A little sympathy for Favre

Published 7:49 am Friday, August 6, 2010

As the annual will-he-or-won’t-he Brett Favre drama plays out on television and in newspapers, there is lots of talk about the famous NFL quarterback’s motivation — whether it’s money or fame or something else that has him retiring and then un-retiring over and over.

I’d bet that it’s mostly the “something else.”

It’s not that I am a big buddy of Favre’s. We’ve never met and probably never will. I don’t even know anyone who knows him, as far as I know.

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But we are both aging athletes, and that confers a certain insight.

Couple of nights ago, I limped back to my car after my team’s season-ending softball tournament. We’d played three games in three-and-a-half hours, and as we packed up I had told my teammates that it was my last game ever. I thought of tossing my glove and shoes in a trash can, as sort of a symbolic gesture, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do that.

Later, with an ice pack and ibuprofin, I told my wife it had been another fun season but that I was too old to play another. My idea of quality play is probably much, much lower than Brett Favre’s, but still a guy has some standards and if he can’t play at the level he wants, he might as well not play at all.

As the conversation drifted along, we turned to plans for our volleyball team, which begins play in the fall. But wait a minute. Didn’t I retire from volleyball last spring? Yes, I definitely remember retiring. But five months heals a lot of wounds and humans are not good at remembering pain.

So maybe I will un-retire from volleyball and, for all I know, also from softball come spring. Maybe.

Of course, if I don’t play again, if most of us don’t play again, nobody is going to care. Which is the big difference between us and that very famous guy who annually finds himself in the crosshairs because he can’t decide whether to keep on playing.

The stakes are higher — almost infinitely higher — for Brett Favre. Millions of dollars are on the table and a reputation as one of the greatest football players in history. The pain level is infinitely higher, too. One sack by an NFL lineman, the kind Favre absorbs regularly, would put most of us old guys (and young guys, too) in the hospital. Favre has to confront the virtual certainty that he will be bounced off the turf like a rag doll a few times, impacts violent enough that they won’t just leave morning-after soreness; they could affect the quality of his life ever after.

So how does one know — whether it’s a fantastically talented Brett Favre or an amateur hacker like most of us — when it’s time to put sports in the rearview mirror?

Often, it’s a last-minute decision. At some point, the desire to play doesn’t stack up against the negatives. My old-man hockey career ended when, one fall, I just never got around to signing up, and eventually realized that I didn’t miss it.

It’s harder for Favre, because he can’t just slip away, will never be allowed to quietly decide to just not show up. That’s part of the price for fame and fortune, and it also has to make these kind of decisions harder.

As this was written, Favre was saying that he’ll play if he his health allows it — which is the same as saying nothing, since it is he who will decide whether his injured ankle is well-enough healed. So he could show up in Vikingland at any time.

The temptation to play is probably so strong that it wouldn’t take much to tip the balance. One day of feeling good, one day feeling like there are still some touchdowns left, and Favre may well fly into town ready to play.

Then there are the other inducements — anywhere from $13 million to $20 million of them. That might also be enough to tip the balance, especially for someone who just needs a reason to say, “yes.”

Whatever Favre decides, and whenever he decides, I won’t be among the critics. It’s probably the toughest decision he will ever make, and it isn’t an easy one.