The Kid Fades From The Picture

My childhood bedroom is a mess. I haven’t slept in there in years, which is fine because I am an adult and married and no longer need to sleep in a bed with Mets sheets on it. Which, that last thing, is actually good, because I couldn’t get to the bed anyway. It and everything else in that room are buried beneath the soft cloth drifts and slumping linen moraines of what will allegedly — and increasingly implausibly — be a truly massive parental campaign to donate the decades of clothing that currently tumble all over my room. Vast khaki dunes and misshapen Clinton-era denim and pill-clotted sweaters and seemingly every big, stupid t-shirt I ever owned is up there. But behind and beneath all this is another bristling layer of clutter. This would become coal or oil or diamonds or whatever when spread over the epochs of the metaphor I kind of carelessly began a few sentences back, but in my room it is comprised of old trading cards. Mostly baseball, but also football and basketball. Almost all of them are worthless, both in the crass market-minded sense and in any other. I don’t have much use for those faded Jeff George rookie cards, and neither does anyone else. But I also found a weird, smudgy diamond beneath all that clutter when I was home over the Thanksgiving holiday. Or maybe it was more like a fossil. At any rate: it was a Brett Favre rookie card.

I have a few of them in plastic sleeves, because that’s what I did with notionally valuable cards when I was a kid, but this one turned up by accident. I was idly excavating the sloppy periphery of one of several collectible landslides when I found this particular a less-distinguished Favre rookie card, printed by a company called Action Packed. Action Packed was another of the busted wildcat card companies of the early-’90s card boom, and would be out of business just a few years later. The card itself didn’t have much of a claim on importance, let alone immortality. It has weird round edges and a red football helmet with a big “R” on it — you know, for “rookie” — and was all clumsy foil and weird random airport paperback bumpy-text; Favre wears an Atlanta Falcons jersey in the photo on the front. I am virtually certain that I shoplifted a pack in which it was buried from the Thrift Drug in my hometown when I was in eighth grade; not to belabor my thug-murder bona fides, but I’m pretty sure I never paid for a pack of Action Packed. Anyway, this image of an unformed, un-Favred Favre seemed significant and strange to me then and now — a relic of a strange and vanished time, as surely and as awkwardly as the slouching ziggurats of awkward-wash jeans that rose above it.

The card is not really that remarkable or ancient, honestly. I’m not that old, and neither is Favre, and 20 years is actually a pretty short epoch, as epochs go. A great many things were recognizably the same on that day as they were two decades earlier, when I presumably first held that card: there was a football game on downstairs (the annual Lions-to-the-slaughter Thanksgiving Day game, same as it ever was), and I was upstairs not-quite-hiding from the purposeful parental tempest in the kitchen and shuffling through a bunch of bullshit trading cards. And also, this weird artifact that was, in fact, not an artifact — this particular blunt arrowhead was still in use. Brett Favre, who was 41 on the day when I found the card and probably 21 when its less-than-action-packed photo was taken, is still in the NFL and may yet start another game at quarterback this season for the Minnesota Vikings. But, of course, he is very different now. Twenty years may be a short epoch, but it is also a long time.

On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Favre’s last All-Pro season and MVP award were 13 years in the past, and his sole Super Bowl victory a year older than that. What had come after was intermittently great and — increasingly and inexorably, as the years piled up and the culture curdled and Favre himself bloomed into baroque monomania in sports — finally just kind of embarrassing. You know about all this. Even if you’re not a football fan, you know about it. The last bit, I mean, the embarrassing stuff.

You probably don’t remember, if you’re not a football fan, that Favre won three straight Most Valuable Player awards between 1995 and 1997, and that he was truly and poignantly and era-definingly great — and joyful and bold and legitimately exciting to watch and, for a brief period, also a drunk and a drug addict — during the 1990s. You may know, even if you’re not a football fan, that Favre went on in the decade-plus since to set all kinds of cumulative NFL records — most touchdowns and most interceptions, most wins and most fumbles and most completions and most incompletions and so on — especially if you have read through to the dutiful recitations of his accomplishments at the bottom of the various stories about the debasing theatrics of his terminal years. (“Favre, the NFL’s leader in touchdown passes and wins, denies the penis in the photos is his. In the opinion of a penis-identification expert contacted by TMZ, though…”)

Favre retires and un-retires, he drips big public tears at the prospect of leaving the game, then grins his way back into it. He winks and stubbles his way through various commercials, some knowing and others unsophisticated in their adoration. Earlier this year, online disdain manufacturer/purveyor Deadspin extruded a story involving Favre text-messaging unsolicited and unwelcomed photos of his penis to a female Jets employee — a young woman named Jenn Sterger whose (somewhat problematic) career as a Jets “game-day hostess” owed to some chaste tank-top-and-cowboy-hat foxy-superfan shots dating back to her time at Florida State, photos of the sort that tumidify a certain kind of football-goof and which cropped up on Deadspin (among other sites) during her college years.

