Taking it out on others

Greatness in sports is a most excellent mystery, which is just another way of saying that it takes all kinds. We've seen terrific guys who were also great team leaders, and terrible, genuinely unlikable fellows who nevertheless could carry teams to victory by the sheer brilliance of their play.

Greatness is colorblind, open-minded and yet remarkably haughty. It denies entry to all but a particular few -- but to those, under no prejudiced preconditions or disqualifiers. If you're great, you're great. Here in 2004, the marketplace will almost always recognize that -- and promptly exploit the bejeezus out of it.

And if there were a single strain of personality or character that ran consistently through those chosen, it would really have almost nothing to do with what came out of their mouths, but rather much to do with what stayed in their heads. For lack of a more imaginative term, let's call it perseverance.

Which brings us, as always, right to Brett Favre.

The latest news around Favre is as tough as has been most of the news around the Green Bay Packers' quarterback lately. On the field, it is yet another nagging ailment, this one a doink on the throwing hand suffered against the Dallas Cowboys last weekend which -- no stunner here -- likely won't keep Favre from making his 197th consecutive start on Sunday in Washington.

Off the field, you wonder how much one family is going to be asked to take. To the same 12-month period that already included the deaths of Favre's father and his brother-in-law, add now the fact that his wife, Deanna Favre, has breast cancer for which she has undergone surgery and faces an extended period of chemotherapy.

There is nothing connected with the sport of football that is going to minimize the sucker-punch sonic quality of Deanna Favre's situation, even if, as she told the Green Bay Press-Gazette, "I was lucky. I caught it early." That early detection is an encouraging sign for what Favre's mother, Bonita, has described as a projected full recovery.

But in the face of the news, which though new to the public was known to the Favres two weeks ago (Deanna first discovered a BB-sized lump about eight weeks ago), it is instructive above all things that Brett Favre went to work. After all, that is precisely as his family would have it.

"A way to take my mind off," is how Favre explained it. As good a reason as any.

It's hard to get overly serious in sports for more than a minute or two, and that's even if you're trying. The pro games in particular are filled with so many great sideshows and clown acts (yo, T.O.! Shout out!) that they mostly get over on entertainment value alone -- you could watch for hours on sheer amusement level alone, without expending a bit of energy trying to reach for some deeper meaning.

For a lot of us, that's the whole deal. We ask for nothing more than to be diverted quite happily away for a little while. It's the cleanest transaction this side of the movies: Flip on the tube, either chuckle or stare in appreciative amazement at what happens when two teams collide with one another for a few hours, walk away grinning without the complication of deep emotional investment. (Boston Red Sox fans since 1918 are hereby excused from the conversation.)

But the subject of Favre, that's different. This is one of the few instances in which it may be accurately said (since Favre is the one saying it) that sports is the escape valve of choice from even serious life-affecting issues.

"Sometimes life is difficult," Favre told reporters in Green Bay, "and at some point we all have to go through -- and have gone through -- some difficult situations. And I'm not the only person who's had to deal with them and rise to the occasion. So I don't consider myself out of the ordinary."

Patently untrue: Favre is almost completely out of the ordinary. He's the one-in-a-thousand whose personal joys and sorrows are fodder for the cannon that is the public talk-show nation.

When Favre's father, Irv, died of a heart attack last December, an entire mini-industry sprang up for a week to discuss whether or not the quarterback would -- or should -- play in the Packers' next game against the Raiders in Oakland. Favre not only played, but turned in one of the most emotionally cathartic performances of his life in a huge victory.

This season, more of the same. Three weeks ago, the Favres learned that Deanna's brother, Casey Tynes, had died in an ATV accident on property near Favre's home in Mississippi. The next week, Favre was told of his wife's medical emergency.

Two games have passed since then, since Favre's family encouraged him to continue playing. Favre: 48-for-67 for 515 passing yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, as his team rolled up 38 and 41 points in back-to-back victories.

Favre says he doesn't know why his performance ratchets up so dramatically in times like these -- of which he has already seen a few too many. Maybe it's focus. Maybe it is simple release. Perhaps, as Favre notes, it is simple pride that won't allow him to falter.

But it doesn't really matter. The point is, he does it. Favre will go play another game this weekend in Washington, his 215th in a row including playoff appearances. He may be merely all right against the Redskins. But the thing about greatness is this: If he's brilliant, it'll be the least surprising thing on the field.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com