Et Tu, Brett?

On December 21, 2003, Irvin Favre died of a heart attack near Kiln, Miss. One day later, his son Brett played one of the best games of his life. Against the Oakland Raiders, on Monday Night Football, he passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns. His teammates rallied around him, catching bomb after bomb, sometimes in double or triple coverage. John Madden gushed, repeating over and over (and over and over), “there’s no road map for this.” A man who dedicated his life to football honored his father the only way he knew how. It was magic, the reason fans love sports and the reason writers cover them.

There was another image that stood out from that game: Favre’s wife, Deanna, watching the entire game from the owners’ suite. Her hands were always clasped together, sometimes over her chest, sometimes in front of her mouth. She always leaned slightly forward, as if straining for a better look. And her eyes, always slightly tearful, they showed a world of emotion: fear, concern, and, above all else, love. Deanna loved Brett, and it was heartwarming.

At one time in his career, Favre was possibly the most popular figure in football. Fans loved him for his talent, for his ability to make something out of absolutely nothing. The media loved him for his “gunslinger” attitude, which appealed to the old-school sportswriting image of the quarterback as the modern-day equivalent of the Old West cowboy. Everyone loved his rugged charm, his boyish grin, the way he seemed to always be having fun, an element of sports frequently lost at the professional level. Advertising played to this, always portraying him as a “good ol’ boy.”

Favre started losing his credibility as an athlete in 2008. He chose to retire, then he chose to un-retire, then asked the Green Bay Packers for an unconditional release, then finally got traded to the New York Jets. Fans and the media had seen athletes come out of retirement before, so Favre’s antics were not unusual. But when he did it again in 2009 and then again in 2010, the act got real old, real fast. And when he opted to play for the Minnesota Vikings, he essentially spat in the face of his fans in Wisconsin. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now he’s a joke, and no one’s laughing. Before the 2010 season began, ESPN newcomer Tedy Bruschi was asked if he thought Favre could still be the quarterback of old, the man who won three straight MVP awards. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bruschi responded with an emphatic “no.” Favre was too old and too hurt to ever be the same. Lo, how the mighty have fallen.

But even as his athletic credibility was failing, his credibility as a decent person was still as strong as ever. As Michael Vick went to jail for abusing dogs and Tigers Woods went to rehab after being unfaithful to his wife, Favre seemed above it all. This was the man, after all, who shaved his head in support of his wife after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. Clearly, this man was not the horny, unfaithful, awful human being that so many other big-name superstars have turned out to be.

Or was he? News of Favre’s pursuit of former New York Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger, including indecent and occasionally graphic text messages, have destroyed Favre’s remaining shreds of credibility. Is it possible that’s not his voice on those voice messages? Yes. A editor admitted as such. Sports fans should want this to turn out to be a hoax. Only so many heroes can fall before the childlike wonder the fan has when he or she watches these athletes finally withers and dies.

There was a time when athletes were role models. Their lives, not just their successes, were meant to inspire. Now, in an age when every piece of information is spread across the world at the speed of light, the image of the athlete as a role model is dying. It has been replaced by a new image of the athlete: greedy, lascivious, violent. Movie stars and musicians have suffered the same fate, as have politicians to a lesser extent. Who will inspire our children now? Parents can be role models, sure, but children need greatness to aspire to, not just goodness.

Brett Favre, a grandfather, may have sexually harassed a former New York Jets reporter. Now, a new report from ESPN says that his elbow tendinitis has gotten so bad that he is considering sitting out future games. That will break his 288-game starting streak. That will be the final nail in the coffin. Nothing will be left but a broken-down, dirty old man who tried to cheat on a wife who supported him through the death of his father and her own battle with cancer. The “gunslinger” will be gone, never to return. He could have ridden off into the sunset as a hero. Now, when he rides off he will be like Shane: dead.

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