My childhood is officially over…or what I learned from Brett Favre

I’ve dreaded this day for years. It’s loomed on the horizon, I’ve seen it coming, but I still wasn’t as ready as I thought. My brother called to tell me. My dad called less than a minute later.

Brett Favre announced his retirement, and my childhood has officially ended.

There’s a lot of discussion now about Brett’s place in history, his records, and his legacy. The talking heads have talked for hours and will talk for hours about Brett’s decision. I avoid this kind of conversation – it’s a lot of mindless chatter and empty words.

For those of us who grew up as kids watching Brett play, we’ll be avoiding the talking heads. Their tirades and rants and clamoring for sound bites really just fly in the face of what we adored most about Favre – not emptiness, but substance. Words that came from the depths and not the shallows. He never had to talk about integrity, because we all knew it was there. People of integrity don’t need to talk about it.

In my opinion, Brett probably isn’t the best quarterback of all time. But he was the best leader ever to put on football pads. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, and in reflecting on his sixteen seasons in Green Bay I’ve realized he taught me more than I imagined.

We put on pads together in Wisconsin for the first time together; he as a washout from Atlanta, I as a 130 pound-soaking-wet freshman cornerback at Edgerton High School. When he took over the reigns from Don Majkowski in that now-historic comeback against the Bengals and a fourth quarter touchdown pass to Kittrick Taylor. September of 1992 was the last time someone other than Favre started for the Packers. He started 275 straight games since including playoffs. My college students I work with now were literally in diapers when someone else was quarterback of the Packers.

You’ll hear the stories. He wasn’t even recruited as a quarterback in college. He made it at Southern Mississippi, and nearly lost it after a near-fatal car crash (but he did lose 30 inches of intestine.) He was drafted by Atlanta, but was so out of control he didn’t even make the team picture. But it was his raw talent and leadership that the then-general manager of the Packers, Ron Wolf, saw and wanted. He failed the physical, but Wolf told him to change the report and pass him.

We learned you don’t give up on someone at first glance.

He got a fresh start in Green Bay as a young punk who didn’t even know what a nickel back was, and was assigned the cool and sophisticated Mike Holmgren from San Francisco as his new mentor. Holmgren came from the gold standard of quarterbacks in San Francisco, where cool and super-smart Joe Montana was the prototype quarterback and the gifted and intelligent Steve Young was a back-up.

Brett wasn’t super-cool or super-smart. He was FAR from sophisticated. He showed up for press conferences in cut off t-shirts and sandals, and his locker room flatulence is the subject of many Wisconsin boys sleepovers. He’d fart in the huddle to take the edge off of his teammates. But beyond the stuff that made us high school boys laugh, Favre reeked of raw and real emotion that brought the beauty into celebration. When he threw a touchdown pass, he ran down and tackled his teammate. Or put him on his shoulders. It was real, unscripted celebration – like leaping into the stands and partying with the a few of the 60,000 team owners.

We learned what celebration was like, and what was worth celebrating.

While Brett was wild and crazy on the field, early on he was wilder and crazier off it. His episodes at Green Bay bars were just as legendary, and just as the stakes were raised on the field as the team won, the bar was raised when it came to partying off the field as well.

And Brett bottomed out. Our beloved leader admitted he had a problem – so much so that he checked himself into rehab. He spoke openly and honestly at a press conference about his addiction to pain killers and alcohol. His two best friends and teammates said it would no longer be beer and pizza with Brett; it would be Coke and pizza. Reggie White said he’d be there for Brett, no matter what. His then girlfriend and mother of his daughter, Deanna, told him that he needed to get his act together or it was over.

We learned that when we need help, we need both faithful friends and tough love.

Brett came back and he and Reggie led the Packers to the Super Bowl. I watched the game in my fraternity house in Chicago, so intensely tied to the game that I locked myself in my room alone to focus and my fraternity brothers messed with me by going to the circuit box and shutting the power down to my room. I came out and with one look, they turned it back on. I would NOT be missing this game.

We learned that adversity causes some to break, but it causes others to break records.

He’d continue on and fight through more emotional adversity and physical pain. The death of his father, his brother-in-law, Deanna’s breast cancer, Katrina wiping out his family home, the conviction of his friend and teammate Mark Chumra, the death of Reggie, and the list goes on. He played the most critical position in sport through broken thumbs, sprained ankles, separated shoulders, bad elbows, concussions, strained knees, a broken heart, and the list goes on. But he kept playing through, kept working, and was always faithful not just to show up, but to give his best. He always competed to win.

We learned that adversity doesn’t end when the good times start.

We learned that sorrow and joy intermingle throughout life, and we need to show up and keep playing.

A lot is always said about his childlike exuberance in how he played the game. But when you see what he went through, Brett made a decision to choose to be in touch with reality that life can be good. It’s so easy to be overwhelmed with the tragedy and pain in life. To truly mourn disappointment, pain, and even death is hard work.

We learned to choose to enjoy life no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in.

People said Brett seemed to be losing his edge as he got a little older. The talking heads said he couldn’t play any more. Brett would mention one or two words about retirement, and the talking heads would put up a circus tent and start acting like the monkeys in it. In 2005, he had his first losing season ever. He took inventory of his team, and said it was the most talented team he had ever been around in his already storied career. Favre decided to stay. People said he was getting loony in his old age. He took the youngest team in the NFL for the next two seasons and ended playing the best football in his life.

We learned that talking heads see what they want to see, but what matters is what really is.

We learned it is important to discern and decide to whom to listen.

In his final lesson he’s taught us, Brett said he was physically fine and he could play the game. It was that the mental preparation part of the game is what is truly most important, and while Sunday was great, Monday through Saturday is what makes Sunday so great. Brett realized this as much as anyone, and he knew his heart wasn’t in it anymore. And we learned it’s important to do the hard work of reflecting on ourselves, of self-examination, and come out and say it.

We learned that there is a right time to say when we’re done.

He grew up in front of us, and taught us that how he played the game is a good way to live. He taught us we will all make mistakes and walk into adversity, but how you respond to them is what counts. He taught us that gray hair doesn’t mean you’re old, and that boyhood doesn’t have to end when the gray hair begins. He taught us that joy is a choice we face every day, and excellence over time requires perseverance and toughness. And he taught us that real men smile and cry when something matters.

If Brett Favre is a modern day Peter Pan, then I’m one of the Lost Boys.

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March 2008

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