Brett Favre will begin his 19th NFL season today. And yet if there is one word I associate with Favre, it is youth.
My reasons are twofold. The first is personal. Growing up in Packer-crazed Wisconsin meant watching Favre play Sunday after Sunday – in fact start every game for his team since I was a nine-year old fourth-grader. Much has changed in the years since: friends grew up and got married, loved ones died, girlfriends came and went (as did my hair), somehow I ended up as a vowed Jesuit. But Favre remained.
The second reason is Favre’s style of play. How many times have I heard people exclaim when watching Favre, “He’s like a little kid out there!” They may have been referring to his celebrations after touchdown passes, his jokes with opposing players and officials, or, perhaps also, his bone-headed throws into double and triple coverage. When Favre retired the first time, he said during a teary-eyed press conference (see inset) that he hoped people would remember him for “the way he played the game.” That “way” was with a youthful enthusiasm.
But of course after that March 2008 press conference, Favre unretired and played a season with the New York Jets. Then he retired again. Then he said he might unretire again. But then he said he was going to stay retired. Until he decided to unretire and sign with the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he’ll make his first start this afternoon in Cleveland.
Why can’t Favre stay away from the game? I think it has to do with youth.
In the novel Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh writes:
The langour of Youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrevocably lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life; again and again in riper years we experience, under a new stimulus, what we thought had been finally left behind, the authentic impulse to action, the renewal of power and its concentration on a new object; again and again a new truth is revealed to us in whose light all our previous knowledge must be rearranged. These things are a part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse – that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.
Languor and football are not readily associated. But perhaps they might be, for football is essentially play, and play and languor are easily associated. It is that play – that languor – that Favre cannot leave behind. He knows that once it is gone, it is gone forever. Not that Favre is unique in this. A motif that cuts across times and cultures is a reluctance to relinquish childhood, the fear of growing older – for growing older means the loss of those beautiful things that once were and the dreadful encounter with the abyss of death. And so we desperately search for the elusive waters of youth’s ever-flowing fountains, whether in mythical lands or in plastic surgeries and hair dyes (although the gray-haired Favre clearly has not taken the latter option).
Christianity, it seems to me, has something different to say about youth precisely because it looks forward to a heavenly life. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins handles these themes masterfully in the poem “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.” The first half of the poem, “The Leaden Echo”, gazes at the horizon of death without the hope of eternal life, despairing at humanity’s inability to save fleeting beauty:
. . . nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding
sheets, tombs, and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
But the second half of “The Golden Echo” speaks of a place
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything
that’s fresh and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of
us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and
Of us, the wimpled water-dimpled, not by-mourning-matched
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to
Never fleets more, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an
everlasting of, O it is an all youth!
The Christian can remain childlike for his life is silhouetted not against the black abyss of death but instead against the glimmering horizon of heaven. We need not try – in the words of Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz in the song “Long December”– “to hold on to these moments as they pass” for as Hopkins tells us,
. . . the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it
That includes the languor of youth. And all those Favre touchdown passes. Let them go, Brett. As Hopkins teaches us, they are being kept with fonder a care than you could have kept them. You need not try to extend the languor of youth by doing something as foolish as donning a hideous purple Vikings jersey. (Sorry, I am a Packers fan).
Then again, perhaps Favre’s playing one more season has nothing to do with youth – nor languor nor Waugh nor heaven nor Hopkins.
Perhaps he just wants to beat the Packers at Lambeau.
© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.