(Favre at his retirement press conference. Photo by Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)
There have been many athletes who came back after announcing their retirement. What makes Brett Favre's volte-face so infamous is that he didn't even sit out a year; only a few months after his ultimatum, he was filing for reinstatement.
On March 4th, 2008, Favre gave word of his retirement to ESPN's Chris Mortensen in the form of a voice mail. "I know I can still play," he said, "but it’s like I told my wife, I’m just tired mentally. I’m just tired. I know it shouldn’t feel unsuccessful, but the only way to come back and make that be the right decision would be to come back and win a Super Bowl. And honestly, the odds of that, they’re tough."
Brett's decision was a considerable surprise to most -- for years, he had waffled between retiring and staying on as the Packers' quarterback. Favre had weak years in 2005 and 2006, throwing 47 interceptions between them, but still chose to stick around. In 2007, with a healthy receiving unit and a solid running back in Ryan Grant, Favre had one of the best seasons of his career. He toned down on the interception-prone longballs he was known for and relied on a more succinct offense. That year, the Packers finished 13-3 and made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game.
But in that game, Favre had a poor second half and threw an interception in overtime that led to the Packers' defeat. Even though Favre was a 38 year-old veteran, the sub-par way he went out and his rejuvenation on the football field led many to believe he'd join the Packers for a 17th season.
Alas, as of March 2008, this was not the case. A few days later, Favre officially announced his farewell in an hour-long press conference to his media companions. The Green Bay phenom tried to hold back tears as he explained why it was time to go: he was going out on top, having led his team within a point of the Super Bowl; he had one last great season and would've won the MVP had Tom Brady not thrown 50 touchdowns; he knew he could still play, but the Monday-through-Saturday grind was too much for him to endure...
The end of Favre's Hall of Fame career had many assessing his place in history. He had started in 253 consecutive games at quarterback, an impressive record that appeared insurmountable. Thanks to his longevity, Favre was the all-time-leader in passes, completions, incompletions, interceptions, yards, touchdowns, and wins. In the nineteen years before Favre arrived, the Packers had made the playoffs just once and hadn't won a single playoff game. In his sixteen years with the Pack, Green Bay made the postseason eleven times, won twelve playoff games, and were even victorious in Super Bowl XXXI.
(Favre throws a pass against the Seahawks. Photo by Matthew Stockman, Getty Images)
And yet, as authentic as his teary-eyed goodbye appeared, many analysts were skeptical that he would still be retired by the beginning of the season. There was a long list of legendary athletes who just couldn't walk away -- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Chris Carter, Mario Lemieux, Jim Palmer, and Mark Spitz were just a few. Not only did Favre possess the passion of those players, he had shaken off retirement thoughts before and was still capable of playing in the NFL. Even in his farewell address, Favre lamented that he would miss playing on Sundays.
The stars seemed to align for a comeback and hints of a reversal came fast and furious. Less than a month after his departure, the LA Times reported that Favre, who had yet to turn in his retirement papers, was asking various teams if they'd be interested in trading for him. Favre denied this, and the Packers filed his retirement papers a few weeks later.
This was, of course, not the last rumor to surface. Over the next couple months, Favre's name appeared omnipresent despite his recent unemployment. Not even a week after the LA Times report, Favre told the Biloxi Sun Herald that he'd rejoin the Packers if they were maligned by injuries: "It would be hard to pass up, I guess." When he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, Favre didn't denounce a comeback possibility: "Something's bound to happen." And the cou de gras: a July report that Favre was "itching" to return at the behest of his family. Favre denied the story, but since the report was conducted by Chris Mortensen, and because members of his own family were used as sources, there was little to deny.
There was just one problem: the Packers didn't want him back. Green Bay had drafted California QB Aaron Rodgers in 2005 with the mindset that he would succeed Favre when he retired. And when the three-time MVP finally called it quits, the Packers had made it clear that Rodgers had their full support. But now a serious conflict of interest had surfaced -- could the Packers really turn away Favre if he asked to come back?
That answer would be defined over the next month, as Favre dropped all pretense and asked the Packers to release him just nine days later. Favre's change of heart and the Packers' indecision would become the biggest sports story of the year. The second half of July was all-Favre all the time on ESPN, who decided to give him his own daily section on their news ticker.
(Mike McCarthy meets with reporters. Photo by Morry Gash, Associated Press)
The story wouldn't have been what it was had the Packers not faced a public relations nightmare. Favre was still under contract, but they couldn't just keep him around if they really had Rodgers' back. They could bring back Favre, but they'd run the risk of completely disconcerting Aaron Rodgers. They couldn't meet Brett's request and waive him when they could get something in return, but Favre had a no-trade clause and moving him would be difficult. None of their options were easy or particularly desirable, but one was going to have to be made soon. Training camp was only a week away.
