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I DON'T KNOW about you, but some unshaven, thick-jawed guy resembling Brett Favre keeps butting in on my summer. I know it can't be him, though, because he's been doing stuff Brett would never do. Like hinting that he'd come back for a team other than the Packers. (Try to picture Favre running onto Lambeau wearing number 4 in Vikings purple.) And making his first public comments on unretiring to noted NFL insider Greta Van Susteren. (What, Tucker Carlson was too busy?) And then actually weighing a $25 million offer from the Packers not to play again before showing up at training camp on Monday, the biggest, scruffiest elephant in every room.
Wait, that is Favre? And this isn't an elaborate episode of Punk'd in which Aaron Rodgers, Favre's presumed successor, is going to get it good? (And, boy, would he!) Then what in the name of Paul Hornung has Favre been thinking? Or maybe it's that he hasn't been thinking. Because for someone who made a million decisions on the football field, Favre looks clueless on this one. Did he really believe that rumors and leaks to the media were the best way to go about returning? Did he really want to put his teammates in this position, trying to move on but unable to because their old flame keeps hanging around?
It's not as if we couldn't have seen this comeback coming. After being one drive away from the Super Bowl, Favre wasn't going to be content spending the fall bouncing around his Hattiesburg, Miss., farm on his souped-up John Deere. This was the three-time MVP, a quarterback who treated the game like a big recess period, hoping to squeeze in one more snap before the bell rang. Was he planning to feed his competitive jones with tractor drag races?
No, his wanting to play again is understandable. After all, plenty of athletes have retired only to come back. Michael did it, Deion did it, Magic did it. Hell, George Foreman has retired more often than he's boxed. Favre is different, though. He's in a category with Cal Ripken Jr. and John Elway and Reggie Miller, sports icons who became so intertwined with one city that it seemed they'd do anything not to let the locals down. Except Favre is more—more accessible than Ripken, more emotional than Elway, more accomplished than Miller.
He comes off as both superstar and regular dude, the type who might just show up at your backyard barbecue, grab a brat off the grill and throw post routes to the kids. (Not to mention, the way Favre moves magazines, it would be fine with SI if he played until he's old enough to do a turn in There's Something about Mary's Menopause.) Even if you hate the Pack, it's almost impossible to hate Favre. He's been a grinning, dirty-jerseyed exemplar of what we try to teach our kids: Team comes first, stats don't matter, play with passion. It was easy to believe he saw football not from his perspective—that of the supremely talented, superwealthy professional athlete—but from ours, that of the fan. He got it. He got us.
Only now we have to wonder if that's true. When he retired in March, at age 38, Favre tearfully proclaimed, "It wasn't about the money or fame or records.... It was never about me." But what else could this comeback be about?
Truth is, were he any other athlete, all this wouldn't be so unsettling. (And it is: In a Kelton Research poll two weeks ago, 53% of Americans said they wished Favre would stay retired and, more shocking, the number jumped to 59% in the Midwest.) But when you start 253 consecutive games, throw more touchdown passes than anyone ever has and all the while remain remarkably grounded, you become more than a quarterback. Favre, in fact, became all that's right with sports. Sure, that's a high standard to maintain, and yes, he never asked for it—the fans and the media created the mythology of Brett Favre, a mythology made richer by his indifference to it. But like it or not, he must know what he has come to stand for in the public's eyes.
And once Favre embraced the role of folk hero, bonding with fans, fostering community, being the guy who might drop by the BBQ, he couldn't suddenly bail out. In Favre's case, fans expect his life to read like a compelling narrative. So what are we to make of this latest plot twist? When Favre arrived in Green Bay, fans welcomed him (at least most of them), teammates took it in stride (at least publicly) and Rodgers quietly wept in a bathroom stall (just kidding).
What next? Sure, the NFL will be more interesting with Favre in it. The only problem is that as we wait and watch, fascinated in spite of ourselves as the story plays out, we don't quite recognize the hero anymore.