A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Time To Say Good Bye is an operatic duet performed by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli. It is music of such soul-piercing beauty that I don't want to meet the person who can listen to it and remain unmoved. I remember it playing in Madison Square Garden as Wayne Gretzky took his final laps around the rink, the greatest performer in the history of team sports humbly acknowledging the tidal wave of tribute pouring down upon him. I remember The Great One gazing up at his lovely wife, Janet Jones-Gretzky, as she sobbed uncontrollably in the stands.
And now it is time for Packer fans to say good bye.
So many images, so many emotions, so many moments - how can we possibly capture them? How can we grasp the magnitude of his career? He was trained by his father in the rural deep South to be strong and courageous, and by his mother to treat everyone with deference and respect. And what do we say of his records and achievements? Most wins, most TD's, the League's only three-time MVP who at the age of thirty-eight, was denied an almost surreal fourth MVP only by Tom Brady's record setting year. These are the components that have punched his first ballot ticket to Canton. But they do not define him.
I wrote a piece last fall which claimed that the greatest of the great athletes transcend their game and become part of the social fabric. They have an ability to ELEVATE us, to take us places we cannot go by ourselves, and in some small way, to ENOBLE us. I believe Brett did all of these things.
Here are just a few memories I have enjoyed since Tuesday - memories garnered from a seventeen year scrapbook:
Running hard and in full stride to his left, and firing an across his body, fifty-yard laser beam to Sterling Sharpe to crush the Lions in a road playoff game. The only other QB that could have made that throw was John Elway. Not Bradshaw, not Montana, not Brady, not either one of the Mannings - no one else. It was one of those moments early in his career that made us realize we had something special.
The never to be forgotten Monday night game in Oakland, played just hours after his beloved father had died. Four-hundred yards and four touchdowns; it wasn't a game so much as a personalized memorial service. On that night his teammates did not play for the Packers. And they did not play for the fans. And they most certainly did not play for their paychecks. It was obvious to anyone watching that game that they were playing for HIM.
And after the game, with a poignance that was almost tangible, watching him look for Deanna - looking for someplace to put his breaking heart. And I remember her silently saying with her outstretched arms, "here Brett - put it here".
I see him bounding and gamboling down the field when he broke Marino's record, gleefully shouldering an astonished Greg Jennings for an unrepentant romp on the field, exhibiting the same reaction he probably displayed in the fifth grade.
But as fabulous as these images are, they only tell us why he was great. They do not explain why we came to love him.
We love Brett because, perhaps more than any superstar we can recall, he is one of us. The ancient Greeks told us that the essence of heroism is a great figure that is also flawed. As was Thor by Odin, Brett was gifted by God with the right arm of a hammer, and he used it to win more games than anyone who ever played his position. But as strong as his arm was, it was not the equal of his courage, his toughness, or the unfettered joy with which he played the game.
But he had flaws, didn't he? On the field, he would bedazzle us with his prowess one game, and baffle and frustrate us with his decision making in the next. As a young man he was a partier of Bachnalian proportion, bringing into jeopardy his health, his career, and his relationship with Deanna. His addiction to Vicadin was well chronicled. But with Deanna at his side, he responded with his GREATEST triumphs - the termination of his dissipating lifestyle, the defeat of his addicition, and the subordination of his selfish desires to the larger goal of retaining, restoring, and nurturing his FINEST team - Deanna and their girls.
And he did all of this with the curtain pulled back. He did not invite our gaze, but neither did he forbid it. Rather, he lived amongst us - he lived transparently. Of all the remarkable aspects of his career, perhaps the most is that I cannot imagine it unfolding in any other NFL city.
I mentioned earlier a few images I will recall. But more than any other, I will cherish the scene after the final game of the 2006 season. Standing on the sideline of Soldier Field, clad in the familiar armor of the Pack's road-whites, he was asked if he would return for another campaign. I see him pausing, struggling to absorb the question. And then he just broke - he broke down and wept, caring not a fig what anyone might say or think of it. He stood in the thirsty gaze of the camera and showed us what he was feeling. He showed us that after nearly two decades in the crucible of fame, adoration, and wealth, that he was still just what his nickname said he was. He was still just "Country".
We love Brett because he was a rock we could count on every Sunday.
We love him because he is an utterly unaffected and genuine man in an age and an industry full of manikins.
We love him because of the man he became off the field as much as the player he was on it.
Scripture tells us that God looks at our hearts. And there, I believe, is the final answer.
We love him because of his mighty heart.
The heart that he not only showed us - but gave to us.