Favre's preferred destinations were Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Minnesota -- all NFC teams. The Packers didn't want to move him within the conference, where they might run the risk of turning an NFC rival into a Super Bowl contender. The Vikings seemed particularly out of the question, not just because they were a great QB away from being dangerous, but because the Packers played them in their first game of the season, and were supposed to retire Favre's No. 4 jersey in that game. Could Brett Favre be playing against the Packers to open the season, with his old Packers uniform being lifted into the rafters? Was it even possible?
Favre's first post-unretirement interview came with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, who was an aficionado and stockholder of the Packers. "Okay, you guys have a different path, fine," Favre said, recalling a June conversation he had with Packers coach Mike McCarthy. "What does that mean for me? So that means either you give me my helmet, welcome [me] back, or release me, or attempt to trade me. We all know that's a possibility, but way-out-there possibility.
"You're telling me playing there is not an option, but playing elsewhere, we just can't -- we're trying to protect your legacy. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. But apparently now, they're trying to protect my legacy by bringing me back and having me be a backup. Boy, that is really good."
Favre had maintained a stellar, almost sycophantic relationship with the media throughout his career. But in his comeback attempt, Favre lost a lot of support from both columnists and fans. He had publicly contemplated retirement for six years and many were tired of him dramatically prolonging his exit. It was particularly unfair to Aaron Rodgers, who had waited three years to become the starting quarterback and even allowed Favre to start meaningless games just to prolong his consecutive games streak. Plus, his comments with Van Susteran and others were rather selfish and self-motivated, and lost meaning when he blamed the Packers for not talking him out of his decision to retire.
Hours before training camp began, Packers' GM Ted Thompson told Favre to stay home until they could make a decision. As quickly as the public turned against Favre, the Packers and Thompson began getting hammered as well. Green Bay appeared to want it both ways: they were sticking behind Rodgers but they didn't want to give Favre away either.
Favre filed for reinstatement at the end of July, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke with him and the Packers for over a week. Many criticized Goodell's involvement in the Packers' issues, while others thought the story had gone on too long and was becoming a distraction. Goodell failed to negotiate a resolution between the two parties and reinstated Favre on August 3rd.
Now the Packers had to make a decision. They had 24 hours to either put Favre on the active roster or allow him to become a free agent. The Packers were so willing to end the ordeal that they offered Favre a preposterous 10-year, $25 million deal to stay home and play for no one. Favre considered the proposal but turned it down, insisting that playing football was his No. 1 priority. Because letting him go would allow NFC teams like the Vikings and Bears to sign him, the Packers reluctantly added Favre to the active roster.
A few hours later, Brett and his wife Deanna hopped on a private jet and flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was to arrive at training camp, where the Packers grudgingly told the media that he would compete with Rodgers for the starting job. Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy had lost all their support. Offering Favre, who was still under contract with Green Bay, a ridiculous 10-year contract to do nothing was bad enough, but now they were turning their backs on Rodgers by having him compete with an immensely popular Hall of Fame quarterback.
Favre arrived in Green Bay and was greeted by hundreds of adoring fans, all of whom had braved the downpour of a recent thunderstorm. He was intercepted by team officials a half an hour before the start of practice and instead drove to his nearby home, where he, Thompson, and Packers CEO Mark Murphy discussed trade possibilities. Back at the training field, Rodgers was met with boos and chants of "We want Brett" as he scrimmaged. "Yeah, I take it personally," Rodgers said of the hecklers. "But like I said, it's not the first time and it won't be the last time."
(Rodgers practices in front of Favre fans. Photo by Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)
The Favres hopped on their private plane and flew back to their home in Mississippi. The Packers had made it clear that Favre was going to be traded, somewhere, and that his time in Green Bay was over. An exasperated Mike McCarthy told the reporters on August 6th that the Favre era had come to a close. "The football team has moved forward, okay?" he said. "The train has left the station, whatever analogy you want. He needs to jump on the train and let's go, or if we can't get past all of the things that have happened, I need to keep the train moving, and he respects that. He understands that."
There were numerous reports that the Packers were coming to terms with the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, who were more than willing to dispel Jeff Garcia, himself a 38 year-old quarterback. The deal fell through, however the Packers were able to finally make a transaction later that night. Shortly before midnight, Green Bay traded Favre to the New York Jets for a conditional draft pick.
The following morning, Favre arrived in New York donning a dark green Jets cap. It was fitting that Favre went to a team called the Jets, as he had used a private one to transport him throughout the affair. It was also appropriate that the most famous player in Jets history was Joe Namath -- Namath retired after his team won Super Bowl III but wound up playing another nine seasons, something Favre could certainly relate to.
(Favre arrives in New York in a Jets cap. Photo by Steve Coleman, AP Photos)
The Jets handed Favre his new uniform later that day, thus ending the saga once and for all. Rodgers was assured as the Packers' starting quarterback, where he would face a tremendous amount of pressure. The Packers canceled the ceremony where Favre's number was to be retired. EA Sports, who had begun shipping copies of Madden NFL 2009, were in a bind because Favre was on the cover in his old Packers' jersey. EA produced new covers with Favre in his Jets attire, but the released versions had Favre as a free agent, and not as a New York Jet.