Growing up in Wisconsin, my friends and I would often poke fun at Lynn Dickey. It seemed whenever the pocket collapsed, the Packers' quarterback would fold up like a lawn chair. I imagine he saw no reason to take the hit and risk injury, so he did the defense's dirty work for them. Dickey was a fine passer … he just wasn't tough.
It's an important thing to Wisconsin folks — being tough. If you're rich and successful it doesn't so much as grab their attention, but show you're tough and you will earn the neighborhood's respect.
When Brett Favre replaced Don Majkowski in September 1992, fans from the Badger State instantly fell in love with him. They recognized his rocket arm and potential; mostly, though, they appreciated how he played the game. Favre was reckless. Always trying to make a play. Tough.
For me, those are the qualities that have defined his string of 297 consecutive starts. Sports fans often get caught up in numbers, and that has been true of Favre's streak. For years, fans were given a weekly update of Favre's total before the beginning of each game; 20 years from now I suspect "297" will represent Favre's efforts, not what went into all of those starts — the stuff that really matters.
I've had the privilege to watch almost every one of those games — when he wore green and white and, finally, purple. And I can say without hesitation that the 41-year-old Favre has played as reckless as the 22-year-old kid who hit Kitrick Taylor for a game-winning touchdown in the game prior to the start of his streak.
There have been times when Favre was the most beloved and respected player in the game. Today he is ridiculed and belittled for how he has handled his business in the final few years of his career. Through it all — through pain-pill admissions, Super Bowl appearances, record-breaking seasons, retirement waffling and sex scandals — Favre has always been tough.
In his 20 seasons I learned never to doubt the man would return to start his next game … not since that first season in Green Bay when I witnessed him play with a separated (non-throwing) shoulder. In one game, Favre dove head-first, landing on the shoulder. I grimaced; Favre brushed off the pain. They say Reggie White was so impressed by Favre's toughness through that injury that it helped the defensive end decide Green Bay was the place for him.
There were countless times when Favre would absorb a blow that would surely have kept a lesser man on the turf. Favre would quickly stand to applaud the defender's efforts, then take his place in the huddle. Every so often he was helped off the playing field, but never for long. In one such contest against the Giants in 2004, Favre suffered a concussion and was taken to the sideline. Unfazed and not cleared to return, Favre escaped back onto the field to throw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Javon Walker. After that, the training staff stood guard.
This season was the most grueling of any I can remember. He began the year hurt and took a number of licks. Warren Moon told me a few months ago that the arm doesn't go first, the legs do. He knew Favre would struggle to stay healthy with a bum ankle, and Moon was right. Favre couldn't escape anymore, and he didn't have the heart (or the sense) not to try.
Somehow — and I can't explain it — but when FOX flashed a game update to show Favre had once again fallen to the turf a few weeks ago, I just knew. I had seen Favre work through pain a million times before, but this time was different. I knew it was over.
Well before Favre reached start No. 200, people were comparing his streak to Cal Ripken's Major League Baseball record for consecutive starts. The comparisons were never fair, and certainly not anymore. Ripken chased down groundballs and smacked fastballs; Favre was chased and smacked by 275-pound contract killers. And as remarkable as Peyton Manning's current streak is, it really doesn't compare to Favre's streak, either. The Colts' quarterback plays it safe in the pocket. He's never played the game like Favre — Manning is far too intelligent.
Like Ripken and Lou Gehrig, there were moments when Favre's play — and not his health — could have brought the streak to an end. On just about any other team, Favre's poor decision making would have gotten him yanked in his early years. And the 2005 season was a miserable one (a career-worst 29 interceptions during a 4-12 season). For the first time Packers fans started to debate whether Favre should sit a few games. But he kept playing, and every time we thought he was washed up, Favre would shock us with another brilliant performance. The guy has had more third acts than Shakespeare.
Now it is over. Favre has announced he will retire after this season, and I believe him. As this season winds down, there are no more numbers to chase, no playoff spot to win. Now all that remains are three games. Minnesota wants him to play Monday, and even without a streak to add to, you can bet that if Favre is able, he will. Tough guys never quit.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010).