Monday, March 10, 2008

Faith, Football and Favre: I Still Believe

In my office, perched delicately on a shelf, is a daily inspiration: a taped together Sports Illustrated article from December 2003 entitled Do You Believe? On it, a thin-lipped and determined Brett Favre is cocked and ready to unload on one of his receivers down field. The byline reads “Behind the inspired play of Brett Favre, Green Bay continued its magical run.”

I sit here five years later, spring blossoms blooming outside my window, looking intrepidly toward fall football without Favre. After 17 seasons, my favorite player announced his retirement. Sure, we all knew it was coming…eventually, anyway. So what causes me, a 37 year old mom, to bawl like a baby during his press conference?

Growing up my team was the Oakland Raiders. Ask me something about the Oakland Raiders of 1980 and I may surprise you. I can spout off the names and numbers of Lester Hayes, Ted Hendricks and Matt Millen without batting an eye. And c’mon what other eleven year old girl reads a biography of Jim Plunkett on her family camping trip? When Al Davis vacated the team to L.A. my love for football was nearly lost until 1995, when I got married to a [gulp] 49ers fan. Becoming a 49er fan was simply out of the question. So, what’s a girl to do? I had to come up with a survival strategy. The next logical alternative? Well, my parents and grandparents are all from northern Wisconsin, and the Packers did have a phenomenal new quarterback, and okay, I’ll admit it, green is my favorite color…slowly but surely I became a Packers faithful.

In 2002, I even put off the birth of my twins so I could watch the playoff game against the 49ers. “Why don’t you go home and pack your bag, then come back to the hospital so we can have these babies?” my doctor suggested the Friday before the game. Besides being scared to death at the prospect of two humans exiting my body, I also knew there was no way I would be able to watch the game with two newborns. My husband and I didn’t even have to look at each other. “Nope, can’t induce until Monday” we answered in unison. As fate would have it, my water broke late Saturday night and we watched the game while in labor from my hospital bed. “Sorry” I said, patting my husband sympathetically, when it became clear the Packers would win. (But between you and me, it only served to increase the joy I felt after my son and daughter were born later that afternoon.)

In 2003, we got a chance to go to Lambeau field where the Packers hosted the anemic 49ers. My dad still had contacts in Green Bay and gave me the choice between a luxury box on the 50 yard-line or freezing with the Cheeseheads somewhere down near the end zone. Much to my parents’ dismay, I chose the latter. I remember being sort of shocked driving through Green Bay. “Is this it?” I asked out loud. While checking into the motel, the guy at the desk mentioned that Irvin Favre (Brett’s father) was also staying there, which really should not come as a surprise given there are what…like two motels in the entire town? As we stepped into the room, the phone rang. “Come up here right away,” my mom said excitedly. “We have a surprise for you.” We immediately went up to their floor and although I would never confess it out loud, I distinctly remember hoping that somehow my dad, being the well-connected sales guy he is, managed to corner Brett and his dad in the room so I could meet them. Imagine my disappointment when we walked in only to discover my mother gloating over the mini-bar before announcing it was time for “supper” with her resurfacing Midwestern accent.

Just over a month later, while at an early Christmas gathering with my in-laws (who all happened to be 49er fans), I found out Irvin Favre died. It really shocked me. Partly because we were just at the same motel as him; partly out of sadness for the town of Green Bay they had adopted the entire Favre family as their own and instilled all their living hope into this team; but mostly because I knew the following Monday night game was a do or die for the Packers if they wanted to make the playoffs.

I watched breathless as did everyone else when Favre pulled off that inspiring Monday night performance in Oakland. Then at Christmas, I hoped for a Cardinal victory over the Vikings. “Oh ya, like that will ever happen,” my husband was caught on video saying as we got ready for the kids to come running down the stairs full of hope themselves to see what Santa had delivered. But it did. Nate Poole’s leaping touchdown catch with no time remaining gave Arizona a victory and sent Minnesota home for the winter. It was a miracle.

The Packers went on to defeat Seattle in a bizarre game that was sent into overtime with Seattle quarterback and former teammate Matt Hasselbeck proclaiming “We’ll take the ball and we’re going to score” over the official’s open mic. He was intercepted by Al Harris who ran the ball back 52 yards for the game-winning score for the Packers.

This was crazy. All of America was using terms like “destiny” and “fate” when discussing the Packers chances at making a run for the Superbowl. Sports Illustrated released the Do You Believe article and I proclaimed: “Yes, I do believe.” But then came the humiliating 4th and 26 conversion by the Eagles and Favre’s interception that resulted in the Packer’s defeat and the end of their “magical run.” I was crushed.

I’ll never forget hearing an interview with Donovan McNabb before that playoff game. (I’m paraphrasing here, but basically McNabb said I’m sick and tired of hearing about all this fate and destiny crap. You think God gives a rat’s ass who this football game?) Later, after the Packers lost, I was so disappointed; I thought maybe he was right.

The magic seemed to fade further in the following couple of seasons. In 2005, even the obnoxious Bears fans I knew felt bad for Favre. “I hate to see him go out like that” seemed to be the general sentiment, regardless of team affiliation.

A little part of me wondered whether what the Green Bay Packers needed was a team mother with common sense to grab a hold of Brett Favre, pin a note on his lapel and excuse him for the rest of the season. I mean, how much can one guy take? The death of his father, then his brother-in-law, his wife Deana’s fight with cancer and the loss of a family home after hurricane Katrina.

Shortly after, I found myself asking my husband “So would it be against the rules for the Green Bay coaches to send him home for the season and let Aaron Rodgers have a shot at it?”

He sort of rolled his eyes with contempt and then explained (somewhat pedantically) that “the team owes Brett Favre at lot of respect, and that he should be able to go out on his own terms…”

I guess I was thinking back to my own midlife crisis at age 35, when I simply pulled the plug and took a leave of absence after my marriage nearly collapsed and the small Internet company I worked for was acquired by a corporate giant.

Of course we all know that Brett Favre came back in 2007 and took the Packers deep into the playoffs. Sure, it would have been perfect if they could have one the superbowl but
sports mirrors life. The road is difficult. We can’t always call the shots, and it’s not always on our terms. Sometimes it just happens to us. And that’s when real faith comes in; faith in something bigger than a specific player, or team, or even the sport itself.

At the press conference discussing his retirement a choked up Favre said, “…I was telling Deanna on the way over here, God has blessed me with so many great things ability, wonderful family. And as I was flying up here today I thought about so many different things and how I wanted to say some of the things that I felt like I need to say, but he gave me an opportunity to use my abilities, and I seized that opportunity ... I thank him for that.”

Maybe God doesn’t care so much who wins the game as how we play. And Favre played his with integrity, making football fun again for America. As for me, I still believe.