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Gunslinger book review: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre

Brett Favre acknowledges the crowd during a ceremony at halftime of an NFL football game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears Thursday, Nov. 26, 2015, in Green Bay, Wis. Favre’s retired No. 4 and name were unveiled inside Lambeau Field during the ceremony. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

At the outset and through the first several chapters of Gunslinger: The Remarkable Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre by Jeff Pearlman, there’s a legitimate temptation to skim through the formative portion and get right to the juicy, meaty portions of Favre’s professional career – of which there are many.

In many biographies, the “growing up” portion is painfully dull with anecdotes and remembrances that are based on stilted perspectives, flawed recollections and reluctance to come clean for fear of being cut off by angering the increasingly isolated and widely feted subject.

With Favre, the formative years are an integral factor in how he became the man and athlete he did, for better and for worse. The recklessness that made, broke, remade and straddled the line between his best and his worst emanate from that childhood spent with a raucous, hyper-aggressive, male-dominated family living in a small town rife with cultural sensibilities that are unavoidably foreign to those who have neither experienced nor understand it.

Coached as a quarterback in high school by his father Irv, one would expect that the eventual legendary quarterback could look back on that tutelage as a fundamental building block of what he became. The book shows that not to be the case. Constrained by the conservative coaching style of a wishbone offense with a run-run-run the mandate from his father throughout his high school career, the Favre arm was a non-factor. Several instances of fortunate happenstance garnered him the opportunity at small Southern Miss, where college coaches got a fortuitous and brief glimpse at a throwing arm reminiscent of Zeus. However, he was impeded by a lack of experience. The throws emanating from that weaponized limb had the touch of the Incredible Hulk and the accuracy of a blind sharpshooter.

As the college career improved, there were the similar off-field behaviors that he exhibited throughout his life. One in particular nearly ended it as he crashed his car while allegedly drunk. There were no DUI or other charges levied against him because he was enabled and it was swept away due to his prominence and talents. The unsaid implication is and has always been that if a football star in college or the pros wins games on Saturday and Sunday, he can get away with murder even if the person he’s murdering is himself.

A great deal of revisionism is inevitable when the caged bird is let loose and its jailers are repeatedly asked why they didn’t see what was patently obvious – that Favre was a man-child whose status as a late bloomer did not give him the wisdom to adapt to the rapidity with which his fortunes rose. His drinking and womanizing continued on and worsened in spite of an intentionally obscured girlfriend and baby.

Some NFL executives saw that latent and scattershot talent wrapped in the package of what was ostensibly a giant infant, but Favre wasn’t polished or mature enough to warrant the high draft pick he otherwise would have been had his development not been stunted by the conservative play-calling of his father and the self-destructiveness he exhibited once he was in college.

Mississippi Southern quarterback Brett Favre is dragged down on Sept. 15, 1980 by Georgia linebacker Norman Cowins for a five yard loss in first quarter of their game at Athens, Ga. Blocking for Favre are Lahman Braley (75) and Pat Henderson. Georgia won 18-17. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

Mississippi Southern quarterback Brett Favre is dragged down on Sept. 15, 1980 by Georgia linebacker Norman Cowins for a five yard loss in first quarter of their game at Athens, Ga. Blocking for Favre are Lahman Braley (75) and Pat Henderson. Georgia won 18-17. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

Raw only begins to describe Favre as a player and a person.

Pearlman relates Favre’s troubled baptism – more like a brief dunk and seat on the bench where he was told to keep quiet and be seen and not heard – when the Atlanta Falcons drafted him in the second round of the 1991 NFL draft. His lost year in Atlanta and subsequent trade to Green Bay is largely blamed on Falcons coach Jerry Glanville and his reluctance to give Favre a legitimate shot while mocking and ignoring the youngster. This tack of missed opportunity is understandable, but difficult to fully accept. As a coach, Glanville had a multitude of negatives including his unrestrained arrogance, intentional bizarreness and a penchant for letting his players run wild on and off the field. It’s easy to ask Glanville why he didn’t give Favre more of a chance. A better question is to ask why he should have. The answer is obvious: since the Falcons were playoff contenders, there was no reason to enable a player who was not ready to play in the NFL and didn’t behave as if he wanted to.

Falcons GM Ken Herock reluctantly traded Favre to the Packers where Ron Wolf had recently taken over as their GM. Wolf was ready to draft Favre for the New York Jets one pick after the Falcons nabbed him and endless “what ifs?” have been postulated as to whether it would have been the Jets with the Wolf, Favre, Mike Holmgren triumvirate running the team. It’s idle speculation, but Favre in the Metropolitan area at 22 with his self-destructiveness and the lack of media protectiveness that he enjoyed in Green Bay was a toxic mixture.

