Friday, March 07, 2008

Tribute to #4

To commemorate the great Packer quarterback Brett Favre's retirement this week from pro football, I am posting below a recent essay I wrote, inspired by him. This essay was submitted to a magazine running a "Football Essay Contest", and while it's not likely it will win, it was fun to put this together and pay tribute to a player I've always been a huge fan of.

Sling It
Brett Favre as Literary Inspiration

I have tried – and failed - to write about Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre for years. Honesty forces me to disclose from the outset that I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but I have a lifelong love of American football, and if I were forced to identify a single athlete as my all-time favorite from any professional sport, I would choose Favre. Something about his style of play, unchanged throughout a legendary career, has always inspired me, as it probably has others. And since I am a literary sort, and feel compelled to write about the things that interest me in order to understand them more fully, it seemed inevitable that I would eventually write about Favre. If I could never play football well, maybe I could write well about someone who does.

Yet I could never find an angle on the subject that satisfied me. Although I share some things with him – we’re roughly the same age; we both have two daughters – I don’t know Brett Favre. I’ve never met the man, let alone played with him or coached him; I’ve never even seen him play in person. So I cannot tell stories about him that you wouldn’t already know if you’ve ever turned on a TV on a Sunday for the last, say, seventeen years. I’m not a football expert, sports columnist, or even a journalist, so what does my opinion matter? I’m just another fan who happens to appreciate the way Favre plays.

Yet somewhere along the line, in the midst of all those false starts, I realized that that’s not all I am. I’m a fan, it’s true, but I’m also a writer. And that’s where I finally saw the connection. It’s not that I want to play football the way Brett Favre plays football. I gave up on that a long time ago. It’s that I want to write the way Brett Favre plays football.

This idea didn’t occur to me yesterday. It wasn’t even recently. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact date – January 26, 1997. The only problem was that I didn’t realize it. I couldn’t see the connection eleven years ago. I didn’t discover the link until this year, because I simply wasn’t a good enough writer in 1997. I needed a lot more practice in seeing where things connect. While athleticism may have a lot to do with natural gifts, writing well requires a slow maturation; one must develop an aptitude for certain mental processes through the crucible of experience, which can take many years of time and effort.

Nonetheless, I still remember the moment: it was the second play from scrimmage in Super Bowl XXXI in the Louisiana Superdome. Favre took the snap, dropped back, and fired a 54-yard cannonblast to Andre Rison for the first score of the game. It was a phenomenal pass, but it was Favre’s reaction to the end result of the play that, for me, elevated it into something else. He tore off his helmet, lifted it high over his head, and charged off the field, howling with triumph. Hundreds of millions of people were watching, and Favre didn’t care one bit. At that moment, the game was already over. Favre was victorious, and he knew it. Everything he had been through to that point seemed as though it had been worth the cost.

That one moment from Favre’s career – even though there have been other triumphant moments since then; the man has thrown for more touchdowns than any other quarterback in the history of the National Football League – stayed firmly rooted in my brain for more than a decade. And while I always wondered why it carried so much weight for me, I never was able to successfully connect it to my own world – what I was, and what I wanted to be. Meanwhile, all along the way, I worked tirelessly at my craft, literally whenever I could, sending my writings out into the open (like passes), and watching most of them come back the other way (like interceptions). It wasn’t until last season, in the midst of Favre’s resurgence at the age of 38, that I realized what there is in common between what he does on the football field and what I have been doing in my own corner of the world for years (with less success).

It’s not about who Favre is off the field, though he seems like a good man that has overcome numerous difficult challenges that have nothing to do with football. It’s not about the boyish enthusiasm on display during the games, though I can relate to it. It’s about how he plays – the way he executes his game. In the end, it’s about slinging it.

Into every pass he throws, you can see in his body language and on his face, even on TV, he puts everything he has to give. He throws the football hard and he throws it with confidence. When he releases the ball downfield, no matter what happens on the other end, you can sense that, in his own mind, it is going to be caught. He is sure that every throw he makes is going to connect.

This is exactly what a young writer needs to do. Sling it. If he wants to be heard, he has to chuck his writing out there, and chuck it hard. If he’s not sure that it’s going to hit the mark, then he shouldn’t fire the pass (maybe he shouldn’t even be on the field). When it does hit, he should revel in that moment, for he alone is responsible for bringing it into existence.

It’s not possible for a true champion to fake their performance. They must pour their heart and soul into their work – and then pay the price. When Favre plays football, even a casual observer can see that he exposes himself, in every way possible. He will stay in the pocket and take the hit before he will fail to make the throw. He takes the field for game after game after game, even when fighting against painful injuries. But he also reveals himself emotionally, in a way that many ‘tough’ men will not.