The peen pics were crass and repugnant, and the NFL’s slow-walking of Sterger’s harassment complaint is pretty shameful (and the football media’s ignorantly knowing coverage just as much so). But there was still something sad about Favre finally joining the infamy-junkie winezillas of the Real Housewives franchise in the panopticonic shame-basement of Kardashian-level celebrity. Favre actually earned his measure of notoriety, after all. But by dint of his own wild and self-serious vanity, everything fell away but the Q-rating. First bit-by-bit, and then all at once, Favre disappeared into his own caricature. He had gone from an improvisatory, half-accidental, and totally legitimate football genius to a craggily self-enamored fortysomething cock-photographer angling for some sub-rosa parking lot action from a team employee who would have a hard time saying no. That’s a long fall.

And maybe “fall” isn’t quite right — Favre didn’t necessarily jump into to this grim descent, but he wasn’t totally pushed, either. Sports are full of greats who play too long, who cannot or will not accept the diminution of their greatness and so wind up staggering from the scene in a strange uniform, in a strange town, and in something like disgrace. It’s hard for most of us to understand or unpack the vanity that comes with athletic invincibility, but anyone who follows sports knows what it does to those blessed with it. Knows, that is, that impervious physical grace and the pathological competitiveness that drives elite athletes to protect and cultivate all that fleeting power can curdle its owner’s more vulnerable human dimensions.

This also doesn’t need to be metaphysics, if you don’t want it to be. The vain, spooky gravity with which star athletes talk about themselves and their resolutely minor pursuit is also the result of years of behavioral conditioning — star athletes are asked, in a way that suggests their answers are very important and by people to whom the answers are indeed important, about things like how their toes are feeling; how they’re holding up after that tough loss; what they think about various things they know nothing about. Whatever they come out with is greeted by serious nods and hasty scribbles and earnest follow-ups and a whole suite of other behaviors that suggest that, yes, your toe is of great importance, tell us more about your toe, please.

So: Favre has two decades of that under his belt, and was borne along on a torrent of fulsome praise from all corners of the sports media throughout those years. The praise was not unearned: Favre really was great and great to watch for most of his career, and that his style of play — a veneer of pickup-game recklessness and go-for-it creativity tempering his otherworldly ability, and all of it hung with a pair of titanium nuts — flattered the conservative sentimentalities of the lumpen NFL fan and commentariat complex doesn’t make him less great. That Favre stuck around too long for both his own good and that of his legend is inarguable, at this point, but it was his celebrity — and the too-easy wantonness with which he accepted and embraced the idea of his own integrality and simple genius — that ruined Favre, finally, more than the loss of his abilities.

Once all impish id, Favre’s play wound up being subsumed by the increasingly unavoidable perception of his overwhelming ego — the celebrity replaced the football player, first in public and then, during his long decline, on the field. The dead-serious vacuity of Favre’s serial press conferences and Most Difficult Moments Of His Career, and the increasingly widespread fan distaste for the dead-serious vacuity with which they were covered, colored the way we saw Favre on the field. There was a time when Favre’s tendency to blast passes into rock-solid coverage might was seen as cool and insouciant and the price of the brilliance that surrounded it — all the hoary sportscaster praise used to exist outside of its current prison of weary tone quotes. But after all these tiresome public performances of Favre by Favre, each just as unremittingly serious and unconvincing as the last, Favre The Quarterback has been replaced by Favre The Favre; the gunslinger became “the gunslinger.” There’s a greater cultural trend towards facile, self-aggrandizing, pretend-concerned judgmentology at work here, as well, but Favre has certainly helped his own semiotic subsuming along by being such a grandiose doofus. This leaves fans in a strange place — all these glib, sorrowful Dr. Drews in their replica jerseys, watching Favre and concluding, sadly, that only a pathological narcissist who needs help would have thrown that interception. In his zombified dotage, Favre is as much diagnosed as he is watched.