Ironically, Favre’s behavior changed only nominally once he got to Green Bay. It was the competition in front of him, that the Packers were rebuilding, and they didn’t have a better quarterback at the time to compete with that gave him the chance to play. Had incumbent starter Don Majkowski not gotten injured, Favre might eventually have gotten a chance to play, but it would not have been until later in the season and the circumstances could easily have been far different.

Joining a historic organization that had degenerated into a perennial loser and was now being run by two world class football minds in Wolf and Holmgren afforded Favre an opportunity to learn sans the overwhelming pressure of expectations. So there was a significant amount of serendipity with Favre and it’s not necessarily true that his talent would have won out had the circumstances been different. Envisioning him as a guy who bounced from team-to-team as a project, never received a chance to play and cobbled out a six-to-eight-year career holding a clipboard on the sidelines and drinking himself to oblivion is frighteningly simple and likely had he not been so fortunate.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre (4) throws a pass past Chicago Bears' Chris Zorich (97) in a light snowfall during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 12, 1995, in Green Bay, Wis. Favre threw five touchdown passes in the Packers 35-28 win. Favre was 25 of 33 for 336 yards. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre (4) throws a pass past Chicago Bears’ Chris Zorich (97) in a light snowfall during the second quarter Sunday, Nov. 12, 1995, in Green Bay, Wis. Favre threw five touchdown passes in the Packers 35-28 win. Favre was 25 of 33 for 336 yards. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

An always fascinating part of any biography is tearing the fragile cover off of any relationship between the subject and a competitor for his position and status. The Favre-Aaron Rodgers dynamic is no exception. When the Packers drafted Rodgers, the easily salable storyline was how the grizzled and aging star Favre was going to groom the understudy so the understudy could one day take over. For Favre, this was nonsense. It was not part of his job description to teach anyone anything and he took that to heart by not teaching Rodgers anything. The selfish nature of sports itself – even in sports like football where no individual can function without the other members of the unit – predicates that line of thinking.

The truth about this is that the star has grown accustomed to a certain level of respect and entitlement and is still thinking about his own status in lieu of helping the organization he “loves.” While he might have been a treasured employee, he was still just that: an employee. He was under no obligation to give an inch to Rodgers; he didn’t have to help Rodgers learn how to take his job and with that his paycheck. Contrary to prevailing belief, there was no mentor-mentee relationship.

In Favre’s defense, Rodgers certainly didn’t help matters by introducing himself to Favre by walking up to him in the team cafeteria and saying, “Good morning, Grandpa!” As freewheeling and outgoing as Favre was, Rodgers was wound up and precise. Both were arrogant in their own way. Each had a chip on his shoulder due to the apparent underappreciation of their talent coming out of college. And both played the game in markedly different ways. The hazing that Favre put Rodgers through might have been, in part, due to the perceived threat of the upstart; it might also have been par for the course and nowhere near as bad as other teams’ stars dole out on young players.

As Favre is long retired and Rodgers is a bona fide star and future Hall of Famer in his own right, don’t expect narratives of the protégé contacting his teacher seeking guidance; don’t expect that teacher to nod thoughtfully and proudly at every success the protégé has.

In comparison to other athletes – particularly some of his Green Bay night-crawling buddies, notably Mark Chmura – Favre exhibited far less hypocrisy than the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries. He didn’t judgmentally rant about his Christianity nor did he claim to be anything more than a guy playing football. After he left rehab for alcohol and painkilling medication, he went right back to drinking and chasing women with the NFL, the Packers and his greenflies enabling it.

Brett Favre, left, and Aaron Rodgers present at the 2nd Annual NFL Honors on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 in New Orleans. (Photo by AJ Mast/Invision/AP)

Brett Favre, left, and Aaron Rodgers present at the 2nd Annual NFL Honors on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013 in New Orleans. (Photo by AJ Mast/Invision/AP)

Complicity from the NFL itself was rampant in that the league appeared to be more concerned about its image and how one of its brightest stars was viewed rather than genuine concern for any actual personal problem said star might have. This is indicative of the same issues it’s currently facing with the way players are treated and how health concerns are largely based on public consumption without caring about the players’ well-being.

The Chmura sexual assault allegation, for which he was acquitted, and the public vs. private image makes for fascinating reading as the true story as to what Chmura really was comes out. The same conservative, uncontrollably self-important tight end who refused to accompany the Super Bowl champion Packers to the White House to meet with President Bill Clinton because of Clinton being “immoral” for his liaisons with Monica Lewinsky was running around with Favre and partaking in the wild goings-on simultaneous to being the epitome of the condescending and preachy self-created image of moral rectitude.

