Commentary

Brett, we miss you already

As Brett Favre calls it quits, Wright Thompson explains why every football fan will miss the NFL's last "gunslinger."

Originally Published: January 21, 2008
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Brett FavreNelson Chenault/US PresswireIt's unlikely we'll ever see another NFL quarterback play with Brett Favre's reckless abandon.
I'm going to miss Brett Favre.

I'll miss the stories. One afternoon, sitting at Favre's Family Restaurant with his mama, Bonita, before the hurricane turned that place into a concrete slab, I heard her talk for a long time about the little boy who grew up to be so beloved. One time, he and his brothers caught an alligator with marshmallows and tied the mean, snapping bastard to their swing set. She laughed. "I'm still hearing things they did out in those woods," she told me. And she said his toughness began out in those swamps, too. "It seemed I'd walk into the emergency room," she said, "and they'd say, 'Oh, I know, Favre.'"

I'll miss him turning Southern traits into something positive. Like Favre, I'm from Mississippi. Just that name carries horrible -- and deserved -- connotations. But Brett ... The things we've always valued about ourselves, the toughness, the wildness, the exuberance, those things were suddenly treasured. Brett Favre made it cool to be from Mississippi. He seemed small town, and the rest of the NFL seemed anything but. It's sprawling, corporate. It's a cubicle. Brett Favre is a farm, and I think, deep down, we all miss our agrarian roots. If Tom Brady is what America is, then Favre is what America was and, sometimes, I think we wish we could have that America back. (Sorry for channeling Ken Burns. Won't happen again.)

I'll miss television folks calling him a gunslinger. I never thought I'd say that. At the end, it had gotten ridiculous. Is there some sort of checklist before a broadcast from Green Bay? Hairspray? Check. Reminder to say "gunslinger" every 3.2 seconds? Check. But, hey, writers do it, too. The words "Brett Favre" and "gunslinger" have appeared together in the big American newspapers a whopping 1,578 times. The first? 1992. Don Majkowski was starting quarterback for the Packers but there was this new kid who'd come in during a preseason game and moved the team better. "Brett is a talented young guy," Mike Holmgren said then. "He's like an old gunslinger. He wins a lot of shootouts, and then a couple blow up." A month later, playing the Bengals, Majkowski was injured. Favre threw a game-winner with just 13 seconds left.  It had begun.

I'll miss the picks. I'll miss them even more than the touchdowns, though he holds the all-time records for both. For it was in failure that we saw how much Favre wanted to win. He wanted to win so badly he was willing to lose. Not just lose. He was willing to be the goat for a shot at being the hero. So many quarterbacks are poor timid souls who've known neither victory nor defeat. Game managers. Not our man. He knew defeat 288 times. There is something poetic about his last pass as a professional ending up in an interception. 

I'll miss the pills, and the drinking, and the stories about rehab. Favre wasn't perfect. None of us are. But in his imperfections lay his humanity. He was capable of failure like any of us, and therefore his successes seemed even more amazing. He was real, in a league that often seems anything but.

I'll miss him showing up for work. It didn't matter what was hurting him, Favre came to play. There are many ways to measure it: 253 consecutive regular-season starts, 275 if you count the playoffs. The matrix doesn't matter; the stubbornness behind it does. There are all sorts of records, and one day Peyton Manning or Tom Brady might overtake those. But this record, this is the one that defines Favre. He played because he wanted to, because he needed to, maybe because he even valued this streak more than any of us know. But he played. Every single Sunday.

I'll miss the fart jokes. Talk to someone who knows Brett and it won't take long to find out that even as a 38-year-old, he liked some bathroom humor. Last season, when he was this quote-unquote elder statesman, late in the fourth quarter of an important game, the Packers smelled something truly awful in the huddle. I mean, like something had crawled inside someone's butt and died. Later, one of his teammates asked if he'd done it. Favre laughed and said, "No, but that one smelled so bad I wish I did." We love that about Favre. Because he always seemed like a kid out there, and, truth is, he was. He wasn't that much different than the little boy luring swamp gators with marshmallows. Quarterbacks are technicians now. They make reads and step up to the line and follow game plans that look like something out of D-Day. And that might win games -- hell, Trent Dilfer won a Super Bowl -- but it doesn't inspire little boys.

I'll miss my daddy. That's what Favre's retiring makes me think about. When Big Irv died, and Brett came out and played the game of his life on that Monday night in Oakland, with his teammates and his fans and a nation of mourners, I watched that game with my own father. He was sick then, and I knew what he was thinking. He saw himself as Irv, and he saw me as Brett. We tried to talk a little about it, but words about such things don't come easy. So we just cried, and we understood. It was the closest we ever came to talking about how I would be after he'd gone, except for the time he, without explanation or further discussion, looked me in the eyes and said, "You take care of your mother, son." We sat upstairs, and we cheered. Then the game ended, Favre said a few words and that was that. I forgot about it. Only, when my father died about nine months later, I thought of that game. For days I was in a fog. I had conversations that I still cannot remember having. I spoke, and I smiled, and I did my best, thinking, from time to time, about Favre, and what he must have felt running out on that tunnel. And, when I went back to work a few weeks later, flying into Miami to write a story, I again thought of Favre. He was my inspiration: if that S.O.B. could play a football game after losing his daddy, I could write a simple story.

I'll miss believing anything is possible. That's why watching a football game he played in was fun. You just never knew what he might do, either brilliant or idiotic, and you got the sense he didn't really know either. A lot of people, me included, will tell you pro football is boring. It's predictable and balanced and risk-averse. But there was always one guy who played the pro game like he was still in Hattiesburg at Southern Mississippi. We will all miss that.

I'll miss Kiln, where this crazy journey began. I watched the last game he ever played there, at this Redneck dive called the Broke Spoke. Looking back, it was like we were all celebrating the end of something that we'd never see again. During halftime, the owners of the bar had called up Brett's brother, who was watching the game at Lambeau. Then they handed out shots of the famous Kiln moonshine and the owner called out, "We're gonna do a shot with Jeff Favre." Everyone downed the white lightning, and it burned going down. Once, a lot of folks drank liquor like this. That was a long time ago. Hell, the woods where the stills once smoked and belched are now property of NASA. An hour or two later, the game ended, it all ended, and no one would ever see Favre throw a football in the NFL again. The crowd thinned. The campfires burned themselves out. An era was over. 

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.