In more ways than one, it was classic Brett Favre: a coolheaded march down the football field with only seconds left on the clock, in a tied championship brawl. And then an interception at the critical moment, leading to an overtime defeat. The NFC Championship game on Sunday night a Superdome epic between the New Orleans Saints and Favre's Minnesota Vikings that ended in a 31-28 win for the Saints, sending them forward to meet Indianapolis in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl had many breathtaking twists and turns, yet it didn't take long for one question to dominate the post-game conversation: Did the iconic Brett Favre just finish his final game?
The question has been asked for so many years now that it's almost become a passé punch line of the off-season. And for some, the annual Favre guessing game has become so routine Favre himself responded to retirement questions late Sunday by saying, "I know people are rolling their eyes or will roll their eyes ... In a situation like this, I really don't want to make a decision right now" that they have written off Favre as a prima donna who has teased and toyed with the league's press and fans to a point where he's no longer worth discussing. But as a Wisconsin native and lifelong Green Bay Packers fan who has watched or followed every single Favre start, who has more than once become caught up in the popular hometown debates as to whether Favre is a traitor to the team he led to two Super Bowls, I was taken aback by the identity crisis I experienced on Sunday. My quarterback the man who once had my reserved father screaming in joy during the first touchdown pass of Super Bowl XXXI was 30 seconds away from the glory of a third title game ... as the leader of another football team. And not just any football team, but the Packers' arch nemesis.
I know I wasn't the only one feeling conflicted that evening or the morning after. For a good chunk of Monday, the lead story on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website (titled "Oops, Same Old Brett") trounced the former Packers legend: "Joy reigns in Packerland. Brett Favre has struck out." Meanwhile, in Facebook and Twitter comments posted throughout the game, I saw Wisconsinites cheering for the Saints, then basking in the schadenfreude of Favre's familiar demise. Having gone to school in Minnesota, I also saw my old classmates, who once mocked sports media fawning over Favre, cheering the fact that they now had the three-time-MVP's arm on their side. With the last-second interception of Favre's final pass, many of them felt for the first time the confounding sting that Packers fans had grown accustomed to since Favre won his only Super Bowl back in 1997. I was covering the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 when the Packers made it to the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants. I skipped out on my film screenings for the day, found a bar, and watched the whole game right up through Favre's overtime interception, which ended up costing the Packers the game. A handful of Utah locals who were watching the game asked if I were depressed by Favre's fatal mistake. "Yeah, but we win or lose on his shoulders, precisely because he takes those sorts of risky throws," I responded. "How upset can you be at him? We wouldn't have made it this far without him."
That was the day I realized that Favre had dominated in his role as team leader to the point that he was probably the only one who could have lost the game without breaking my heart. He was the soul of the Packers, the kinetic freewheeler who so captivated his followers that you could walk into any Wisconsin grocery store at 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and be the only shopper there. If there has been an identity crisis in the Midwest over the past year, it's because Brett Favre is such an indelible force of nature that he can elicit true euphoria, heartache and bitterness in those who follow his every move. He's not just another jersey on the field; he's No. 4, the man who jumped off the field for a single play to have a dislocated arm repaired, who entered a game days after his father's death and with tears in his eyes threw four touchdowns in the first half. All this is why Favre's departure from the Packers wasn't just business to his fans; it was personal.
And so it has been for so many Vikings faithful. In the aftermath of the loss, there is an array of purple fans struggling to understand the same contradictions that haunted the green and gold: Favre was likely to blame for losing the game, but he was also the major reason they were in it to begin with. On Sunday night, a Packers fan posted on Facebook, "Feels like we're watching the Packers in overtime ..." Then there was the Vikings fan who said, "Most fun Vikings season in my 30 years of life. Work on bringing #4 back please."
The Saints might win the Super Bowl in two weeks, but sooner or later the talk of the league will return to Favre the man whom Vikings fans have hated to love, whom Packers fans have come to regard with a sense of wounded fascination. The retirement rumors will persist. If he goes to yet another team, the identity crisis will deepen. As for myself, I know why the Packers let him go, I know why he can't come back, and yet there I was rooting for the guy on Sunday, marveling at the grit and heartbroken at the loss. In an age when sports allegiances begin at birth, there I was, rooting for the lowly Vikings, never more aware that Brett Favre is one of the few sports icons who transcend franchise or position.