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.