A lot of on-deadline types used the language of miracles when Favre came back from a nasty shoulder injury to start the Vikings’ much-anticipated outdoor loss on Monday Night against the Chicago Bears. In a broader sense, though, coming as it did at the end of a season of bad vibes and bad football in Minnesota, Favre’s brief comeback felt flat and routinized — the equivalent of James Brown’s umpteenth I-can’t-go-on collapse, followed by an increasingly creaky flinging off of his cape and a foggy rendition of “Mother Popcorn.” For anyone who saw him do it at The Apollo when he was young and beautiful, the performance is that much drearier for taking place before a mumbling crowd at some grease-smelling state fair. And this most recent comeback from Favre went even worse than the others.

The narrative, as I’ve seen it, was that Favre’s injury in that game — he was bounced off the frozen turf and into a concussion by Bears defensive end Corey Wootton and spent the second half of the game swaddled foggily into a parka on the sidelines — has finally given him his way out. “It humanizes him,” the interchangeable shouting heads on ESPN’s “Around The Horn” announced. Finally, he could go out on his shield, or whatever the fuck.

Which, sure, except that Favre is already gone, and has been for some time. There’s plenty to mourn about his departure, because he used to be fun and because he’ll be replaced by narcissists of a crueler and more corporate cast — think of Tom Brady’s joyless tuff-model mug, or Tim Tebow’s blissful, boring evangelical boilerplate. Favre did indeed hang on too long, but not in the sense of no longer being able to make the throws or take the hits anymore. His mistake was getting high on his own supply, and sticking around long enough to disappear into his own misty mythos. Celebrity hollowed him out, as it does, and what’s left of his old roguish joy now feels false and overdetermined; his press conferences may well be honest, but they are also claustrophobic — weird, rambling tours of the ornate, echoing ego-Xanadu in which he lives. He can’t go away any more than Lindsay Lohan can, because there is an industry that depends on him, from which he also draws a sizable paycheck. But the better Favre — the one who really was Like A Kid Out There, as opposed to the one who merely regressed to childishness by overindulgence and self-addiction — is a long time and a long way gone.

If you were to scroll down through the box scores of last Sunday’s games at Yahoo while toting up how I and my shiny predictive better did on the week, you would surely notice that my predictions on the first 10 games played on Sunday were all incorrect. I got Thursday right, and I did fine after the sun went down on the east coast, but… well, that’s what happened. I can’t do anything about it now. Some I got wrong by a little bit. Some I got wrong by a lot. A couple that didn’t even have betting lines, I lost. To say that a coin flip would’ve served me better has never been more obviously correct. If I cared more about this part of the column, this would bother me more. But I would like to promise that that won’t happen this week. I hope you believe me when I tell you that I would really like to do that.

Week 15 (and overall): David Roth: 4–11 (107–108–9); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 9–5 (113–102–9)

Thursday, December 23
• Carolina at Pittsburgh (-15), 8:20pm — DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Carolina

Saturday, December 25
• Dallas (-7) at Arizona, 7:30 pm — DR: Dallas; ATTLCTDC: Arizona

Sunday, December 26
• Baltimore (-3.5) at Cleveland, 1:00 pm — DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Baltimore
• New York Jets at Chicago (-1), 1:00 pm — DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J
• New England (-8.5) at Buffalo, 1:00 pm — DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• San Francisco at St. Louis (-2), 1:00 pm — DR: St. Louis; ATTLCTDC: San Francisco
• Detroit at Miami (-3.5), 1:00 pm — DR: Detroit; ATTLCTDC: Detroit
• Tennessee at Kansas City (-5), 1:00 pm — DR: Kansas City; ATTLCTDC: Kansas City
• Washington at Jacksonville (-7), 1:00 pm — DR: Jacksonville; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• Indianapolis (-3) at Oakland, 4:05 pm — DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
• Houston at Denver (NO LINE), 4:05 pm — DR: Houston; ATTLCTDC: Denver
• San Diego (-7.5) at Cincinnati, 4:05 pm — DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: San Diego
• Seattle at Tampa Bay (-6), 4:15 pm — DR: Tampa Bay; ATTLCTDC: Tampa Bay
• New York Giants at Green Bay (-3), 4:15 pm — DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• Minnesota at Philadelphia (-13.5), 8:20 pm — DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Minnesota

Monday, December 27
• New Orleans at Atlanta (-2.5), 8:30 pm — DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta

David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!