Brett Favre feels besieged. He can't move, can't venture outside his rented house near the Vikings' complex in Eden Prairie, can't contemplate a Friday night on the town for fear he'll be swarmed.
His days and dreams are haunted not by paparazzi waiting outside restaurant doors, or fans clicking cell-phone cameras in his face. At 40, with every season perhaps his last, he finds himself smothered instead by the doubts that rattle around his gray head like flies trapped inside a screen door.
The doubts nag at him to flip open his laptop and study opposing defenses one more time, bark at him to turn off the TV and ignore his family and dissect, once more, the way the Bengals align their defense on third-and-8 inside the 20.
The TV announcers call him a "gunslinger'' and laud the joyful recklessness of his play, but six days a week Favre lives like a rich recluse, growing a beard Howard Hughes would admire and a catalog of minutiae befitting the Rain Man.
"I'm here for one reason,'' Favre said recently in a rare one-on-one interview with a member of the Minnesota media, and the more he talked the more his persistent stubble looked like a sign of obsessiveness rather than a good ol' boy fashion statement.
With a Hall of Fame berth assured and a handful of records that would have made Johnny Unitas blush tucked into the back pocket of his Wranglers, Favre finds himself driven more than ever by fear of the unknown, fear that he will miss a tell, a read, that could win his team a championship.
In a year when St. Paul native Joe Mauer won the American League Most Valuable Player Award while leading his hometown team to the playoffs, Favre is the 2009 Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year because his story is even more dramatic and unique. Perhaps never before in the history of major sports had a player of Favre's stature, at a position of such celebrity and importance, chosen to join the archrival of the team that made him famous and so immediately made an impact that reverberated across the nation.
'I'm always worried'
Days before his infamous sideline spat with Vikings coach Brad Childress in Charlotte, N.C., Favre took a seat behind a desk in an office at the Vikings' Winter Park facility. Fresh from practice, he wore his traditional gray stubble. His face looked creased and ruddy, and he detailed what it takes to excel at an age when most great quarterbacks don baseball caps on the sideline or headsets in the broadcast booth.
He is known around the Vikings' complex for interrupting trips through the lunch line with tips on how to run a better route. "Unfortunately, that's true,'' he said. "But there was a time where I probably didn't think about it enough. I mean I did, but I didn't. I think this is part -- good or bad -- of maturing. When people talk about experience, that's where it shows its head.
"I feel like now, even with all of the film studying and film work and preparing I do, come game day, I still feel like I didn't do enough. I'm always worried. I know that I've done all that I can, but it still worries me.
"I know I'm a little hard on myself. I also believe that's one of the reasons I'm here. Each year, each play, I've learned from the last. In my opinion, there is no such thing as overpreparing.''
Since arriving in Minnesota in August, he has gone hunting a few times, has taken his wife and daughter to see "Grease'' and Miley Cyrus. Otherwise, he stews and studies. "I'll bring film home and I'll watch it, and 9 o'clock will come, and I'll decide to watch a little TV,'' he said. "I'll start watching and I'm like, 'Ah, I should probably be using this time to watch third downs again.'
"It will drive you crazy. Every team I've ever played on, you lose a road game, and halfway through the flight back, guys are starting to relax, and I'm sitting there doing a crosswords puzzle thinking, 'Gosh, what could I have done?' You've got to be able to let it go, but it's hard to stop thinking.''
NFL teams tend to put together film packages of their upcoming opponents featuring that team's four previous games. The plays will be divided into subsets, such as "third down and 3 to third down and 6,'' giving coaches and players the opportunity to look at how a defense reacts to certain situations.
Favre said he'll send text messages to Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell at all hours, to discuss opponents' tendencies. "By game time, I can't tell you how many times I've seen each of those plays, to the point where I can recite them,'' Favre said. "I'll text Darrell and say, 'Hey, look at Play 15 from the Tampa game this year, Carolina ran an empty blitz.'''
'Brett Favre is a great guy'
Bevell worked with Favre for six years in Green Bay and helped lure him to Minnesota. Favre left Green Bay in a dispute with the Packers front office, and left the New York Jets last year as some players accused Favre of being aloof, and worse.
"Let me tell you, Brett Favre is a great guy,'' Bevell said. "It kind of surprised me when some of that stuff came out in New York, because from what I knew, and I think his teammates here would say the same thing, they've never seen that. He goes around slapping them on the butt and making them laugh.''