Favre never did any of that.

Once Favre reached his mid-30s and his legend was firmly established, his diva-like behaviors essentially held the Packers hostage. They enabled him for as long as they could, but Favre’s hate-hate relationship with GM Ted Thompson and the “win now” edict from the quarterback left the team in limbo and did so annually. He refused to guide Rodgers and kept the team in suspended animation as it waited out the dreaded final decision as to whether or not he was retiring.

The constant “will he or won’t he?” retirement talk is examined from the viewpoints of Favre and the Packers. Each has a justifiable argument for their particular position. Favre exemplified greatness on the field, took brutal beatings and answered the bell every single Sunday. The Packers needed to know what the player who occupied the most crucial position on the field was planning to do in part to formulate an off-season plan and in part to get his heir apparent ready to play immediately if necessary.

By 2008, and after years of the draining back and forth, the Packers had had enough and a divorce was inevitable. These are rarely amicable. The vacillation was no longer tolerated by the Packers. Favre retired, kind of; then he intimated that he wanted to come back and compete with Rodgers; then he backed away again. Understandably, the Packers were moving on with their new quarterback and made the tacit and, by then, easy choice to let Favre go.

But “letting him go” didn’t include the unfettered free agency he desired so he could join one of his preferred destinations with the hated rivals Chicago Bears or Minnesota Vikings. This went on and on and without the placating of the star that accompanies an authorized biography, Pearlman evenhandedly tells the story of how Favre wound up with the Jets out of convenience rather than willingness on his part.

The year with the Jets and the two with the Vikings offer tidbits that, in addition to the Favre sideshow, are worth the read in and of themselves. Jets coach Eric Mangini has long been granted martyr status for his dismissal as Jets coach after the team’s 9-7 showing following an 8-3 start when they looked to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders. He never wanted Favre; didn’t want to run the kind of offense that was necessary with Favre as the quarterback; didn’t want to have to deal with the daily drama that accompanied having Favre; and was blamed for the team spiraling and missing the playoffs when that offense he didn’t want and didn’t like could no longer function as Favre’s arm injury rendered him nearly useless. But the callous and humorless Mangini had gone too far in trying to imitate his former boss Bill Belichick, succeeding only in becoming the failed Cleveland Browns version of Belichick – the one who was fired and deserved to get fired.

Minnesota Vikings' Brett Favre is introduced before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Monday, Dec. 20, 2010, in Minneapolis. The game is being played at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium because of damage to the Metrodome roof. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

Minnesota Vikings’ Brett Favre is introduced before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears Monday, Dec. 20, 2010, in Minneapolis. The game is being played at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium because of damage to the Metrodome roof. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

Favre’s first year with the Vikings was eerily similar to his entire career. He was brilliant and efficient all season leading the team to the playoffs with the second-best record in the NFC, and a bad interception resulted in a loss in the NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints. That one game encapsulated Favre’s career with a vicious beating (that led to the draconian punishments for the Saints’ “bountygate” scandal), material for his highlight reel, a bad interception, wanton disregard for his well-being and motivation to return for another year.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look at what happened in his final year with 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions, a 6-10 season, and the end of his unparalleled streak of consecutive starts due to injury and say that he should have retired one year earlier, but that season in which he showed that his body had nothing left to give was the exclamation point that he needed to finally retire and stay retired without the lingering ambivalence that always ended with him in pads and a helmet.

The retired Brett Favre is just as surprising as the active Brett Favre. Of all athletes one would expect to balloon up to 300 pounds once he was no longer constrained by the confines of an NFL season, to spend all his money and wind up scrounging for pennies at autograph shows, taking broadcasting jobs he didn’t really want or coaching without aptitude or passion, he instead turned his competitive streak to running triathlons and in a variety of businesses that might not make a great deal of sense, but are at least giving him something to do with the same confined mania and “what are you doing?” imprudence that frequently defined his career.

Brett Favre cannot be neatly pigeonholed into any particular category. His unabashed kindness to those less fortunate, the time he spent with people who were ill or handicapped by his own volition, the courage he showed on the field, the maximization of his talent; the rampant drinking and partying, the selfish pendulum upon which he kept the Packers and other ups and downs are all clear in the narrative.

The neo-realistic cynic who doesn’t hold athletes in high regard for anything other than their practical skill will undoubtedly appreciate the pull no punches, warts and overall tenor of the book. Those who are immersed in the delusions of the rags-to-riches, All-American football star idealism are unlikely to want to accept the positives and negatives of Favre’s life, making it all the more necessary that they read it as well.

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