to the Super Bowl and arguably the best all-around year of his career -- we could have celebrated the career of a Hall of Famer who went out almost on top.
Instead, we have a man who is almost being told to get out, if not in words than in deeds. Corey Wootton's hit on Favre should end his career once and for all, and instead of celebrating, we look at a man who stuck around too long because he didn't know when to say goodbye, and a man who's got embarrassing photos of parts of himself floating around the interwebs. He'll still get into the Hall of Fame in Canton, but with awkward throat-clearing instead of celebration.
That, alone, should be a cautionary tale to pro athletes who are on top of the world right now. It doesn't last forever. Your body wears down, you get old, younger people are stronger and faster and more talented. To those we cheer for now, please know when the time comes to say goodbye. Brett Favre, if nothing else, has taught you how not to do it.