Miracle, Legend, Whatever You Want

By Kelly Foster

You can call it a miracle or a legend or whatever you want to. I just know that on that day, Brett Favre was larger than life.

—Coach Gene Stallings, on the 1990 comeback victory of Southern Mississippi over Alabama

America, I have two words to say to you about Mississippi: Brett Favre.

Brett Favre, America.

Now there are other words I could say to you as well—words like Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Archie Manning, Eli Manning. And other words—words like William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams, Muddy Waters, Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson.

But that would just be rubbing it in. And I’d rather walk on my Mississippi lips than rub it in.

And that makes me almost proud enough to ditch my Citizens of Humanity jeans in exchange for a good old pair of Wranglers.

Now it might appear odd to write about Brett Favre for a literary journal, but I’ll get to that in just a moment. And it might appear even odder to choose to write about Brett Favre while he’s under NFL investigation for allegedly “sexting” a New York Jets sideline reporter.

But as Stephen Rodrick recently wrote for the Washington Post, “Favre’s public fall doesn’t resemble the descents of Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong, holier-than-thou icons whose comeuppances had more to do with their self-righteousness and hypocrisy than their sins. Favre was never that guy. He’s always been a redneck, an egomaniac, an addict, and an eternal child. Those shocked by the allegations haven’t been paying attention.”

So I come neither to praise Favre the man nor to bury him.

Instead, I want to contemplate Favre as football legend in the same way I might, as a Southerner, choose to ponder Civil War legends like Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Robert E. Lee, and Pierre G.T. Beauregard—as figures larger than life—enigmatic, conflicted—but magnetic and undeniably great.

Shelby Foote once claimed that the quality the Southern generals possessed that most of the Northern ones lacked was “flair.” He illustrated this with a story of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Wizard of the Saddle, from the battle of Shiloh. According to legend, Forrest rode his horse straight into the midst of the Union troops who were firing at him and shouting, “Kill him! Kill the goddamn rebel!” When one soldier shot Forrest in the spine, Forrest reached down and grabbed the man’s gun with both hands, hoisted him up onto his own horse with it and then used him as a human shield while he rode safely all the way back to the Confederate side.

Now, I’m pretty sure Nathan Bedford Forrest was at the very least a morally questionable man, if not downright evil, but despite myself I hear that story and I think, “Awesome.”

And so it is with a Southerner’s incurable and morally questionable Romanticism that I listen to Brett Favre scream commands to his fellow players on a Sunday afternoon and wonder to myself, awestruck, if that’s what the Rebel Yell sounded like.

Last week, my boyfriend and I watched the Vikings-Jets game at a sports bar in Jackson. He’s from Minnesota, and spends a moderate portion of every day following all Minnesota teams through KFAN sports talk radio. Neither of us expected the Mississippi crowd at the bar to be rooting quite as vociferously as he was for the Vikings. But they did, and their cheering transformed the act of simply watching a football game into an electric communal event.

During the game (which the Vikings actually lost), Favre set three staggering records—he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 500 successful touchdowns, the first quarterback to pass for 70,000 yards, as well as the player with the most career fumbles.

Awesome as Favre is, he threw several key interceptions and looked little like a legend for the majority of the game. But there was a moment in the third quarter where you could see something shift and you could viscerally perceive his greatness. He threw a perfect spiral to Randy Moss in the end zone, and it was beautiful. His 500th pass.

“There’s the legend,” said the commentator. “There’s the legend.”

I teach the Odyssey every spring. And every spring, my students love the moment in Book IX when Odysseus finally reveals himself to the Phaeacians, whose youth up until that moment have been taunting him as a weak old man. In Book VIII, he enters himself in their discus throwing competition and bests even their strongest young men by yards. And it is only after that point that he reveals his true name.

Samuel Butler translates, “So [Odysseus] hurried up without even taking his cloak off, and seized a disc, larger, more massive and much heavier than those used by the Phaeacians when disc-throwing among themselves. Then, swinging it back, he threw it from his brawny hand, and it made a humming sound in the air as he did so. The Phaeacians quailed beneath the rushing of its flight as it sped gracefully from his hand, and flew beyond any mark that had been made yet.”

I don’t follow football in the almost academic way most of the men in my life do. I can’t summon up the statistics of Johnny Unitas as effortlessly as my father or analyze strategy with the expertise of my brother or my boyfriend. Usually, I don’t even understand why and when penalties are assigned.

But I do know stories, and Brett Favre stands at the crossroads of several timely narratives for me. I watch him play now at the waning of his career, and I am utterly riveted. I feel much like those watching Odysseus must have felt.

“Awesome,” they must have thought, perhaps despite themselves. “Awesome.”

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.