When Favre played for the Packers, every time he climbed onto the team bus he'd yell, in a deep, Southern-fried voice, "Big Philb,'' in reference to offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. When he climbs on the Vikings' bus, he yells "Big Phil'' in reference to rookie offensive tackle Phil Loadholt.
Team executive Rick Spielman, Childress and trainer Eric Sugarman sit on the first row of the bus. Bevell said Favre will walk past, say "Gentlemen,'' wait a beat, then say "Sugs.'' "He is always cracking a joke,'' Bevell said.
Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said: "He's a great teammate. I didn't know he was as silly as he is. He walks around smacking people on the butt, and you always hear him in the back of the bus, real loud, and you know it's him, because he's pretty much the only country-talking player on the team.
"There was no schism on this team, and he's been great to have around. He's a great teammate and a great guy to have in our locker room.''
Favre's impulsiveness lurks, though. According to various reports, he has angered Childress by changing run plays to pass plays in crucial situations, and when Childress tried to pull him from the Carolina game, Favre disagreed, then revealed the details of the conversation in a postgame interview, angering Childress anew.
'Your days are numbered'
In an interview conducted before that spat, Childress had echoed Favre's sentiments about fearing failure. "That never leaves you,'' Childress said. "I don't care if you're a grad assistant or a coordinator or a head coach, to me, you always feel like you're one day away from losing your job.''
On that, Favre and Childress remain in agreement. "Whether it be coach or player, your days are numbered when you're not motivated by that,'' Favre said.
Perhaps Favre debates his future for so long every summer because he knows what he'll put himself through if he returns. He said his wife, Deanna, has been "incredibly supportive.''
"One of her comments that I heard over and over and over again was, 'I don't want you to play unless you're totally committed, and that means the sacrifice, coming home and suffering and doing what it takes to study and prepare yourself,''' Favre said. "She tells me, 'When you think you've had enough, whether it's 9:30 at night or 11 or whenever it may be, only you can answer that.'
"It's amazing, when I'm home in the offseason, for obvious reasons, the stress level goes 'whoop,' right down. Getting to sleep is so much easier. Everything is so much easier. I don't have to worry about whether they're going to have to blitz on third-and-8 at the end of the game, and do we have a play for that, and what blitz will it be.''
The accusations from Jets players that Favre secluded himself bothered him, so Favre is cautious when asked if he has befriended current teammates. "I've gotten a bad rap in the past by not supposedly hanging out with people, so I'm always reluctant to say I don't,'' he said. "I'm friends with a lot of the guys. I consider all of them friends, but I haven't gone out to eat with any of them, and there was a time in my career, early on, when I did go out with the guys and do things. That was a big deal then.
"Now I go home and help my daughter with homework. I have studying to do myself. I really don't do anything. Back and forth from here. My wife and our 10-year-old love it here, so it's been good.''
'You never know what to expect'
Two questions have persisted about Favre over the last few years: Why are people so fascinated by him, and when will he retire? He sounded surer about the former than the latter.
"If you asked people, 'Hey, give us three reasons why,' one would probably be, love of the game or passion -- it looks like he's having fun,'' Favre said. "And that's true. Also, watching me play, you just never know what's going to happen. I'm sure from a coach's standpoint that's probably true, too. You never know what to expect, and the unexpected is always fun. ...
"I've made a lot of money, had a lot of great things come my way, individual honors, stuff like that, but it's never affected me, and I think people truly appreciate that. And I had to play pretty good along the way or I wouldn't have gotten to play this long.
"And going to Green Bay turned out to be the perfect fit. I don't know if I had the same success somewhere else whether it would have had the same effect.''
Will he be back next year? "Really, that's the first time I've been asked that during this season,'' he said. "I do know this: I have no idea what I'll do. I've surprised even myself at times. That's probably why some people do like me, and there are some people who say, 'I can't stand that guy.' I think part of the reason I haven't gotten that question is our success this year, people have been focused on that, and that's been great -- that's the reason I came back.
"I'm thankful we're in that situation, that I'm still playing, playing at a high enough level to keep us in that position. I would be foolish to make that decision before I know how this thing ends.''
Jim Souhan • email@example.com