I recall Favre talking to reporters after a regular season football game in 2001, a game the Packers had pulled out by a nose. There he sat, answering questions, when he suddenly became choked with emotion, stopping the press conference. He apologized to the reporters, declined to even attempt an explanation, and left the room. Of course there may have been any number of unrelated events happening in his life that may have accounted for this behavior. Nonetheless, I cannot believe that none of the emotions he was dealing with that Sunday had to do with what had just occurred on the field.

A more famous example of Favre’s dedication to his work is the monumental performance he turned in on December 22, 2003, one day after his father, Irvin Favre, was found dead in his car. It is well known that against the Oakland Raiders on that Monday night, before a national audience, Favre passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Packers to victory, 41-7. Favre channeled his emotions – his grief – into the execution of his game on the field. Every time he passed the ball on that night, he was slinging it. He threw his passes as if he was hurling his own will – the hard fist of his heart – into the teeth of a heartless world’s brutal sneer.

Over decades of watching pro football, I have of course been roundly impressed with other players, especially other quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers clearly wants to win more than most, and uses his impressive physicality and aggressiveness to find ways to do so – but he can also be foolhardy and brash, for he is still a young man. The Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning, a great quarterback, is a true student of the game with flawless mechanics, but he often strikes me as jumpy and over-cerebral on the field – and how often does Manning look like he is actually enjoying himself? Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, for all of his unbelievable success, often looks more like a machine than a human being, although a spiffy one. All the more impressive in some respects, but this quality sometimes seems to spill off the field, as if he’s unable to switch the machine off. One wonders how much success is enough for a man like that.

For me Brett Favre stands out from the others, for one simple reason: he’s the only champion athlete that inspires me to be a champion.

Over seventeen years of writing, I have noticed something about myself, and it is simply this: those rare occasions when I am writing well, and feel as though I am turning my words into something meaningful and relevant, are the only times in my day-to-day existence when I feel absolutely fearless. No external concern can cast a shadow over my mind, or my heart, when I am doing what I do to the best of my ability. At any other time – which means most of my existence on earth – I can never fully free myself from some form of fear or anxiety. This doesn’t mean I am not happy; it just means I normally have concerns. But not when I am writing, at my desk, in pre-dawn darkness, when everyone else is asleep. No one can touch me then. I know it because I can feel it I my soul, and the soul always recognizes the truth.

This, I believe, is what happens to Brett Favre on the football field. I know it because I can see it on his face, even through a television. I know it in spite of the other chasm that exists between Favre and me – that distance between the uniquely gifted celebrity and the average Joe who works in a cube and whose toughness is never on display. I know it because he slings it. He slings it fearlessly, regardless of what is happening to him off the field. It doesn’t always lead to success, of course, as the conclusion of the 2007 season made painfully clear. But it requires a singular kind of courage to harness one’s varying emotions into their life’s work, and Favre lives by this quality – sometimes he dies by it.

Here’s something else I know. I am writing these words in response to a literary contest. I have never won a contest before, but I expect to win this one, because I’ve learned the lesson. When I do, I am going to push back from this desk, grab the nearest pencil, move through my house and out the back door, where I will thrust the pencil in the air and run across my yard howling. I will not take note of the hour. I will not care how many people are (or are not) watching. For it will have been a very long time coming, and worth every part of what it cost.

1 comment:

Cathy said...

I love that -- when the thing made (or taught, etc.) functions well and beautifully, and gives satisfaction and honor to both himself and his maker. As Charles Spurgeon preached, "It might be quite a mistake if you were to give up your business under the notion that you would be more with Christ if you became a city missionary.... Keep on with your business! If you can black shoes well, do that! If you can preach sermons badly, do not do that!"

Even if the end result is sometimes not as glamorous as hoped for, it seems to me that the best rewards are already yours (and your family's). The diligence, tenacity, resolute hopefulness, and countless other good fruits are so worth having. Not the least of which is the soul-refreshing you wrote about, where light comes and fear scatters; I can imagine you echoing Eric Liddell's sentiment "....when I run (write) I feel His pleasure."

Only recently have I begun to appreciate that these disciplines can keep us from a host of unproductive or unwholesome activities that we aren't even aware of, which is reason enough to be grateful.

I love that last paragraph. I love it especially because it dawned on me that you were practicing Favre-like confidence about six hours after I read it (which is a little embarrassing). But the point is you knew I would catch it. So here's to knowing that the judges of this contest caught it too.