Wishing Upon a Favre

Illustration by André Carrilho

It has been 32 years since Joe Namath last played quarterback for the New York Jets, and the city has yet to fully recover. Namath, more than Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, or Derek Jeter, set the psychic parameters we dream of in our New York athletes. Sure, everyone remembers the Super Bowl guarantee, but Joe Namath truly shone because he appealed to New Yorkers, with whom he resonated as a counterculture figure out promoting the virtues of random, anonymous sex, facial hair, and a stiff Scotch. It’s how Namath could say things like “I like my Johnnie Walker Red and my women blonde” and still end up on Nixon’s enemies list. He was a superstar, but, more important, he was a New York superstar. No one since has come close.

Which might help explain the orgasmic reaction when the Jets traded for Brett Favre. On the surface, the two men couldn’t be more different. Namath invested in an Upper East Side bar named Bachelors III; Favre has sold himself as a tractor-ridin’, huntin’, fishin’ good ol’ boy for so long that you wouldn’t know the guy made more than $11 million last year. Namath did ads for pantyhose; Favre’s main two sponsors are Wrangler jeans and Snapper lawnmowers. But you know what? We’ll take it. Have you seen the other quarterback who plays in East Rutherford? Eli Manning is our Super Bowl MVP who, in his likable but slack-jawed way, claims one of his favorite off-season hobbies is collecting antiques with his mother and his wife. You see what we have to work with here. Brett Favre as Jethro Namath will have to do.

Favre, for his part, initially seemed puzzled that the Packers didn’t drop everything and run screaming back into his arms once he announced he was returning; he appeared almost bewildered that the drama of the last month ended with him in New York City, of all places. At his first press conference, he admitted, “I really don’t know what I’m getting into,” and after his first practice, exhausted, he wandered far off-message by sputtering, “I was wondering if I made the right move.” Fortunately, by day two, the cheesy “Favre jogs a lap as ‘punishment,’ now part of the team!” meme had taken over, and fans were oohing and ahhing to watch a quarterback who could throw farther than twenty yards downfield.

The Jets are understandably ecstatic; Favre’s arrival immediately wiped from memory the disaster that was last season. Coach Eric Mangini went from Mangenius and Vesuvio’s patron to a bitter, in-over-his-head ex-employee ratting out former boss Bill Belichick. (Spygate didn’t help Belichick’s reputation any, but Mangini came across looking almost as bad.) Most damaging, though, was the Jets’ fade from public consciousness. A 1-8 start meant there was no need to even glance at the Jets after October, and the Giants’ insane Super Bowl run further cemented their citywide NFL dominance established in the eighties. The Jets weren’t just bad; they were irrelevant.

All that is forgotten now. Knowing a stubbled gold mine has dropped in their laps, the Jets are doing all they can to ease any fears Favre might have about the tri-state area. As reported by the Daily News, owner Woody Johnson invited Favre to hunt on his private estate in New Jersey—finally, a way to deal with the bear problem!—and one team executive told Favre, “I don’t eat gumbo and I don’t deer hunt, but I am going to learn all these things.” If the Jets change their uniforms to bright-orange hunting vests, try not to act surprised.

Our local media are playing their part, too, gleefully parroting the Jets’ claim that, on Favre’s first day of practice, 10,500 fans were in attendance, more than are usually left in the second half of a Knicks game, while Sports Illustrated claimed that number was closer to 3,000. The Daily News ran a fawning Just a Regular Fella profile that detailed how, on his farm in Mississippi (“[where he] spends time riding his tractors and clearing his land and his head”), he invites local high-school football players over to fish. Mike Lupica uncorked this hummer after the trade: “Somehow, and against the odds, because these are the Jets, it worked out this way [Wednesday] night: He’s 4 New York.” (You see, that’s his number.) Favre should be used to this by now. For all his yokel, cutoff-jeans demeanor, Favre is a savvy operator when it comes to the media, fostering more ink-stained-wretch love than any athlete since Michael Jordan. It helps that the NFL is less glamorous and more eggheady than media members have space or airtime to convey. It’s difficult to explain blitz packages in a sidebar, but Favre is an easy story line, a throwback to men-being-men, flingin’ the ball downfield and seeing what happens, you know, like kids in the backyard. It’s catnip for the Lupicas and Peter Kings of the world.

