A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Did he repeat to himself as he broke huddle for that last play, what he had told us so long ago at the press conference called to announce his entry into a rehab. program - "don't bet against me".
We are a nation whose obsession with sports is embarassing. But at its best, and when played by its best, sports are a microcosm of life, and can often encourage the best that is within us, as well as things we may lament.
Professional athletes astound us with their physical skill, courage and toughness. But from the ranks of the great emerge those chosen few who transcend their sport, and become part of our social fabric. Brett Favre is one of those, and such performers leave us with images that are burned into the eye of our collective consciousness. As I watched him Monday night, I recalled a few of those images from my lifetime:
The red and white boot tassles of Muhammad Ali, bouncing and jangling as he danced hs way around the Madison Square Garden ring in the first of his three epic battles with "Smokin Joe" Frazier. He came of age at the height of the Civil Rights movement. The greatest boxer in history, he was as polarizing a figure as he was gifted.
Jack Nicklaus striding purposefully up the rise of the 18th fairway at Augusta National, the late afternoon sun glinting off of his steel-shafted clubs and "Golden Bear" mane. Has any champion ever worn the mantle of success, wealth and fame more graciously than he? And as great as he was, his finest legacy is that of father and husband.
Barry Sanders, my pick for greatest running back of all time, and a reminder to Packer fans of "what might have been" - a backfield with both he AND Brett Favre in it. Every so often I pop in a tape and watch in slack-jawed wonder as Sanders left the greatest athletes in the NFL in his wake, groping the empty air where they THOUGHT he would be. A Lion ON the field - a gentleman and a lamb off of it.
Wayne Gretzky rushing over the ice like the wind, his hair flowing out behind his # 99 Edmonton Oilers jersey, and his befuddled opponents gasping as he danced past them. "The Great One" was the most dominant performer in the history of team sports; his statistics stagger the imagination. He remains a beloved national icon in Canada, and like Nicklaus, a better family man than he was an athlete.
Magic Johnson's smile. His size at the point-position changed the game, and his uninhibted glee and charisma lifted an entire sport. His cross-country rival Larry Joe Bird, who along with Magic, saved the NBA. I see him holding the ball with one hand, and pointing to the spot on the floor he would go to take the winning shot. Then doing it, and walking off the court with the comfortable self-assurance reserved to those who can accomplish such things, his vanquished opponents staring in stunned disbelief.
And of course our beloved #4 - a champion, and the sport's only three time MVP. So many images of Brett come to mind, but surely the lasting one will be his unfetterd joy as he races downfield to embrace his teammates, often shouldering the astonished receiver for an unabashed romp on the sidelines. One imagines he did the exact same thing in the fifth grade.
But as great as he has been on the field, he has been larger still off it, as we watched him overcome multiple personal tragedies and a drug addiction. And we have seen him maintain focus on his greatest prizes: Deanna and his daughters.
More than any one thing Brett Favre is an American original, and has remained true to his nickname "Country" after nearly twenty years in the white-hot crucible of wealth, fame and adoration.
With Brett Favre we have been doubly fortunate -to watch him, and to watch him play for our team.