The Haunting

As he missed large chunks of several games and saw his consecutive start streak finally come to an end, the TV cameras couldn’t keep off of him.

Brett Favre. In street clothes. On a Sunday.

What struck me was the look on his face. The gray stubble, the slack jaw and the eyes, windows to a lost soul. If ever a picture captured the word “harrowed,” this was it:


I knew I’d seen it before, but I didn’t know where. Athletes get hurt all the time, benched all the time, stand around all the time. Yet, I kept coming back to that look. I couldn’t figure it out until I was thumbing through some football cards last week in anticipation of another card show.

I came across a near-mint Kenny Stabler card from 1983. Not worth much, but a picture is often worth a thousand words. There he was, on the sidelines during some miserable game, wearing that strange number 16 jersey (as opposed to his traditional 12) that was covered by his parka. He had his helmet on, perhaps hiding from rain or shame. And yet there it was: That haunted, lost look of a man who had not so long ago always known his place.

Stabler rose to fame as the quarterback of the Oakland Raiders in the early 1970s. After supplanting the Mad Bomber, Daryle Lamonica, the Snake set off on a journey of success and failure. In his first big playoff game, he ran the ball in to the end zone on an epic dash, giving the Raiders a 7-6 lead late in the fourth quarter against the hated Steelers. He was, of course, undone by the Immaculate Reception.

He was on the wrong end of the AFC championship game in the 1973, 1974 and 1975 seasons, losing each time to the eventual Super Bowl champions. In 1976, he finally broke through, leading the league in touchdowns, completion percentage and yards per game. In a time of giants, the Snake finally helped the Raiders slither into the Super Bowl, where they crushed the Vikings.

After the 1979 season, in which Stabler would throw for 26 touchdowns (a lofty number given the passing games of the day), he held out for a raise and was sent packing. He was traded to the Houston Oilers for Dan Pastorini. The winner of that trade ended up being Jim Plunkett, who would replace an injured Pastorini later that year and lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl win that season. The team the Raiders beat in the playoffs to launch that glorious run? Stabler’s Oilers.

His stats continued to devolve, as he never again threw more than 14 touchdown passes and had more interceptions than scores for the rest of his career.

In 1982, New Orleans continued its proud tradition of picking up “name players” long after they were valuable (see Hornung, Paul) and handed the team to the Snake. By 1983, it was clear the 38-year-old with glass knees and a bum arm had nothing left to give. He went 7-7 in 14 starts, threw 9 TDs against 18 picks. He wouldn’t start another game for the Saints and retired after the 1984 season.

The photo on that card, however, tells more than the numbers ever could. He was like a wrung-out rag, limp and lifeless. He had the stooped look of a man who had given more than he should have as he staggered toward the finish line of his career.

Sports Illustrated did a piece on Favre this year, explaining final, agonizing season. The misery that comes from knowing that you’ve finally reached an end for which you aren’t ready just oozes out of the story. The spread didn’t include photos of or comments from Favre himself and yet you wonder about how he would have looked. Drawn. Lost. Aching for something he can’t express.

And those eyes…

In 1983, Brett Favre was a 14-year-old boy at North Hancock High School, where he would start his quarterbacking career as a three-time football letter winner. If he was like most boys in that realm, he’d probably picked through a pack of football cards, dreaming of one day playing in the NFL.

I wonder if he ever came across that Stabler card.

I wonder if he ever knew that would be him some day.

11 thoughts on “The Haunting

  1. It was a sad situation. It was, of course, made all the worse by the fact that he was not wearing Packer colors. McCarthy & Thompson treat Favre very badly, too bad. I wonder which uniform/helmet he will have in the Hall of Fame? Nice post, I was a fan of Stabler, as well.

  2. “the TV cameras couldn’t keep off of him”
    Yeah, the “all Cameras on Favre” thing is getting old. I don’t really follow pro football (prefer college), but I happened across a game a couple years ago and decided to watch the end. Don’t remember the teams, score, anything. Except that Favre was one of the QBs. He was flopping around on the field, shitting himself. The other QB was on fire. And Favre’s team lost; badly. Despite this, as the game wound down and then ended, the cameras only showed Favre, moping on the sidelines – long, lingering semi-porn shots of Favre, while the announcers talked about how great he was. If I had flipped over at that point, I would have thought he had just won the game for his team in some ridiculously improbable fashion. The other (winning) team was literally excised from history in real time. Does he blow the ESPN franchise in toto every week, so that they return the favor on Sundays?

  3. Good grief:treated not treat. & what’s up with all thewas usage? I just fed the fire so it must be the blast of hot air coming through the duct work.

  4. “That haunted, lost look of a man who had not so long ago always known his place.”
    With more than ten million long term unemployed in this country, that’s a look you see a lot of these days.

  5. “I wonder which uniform/helmet he will have in the Hall of Fame?”
    It is my understanding that players go into the Hall of Fame as members of all the teams they played for. He won’t go in “as a Packer” or “as a Vikings”; he’ll go in as having played for Atlanta, Green bay, New York Jets, and Minnesota.

  6. The Snake is one of my all time favorite football players. I ran into him in a bar in NOLA a few years back and bought him a drink. He was very gracious once I stopped babbling incoherently about the glories of the forward fumble.
    The trade turned me against the Raiders and Al Davis. It also caused John Madden to quit: he didn’t want to coach a Snakeless Raider squad.
    The man oughta be in the Hall of Fame. Should be a no brainer. He’s partially the victim of the inflated passing stats of this era. From 1973 to 1978, he was the best QB I’ve ever seen.

  7. Phalamir – don’t be such a dick. Favre was a great QB. My mother, now gone, loved him because, like Shannon Sharpe, he smiled a lot while he played the game, because it is a game, albeit one that pays well. Your suggestion that he “blows” ESPN indicates to me, amateur shrink that I am, a virulent homophobia that you should have excised or let someone else do it. Just sayin’.

  8. Dude holds 11 NFL records & will be remembered for his sheer love of the game.
    Aside from that, many say he shouldn’t have returned for his 20th season, but this last gig wasn’t so much about Favre’s career (although he did have his Total Yards Career High game *this* year) as it was about doing one last thing for his Viking teammates. As TEAMS go, the subtext of 2010 was that inevitably, and as a continuation of 2009, there would be a flashpoint between Coach and QB, giving the Owner the leverage he needed to do what a majority of the players apparently wanted – a brighter future for the players, fans & stakeholders in MN. There was highly sought-after talent in their midst and most of all, the players knew it and wanted to do something about it. They did. Think about what that last recruiting trip to MS must have been like. The sense of foreboding. On behalf of the team and everyone else. Much as we think we’re wired and know everything from what is captured on film and soundbites, there are myriads of untold undercurrents. General public fandom, meet Coach Frazier.
    During the last month of the season, Gridiron Gods willing (fiercely and mercifully), Favre went to fadeout mode, letting it all sink in (“It’s time”) while a promising young QB took over the reins.
    A picture may be worth 1000 words, but never mistake it for the whole story.
    Whatever you want to see in his visage, just remember that his retrospect encompasses twenty, count them, 20. Years. In. The. NFL.
    Good bad ugly, he left it all out on the field.
    All concern trolling aside, the Dude abides.

  9. I never understand the hate for Favre. He does his damnedest and just wants to play as hard as he can. I mean, the Packers broke his fricking ankle in two places this year, and he STILL went out on the field and played the next game. It took that, a separated throwing shoulder AND a concussion to finally take him down. That’s just amazing. Do you imagine that Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would be out there with a busted ankle in a regular season game? I would still be lying there crying over it. You can’t say he was dogging it.

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