Brett Favre has become the boogeyman. He's resurfaced so many times, like a monster out of a horror film, that no one really believes he's gone even when he says he is. He'll have to be pushing 50 or in the grave before people at last accept it, but so long as he's a year two from activity, his name will always come up whenever a team of prominence loses its quarterback.
Teams like the Houston Texans. If ever a team needed a savior to come out of retirement and bail them out, it's Houston, who has the No. 1 defense in the NFL, the best running back in the NFL (Arian Foster), maybe the best receiver in the NFL (Andre Johnson), and another great running back in Ben Tate. Their only problem is that with both Matt Schaub and now Matt Leinart out for the year, fifth round draft pick T.J. Yates is suddenly the team's starting quarterback. If they could solidify the QB position, they'd be a juggernaut, but for all we know, Yates could be as bad as Tim Tebow, only without the innate ability to win.
It was only natural that Favre's name would be propelled as a possible replacement, even though Favre hasn't picked up a football in forever, even though the Houston GM is on the record saying he doesn't "want to bring the circus to town," even though Favre looked as old and fragile last year as any athlete in recent history. Favre's image transcends reality. On a pure football basis, there's no reason to think there aren't a hundred better options for the Texans to pursue. But Favre's name value is so strong, and he's done this so many times, that even though there isn't any reason to think the Texans are even remotely interested in him, it's something sports fans are discussing today. Brett Favre is in the news today simply from people's imaginations.
But as much of an enigma as Favre is, he pales in comparison to Wilt Chamberlain, who stretched comeback rumors longer than Favre could ever dream. It was impressive that anyone wanted Favre at all at age 41 last year, but in 1978, a 42-year-old Chamberlain found his services requested by a number of teams, five years after he had last played in the league. The Warriors and Bulls both made overtures of bringing him off the bench as a backup, and the Lakers even got in on the act, claiming that they were the only team Wilt could play for because he had previously retired there with a year left on his contract.
Nothing solidified, but the interest with other teams remained. Even though a comeback would've made him the oldest player in NBA history, Wilt continued to draw interest because of his incredible physique. At 7-feet-1-inches tall, and with an endurance that allowed him to become a professional volleyball player when his days in the NBA were through, Wilt was nothing short of a freak of nature, with a body years ahead of being common in the league. The normal rules of aging simply didn't apply to him. "Into his 50s and his 60s, Chamberlain remained an incredible specimen -- a mountain of a man who was as coordinated and talented athletically as he was imposing physically," Chris Sheridan wrote in 1999, shortly after his death.
In 1979, after talks with the Phoenix Suns, Chamberlain was formally offered a chance to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he turned it down. He received a similar offer in 1982, at age 45, to return on a limited basis with the Philadelphia 76ers since center Darryl Dawkins had broken his leg, but he turned that down too. His last official offer came in 1986, when the New Jersey Nets offered him a deal at the staggering age of 49 to play in the final seven games of the regular season and into the postseason as a backup. Chamberlain again denied a chance to return, saying he didn't even consider it and that it sounded like "a joke."
"It was not a fair proposal," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They didn't ask what kind of shape I was in, whether I had a cold or a toothache. ... You don't take a guy and throw him out there with nine others, four on his team, five playing against him, and expect anything like you used to get. ... It's an honor that someone thinks you're capable of doing it. I stopped playing because I was no longer mentally capable of going out there every day. I don't want to play. I'm quite happy doing what I am doing."
Although Chamberlain received offers for many years, he never intended to actually come back. He had little motivation to field calls from teams other than for his own vanity, and he explained as much in a 1984 article with People magazine. "I never said I wouldn't negotiate with those teams if the terms were right, and my ego is such that I liked it when someone said they could use me. But I never sought them out. And I haven't missed playing. Come February where do you think I'd rather be -- in Cleveland trying to plow my way through a snowstorm to get to a game or on the beach in Hawaii, board sailing and chasing girls?"
Chamberlain would again use the e-word in a 1991 article with Jet magazine, in which the 54-year-old Hall of Famer claimed he was still getting questions from teams wondering if he was available. "It's great for the ego to think that, at age 50, 52, 53, that guys think I could still go and play. And personally, I think I could do it. But I have no desire. The time I had was enough."
In a weird way, Chamberlain's aversion to playing again may have helped keep him on teams' radars even into his 50's. Whereas Brett Favre came back at every opportunity, exhausting every last offer and sticking around long after he should have, Chamberlain just stayed away. The last image people had of him was as a competent thirtysomething, and in the absence of seeing his game depreciate from old age, it was always thought he might still have some skill in him, what with his great conditioning and all. Had Chamberlain actually played for the Cavaliers at age 43, it's unlikely he would have done much as the oldest player in history, and even more unlikely that teams would've called his house ever again after seeing what father time had done to him.
Ironically, by knowing when to quit, teams refused to quit him.
Had Favre quit after his great season in 2009, the idea of him going to the Texans would be more than the passing thought it is now, since there'd still be the possibility that the great Brett Favre was available, rather than the mediocre Brett Favre of last year. After all, the Texans are currently trying out Jeff Garcia, who's just as old as Favre. Why try out a 42-year-old quarterback who isn't Brett Favre? Easy: in Garcia's last full season as a starter, in 2008, he had them within a game of the playoffs. His lasting memory was more favorable than Favre's, and though Garcia hasn't played in a game in three years, he finds himself infinitely more signable than Favre, which is odd, since at no point was Garcia ever considered better than him.
With a lack of suitors, it'll be hard for Favre to remain a credible suggestion for teams in need of a quarterback. For the moment, he'll receive some courtesy shoutouts whenever someone gets hurt, but his name will lose relevance long before Wilt Chamberlain's did, a decade-plus after he had first retired.