In 1979, Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” hit the top of the Billboard country music charts. The song’s toe-tapping melody kept it at the top for several weeks, but what really struck a chord with listeners was its memorable chorus: Knowin’ when to hold ‘em/knowing when to fold ‘em/knowin’ when to walk away/ and knowin’ when to run.
This metaphor for life has been embraced by some in sports, like Barry Sanders, who knew when his career was through after 11 years of superb play.
For others, it’s been flagrantly ignored. Players like Michael Jordan and Roger Clemens have refused to fold, despite advancing years and diminishing returns.
But no one has violated this metaphor for life quite like Brett Favre.
In the last several years–though it seems like much more–Brett Favre has been a constant presence on NFL shows like NFL Live, sports news programming like SportsCenter, and even inaugural sports magazine shows like Joe Buck Live.
The ubiquity of Favre hasn’t been due to scandals or controversy, as is often the case with public figures that dominate the limelight. No, it’s been whether or not he will play the next season.
It began in 2006, when after an uncharacteristically poor performance the season before (led the league in interceptions, a career-low 70.2 QB rating, threw for 10 fewer touchdowns than in 2005), Favre announced he was leaning towards retirement.
Soon after that announcement, Favre began the song and dance that’s continued not one, not two, but three years later...tipping his toe into the retirement waters, but never fully taking the plunge.
Speculation of retirement continued in the 2007 offseason after bone spurs were removed from his ankle. Favre spurned the rumor mill though, returning to the Packers and posting numbers that had many thinking Favre found his second wind.
He racked up more passing yards than any previous season since 1998, threw the fewest interceptions his 2007 season, recorded his highest QB rating since 2004, earned a Pro Bowl nod, and led the Packers to an NFC Championship appearance to boot.
Despite his improved play, he still contemplated leaving football…yet again. And once again, NFL programming was dominated by the Brett Favre question: will he or won’t he retire?
Favre answered that question at a press conference on Mar. 4, where he tearfully sniffed and slobbered into the mash of microphones that “all good things must come to an end.”
His weeping seemed to indicate that this time his leaving was legit.
And if it was legit, though his dabbling with retirement had been annoying, no one could deny he left on a positive note...something every athlete hopes to leave ringing in fans' ears as they exit the stage.
As the summer heat engulfed much of the nation in July 2008, however, the rumor mill burned piping hot about Favre’s return. Football fans had been foiled yet again; Favre had an “itch”...an itch that needed scratching.
It must have been some scratch, as talk of his return never let up in the intervening months.
The constant speculation, innuendo, and debate about Favre raged for four straight months, and was a main talking point on sports radio stations across the country, and even primetime news talkshows (per Favre’s interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren).
Though his first few weeks of the 2008 started out great with the Jets he finished the season throwing as many touchdowns as he did interceptions (22), and leading the league in INTs.
Though he’d fooled the football watching world several times with his “retirement” rantings, the way the Jets finished seemed to seal the deal that this time, he would retire…for real.
He confirmed those suspicions a few days after the Steelers’ Super Bowl victory, telling the big wigs of the New York Jets that his 18-year career had reached its end.
Only, it didn’t.
Three months after his latest “retirement” incarnation, Favre began discussions with potential suitors. The Minnesota Vikings were the most interested. The only question was whether he could overcome arthroscopic surgery performed on his throwing arm.
Which brings us to today.
We are now awaiting Favre’s latest “retirement” decision, which is once again a discussion stealing the headlines of NFL Live, taking up topic space on Pardon the Interruption, and eating precious time on sports flash updates.
Perhaps fearing that his tired “am I going to retire?” shtick is wearing on football fans, Favre’s made Friday D-Day, not July 30 as previously reported.
Favre’s addiction to the limelight is almost drug-like. And as every drug user has his dealer, ESPN is Favre’s.
ESPN is fanning Favre’s flames, with PTI’s Tony Kornheiser extolling his virtues in nearly every episode, ESPN the Magazine billing Favre as the best No. 4 in the history of sports (so much for Bobby Orr and Lou Gehrig), and giving him a perpetual presence on ESPN’s “Bottomline”.
Only Michael Vick’s legal issues can take the top story spot away from Favre on NFL Live (it’s a wonder a segment hasn’t been named in his honor; “Fawning Over Favre” has a nice ring to it).
And while the story may be compelling for Favre fans, prolonging this story is doing a disservice to other more worthy topics like season schedules, offseason pickups, and potential trade possibilities.
More importanly, it’s cementing what people will remember about Favre; not his pocket presence, but his topic presence; not his bombs, but his bombast.
Brett: as you yourself said in one of your first retirement announcements (there’s been so many, who can keep count?), all good things must come to an end.
You’ve been a true iron man, football’s own Cal Ripken (most consecutive starts as a quarterback at 269 [291 if you include playoffs]).
For the sake of what you want people to remember you for—your career statistics and durability, not your obsession with being the topic de jure of NFL Live—download Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Take his advice to heart.