So, everything’s great, right? Welcome, Brett! Woo-hoo! Well, problem is: Now Favre actually has to play. That darned football always ends up getting in the way.

When Namath declined late in his career, he had already made his name in town and, more important, the team surrounding him had collapsed. The Jets’ decades of futility since he left were never seen as his fault. Favre will have no such luxury. As Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Bobby Bonilla will tell you, New Yorkers love you until they don’t. Favre is being asked to salvage a flagging franchise, take an inexperienced team from nowhere to the playoffs, learn an entirely new playbook, and salve wounds left after the departure of the popular Chad Pennington. (Wide receiver Laveranues Coles was so upset about the Jets’ release of Pennington that he refused to speak to the press for a week afterward. That’ll show ’em.) And Favre has to do this at the age of 38, with no real off-season training and only two years removed from his worst season.

There’s something perverse about the life of a professional athlete; you spend every moment from puberty on training at one relatively inconsequential skill, at the expense of just about everything else, and just when you’ve gotten it figured out, you’re too old. The average retirement age in the NFL is 30, and then you have the rest of your life ahead of you. What then? Are you to learn how to type? Favre couldn’t let go, and now he’s in New York, with a major reconstruction job in front of him and a desperate city watching every move. It’s difficult for any professional athlete to ease into retirement; Namath, after all, was awful for the Los Angeles Rams in his final season. But everyone forgets that Namath wasn’t charged with revitalizing a dying franchise; that Rams team went 8-2 after Namath lost his starting job, and made the playoffs. And Namath was four years younger than Favre is now. Oh, and Favre shouldn’t rely too much on that media worship he has grown accustomed to; he’s an opening-day loss to the lowly Dolphins (with Pennington as Miami quarterback!) away from a “BRETT FRAUD” headline. If the Jets don’t improve immediately, Favre will be portrayed like the Rams’ Namath rather than the Jets’ version, and the Lupicas of the world will forget they ever praised the Favre trade in the first place. Newspapers are funny that way.

Also, how much is Favre really up for this? When asked why he initially did not want to play for the Jets, he confessed that, hey, it was nothing personal, he just wanted to play for a team in the Packers’ division out of “a vindictive nature.” When you consider that Wisconsin television stations have requested Jets games from CBS for local broadcasts, and that Mangini actually had to declare that Favre would be too busy studying the playbook to have time to watch the Packers’ first preseason game, you have to wonder how important the Jets really are to Favre. The team he initially wanted to play for, the Vikings, happen to play their season opener in Green Bay on Monday Night Football. It’s possible the Jets could end up the woman dating the guy who won’t stop talking about his ex-wife.

But hey: It sure beats being alone. Ideally speaking, the Jets would sign up the next Joe Namath when he’s 23 rather than 38—this is what the Knicks (and Nets) are hoping for with LeBron—and this Joe Namath would not spend his New Jersey downtime dreaming of cow chips and jean shorts. But these are not ideal times. The Giants just won the Super Bowl, the Yankees are falling apart, the Olympics are raging … and everyone’s talking about the Jets. It’s not like Favre’s going to make the Jets worse; an easy schedule and some helpful off-season additions could sneak this team into the playoffs. One of the biggest concerns for the Jets coming into training camp was the quarterback position; that’s, you know, covered now. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Jets fan who wouldn’t be happy with 10-6 this year. Favre gives them a better chance for that to happen and, oh, also sells thousands of jerseys. And whatever your thoughts on Favre’s “gunslinger mentality”—that phrase has to be trademarked by John Madden by now, right?—the man can still throw. It’ll surely be more fun than watching Pennington toss six-yard out patterns.

If it doesn’t work, Favre still has his Wrangler contract and Lambeau statues, and the Jets will still stink. And if it does work? Well, we are a city of transplants. Perhaps Favre will end up with a chain of country-and-western-themed Upper East Side bars, complete with mechanical bulls, Big Buck Hunter video games, and floor paneling adorned with sawdust and peanut shells. Jethro Namath’s really does sound about right.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.

Wishing Upon a Favre