Brett Favre, the old poster boy for NFL toughness, became the latest face of the concussion discussion with a comment last week. Many of the traits that made the 44-year-old quarterbacking legend revered, starting with his record Iron Man streak, took on a different look when Favre went on WSPZ-AM in Washington to explain why he turned down the St. Louis Rams' surprising attempt to lure him out of retirement. Instead of saying his body or arm might fail him, Favre also revealed that he has memory problems that could be linked to the many concussions he suffered playing football.
Just like that, another icon who supposedly epitomized the best of the NFL -- a man who played with reckless abandon and inexhaustible joy, a star who was always there for his team despite the unfathomable pain he often endured to play -- has been re-cast. The bone-breaking, ligament-tearing, brain-rattling extremes that players like Favre go to just to dress on game days was seen as a glorified undertaking in the NFL before words like post-concussion syndrome or CTE entered the sports vocabulary. Now we know better.
Much of what is wrong with football also can be found in Favre's career. And his career demands a re-examination now that we know even the superman of quarterbacks has memory problems.
"It's a little bit scary to me," Favre said of his memory loss during the Washington radio interview. He admitted he's concerned about what he'll be like 10 or 15 years from now, because he already forgets significant chunks of his life, like a summer that his 8-year-old daughter played soccer.
The confession was yet another sobering reminder of how the issue of head trauma in the NFL isn't going away anytime soon, even if the NFL did reach a $765 million settlement with former players a few months back.
Washington safety Brandon Meriweather's controversial prediction last week about the plague of knee injuries the "new" NFL can expect was a raw but honest take on the fallout the league may see from rule changes that demand that tacklers aim lower. Meriweather spun the safety discussion toward what the league might look like in the future.
But the NFL's past remains stubbornly hard to pull away from. Or ignore.
The astonishing number of sacks Favre took in his 20-year career (525) suddenly seems as important to memorize as his better-known record of 297 consecutive regular-season starts. Both stats are sobering for several reasons.
The uncounted thousands upon thousands of other times Favre was "just" hit dwarfs those hundreds of sacks he took. And remember, even before his admission of memory problems, we already knew years ago that in-game beatings Favre endured were indeed so difficult, he finally sought help midway through his career for a painkiller addiction. Fold in what else we know now -- about the new science around concussions, and about Favre himself --and it is chilling to remember how he was encouraged and lionized for keeping it up and punishing himself to the extreme -- game after game, year after year -- never thinking how many times his brain was sent sloshing around and slamming against the walls of his skull.
When you think of it that way, there is zero old-time charm or chuckles to be found in the story Favre told earlier this year about the only time he was ever knocked unconscious on the football field.
It was also the last NFL hit he ever took.
The Vikings were facing the Chicago Bears on "Monday Night Football" in late December of the 2010 season. The game was being played outdoors at the University of Minnesota's stadium in Minneapolis because the Metrodome roof had collapsed a week earlier.
"I was completely out -- 10 to 15 seconds," Favre said, via ESPNWisconsin. "Miserable night, the dome had collapsed, our season had gone from bad to worse. I didn't have to play in the game, [but] wanted to. I remember telling myself in pregame, 'You're an idiot. What do you stand to gain in this?' But I thought, 'I'll survive this game. I'll be fine.' "
He was not.
A second-quarter sack by the Bears' Corey Wootton gave Favre a severe concussion. And the odd thing was, "[It was] one of the most minor hits I've ever [taken]," Favre added. "The guy didn't even hit me. He pushed me. I threw the ball and the field of course was solid ice. It was like concrete. I hit the left side of my head and the next thing I remember, I was snoring as our trainer was kind of shaking me saying, 'Are you OK?'
"I look at the footage, and even though it wasn't long, there was that 10-15-second period where I was asleep. I remember looking at our trainer Suge [Eric Sugarman] and saying, 'Suge, what are the Bears doing here?' "
Favre knew something inside of him had irrevocably shifted even before he managed to wobble all the way back to the Vikings' bench. It turned out to be that his enormous will was finally cracking -- and then snapped.
The man who became infamous, even lampooned, for being unable to remain retired had finally had enough.
"As I was getting to the sidelines, I thought 'Now if there was ever a time where the writing is on the wall, this is it,' " Favre said. "[I] went in, took a shower, got some hot cocoa, got a hot dog and said, 'That's it.' "
The Vikings had two games left. Favre, true to his word, didn't play in either. He quit playing, as planned, and refused to be enticed to play again when the Rams came calling recently.
But if Favre is willing, he could use his post-retirement years to be an important cautionary tale for other players, starting with those high school kids he now works with as a volunteer assistant coach back in his hometown in Mississippi.
Just Thursday, a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences released this 306-page, NFL-funded report that found that football not only has by far the highest rates of concussions at the interscholastic level but also that the average high school player is nearly twice as likely to suffer a brain injury as a college player. It should be required reading for programs and parents and players at every level of the game.
By then, Favre had already said in the radio interview, "I don't see how you can't change with the times and try to protect the players more because of the studies that have come out to what concussions can do. The players, either retired or some of the few players who are either killing themselves or self-destructing, studies have proven some of this is because of concussions."
Favre went on to add what really rattles him now aren't just "pretty shocking" memory lapses that "for the first time in 44 years put a little fear in me." It's also the unknown that lies ahead of him.
"God only knows the toll," he said.
Thoughts like that might all land on everyone's conscience differently if we'd been right all those years in thinking that players knew the risks they were inviting by playing football, same as chain smokers or skydivers or race-car drivers do. They didn't know. The science wasn't good enough yet. What information that did exist wasn't always honestly shared, or even accepted when it was.
And now what are we left with that is authentic?
People talk all the time about how athletes who accomplish things as prolifically as Favre did -- the championships, the MVP awards, the records -- can never have that taken away from them. And that's still true.
But it would only be human for Favre to ask himself now if the superhuman lengths to which he pushed himself were worth the price he paid.