Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love Thee, Love Thee Not

Two larger than life figures – one literally, one figuratively – went down this weekend: Rex Ryan and Brett Favre. And I’m conflicted about both of these guys.

Let’s start with Rex. I want to hate Rex Ryan, I really do. As a Giants fan, I am predisposed to hate him. His father Buddy coached the early 90’s Eagles, one of the dirtiest teams of all time and a team that gave the Giants fits. On the sideline with the Oilers, he punched future Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride in the most ridiculous old-guy sports fight till Zimmer charged Pedro. And Rex himself exemplified the arrogance of the Ray Lewis Ravens teams, the defense that humiliated Big Blue in the 2000 Super Bowl.

But my main problem with Rex is that he has, in abundant quantity, my least favorite human trait: hubris. The definition of hubris is “overbearing pride or presumption” but I like to define it as loud-mouthed unearned arrogance. He has been bellowing and bragging on this team since the moment he arrived, a team that at the end of the regular season had the same record that got the last coach fired. And likely wouldn’t have been that good if the Colts played to win in week 16.

And yet…and yet…for two reasons I can’t help but like him. The first is that the hubris seems to work. Ryan’s incessant bluster would go over poorly with a veteran, professional team like the Colts, one that already knows it is good. But he’s a perfect fit for the Jets, a team whose players and fans have been a psychological basket case. He got this team to believe in themselves and that matters in football.

But more importantly he also has my favorite human quality: a sense of humor.

When he arrived in New York declaring that he did not come to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings, I thought to myself, what an ashhole…but I smiled as I thought it. It’s a great line and captures perfectly what he wants this team to believe about themselves. He’s the best giver of press conferences this town has seen since Parcells became a serial job-chaser.

As for Favre, my feelings are more complicated. He was, for a very long time, my favorite player in all of sports that didn’t play on one of my teams. I loved watching him play – the fun he brought to the game, the way he leaped on teammates after touchdowns, the little jump-throw he did to sell a handoff, the way he let his hair go gray. Even the interceptions * – there was something about his boyish refusal to play it safe that appealed to me.

* Whenever Favre throws an awful interception, I’m reminded of what the great historian Shelby Foote said about Robert E. Lee: Gettysburg is the price the South paid for having Lee.

And his performance in There’s Something About Mary was the best performance ever by a quarterback in a movie since Terry Bradshaw in Hooper.
But then…well you know what happened. First, the canonization by the media went way over the top. John Madden and Peter King, the head honchos of spoken and written football media, became so slobberingly infatuated with Favre’s every move that no self-respecting contrarian could keep rooting for him.

And this paled next to his agonizing off-season will-he-or-won’t-he-retire dramas. The way he held up the Packers was disgraceful, rendered more so by the class with which Aaron Rodgers comported himself. You know this story already so I won’t torture you with another retelling, especially since we’re about to begin Act IV of this interminable play.

And yet…and yet…all the reasons I liked him are still true, arguably more so since he keeps doing it at age 40. The word courage is overused in sports but for a man born in the 60’s to stand in the pocket while ferociously big and strong 25 year-olds are trying to kill him – to stand there for that extra second knowing he’s going to get creamed – to do it knowing he has already accomplished everything you can in this game – takes courage.

Not only that, he still looks like he’s having more fun out there than anyone. His much younger teammates are energized by it. And it’s a reminder that even his anguished off-season decision-making came from a genuine place – an aging body that feels every ache combined with a youthful enthusiasm that still wants to go out and fling it.

I'm very glad to see Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, the Colts and the Saints in the Super Bowl. On the surface, at least, none of the key players display the frenzied egotism we've seen Brett Favre and Rex Ryan.

But still, I think I'm gonna miss those guys...

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