Brett Favre at 40: Still holding court

The Minnesota Vikings QB is an Artist of the Year in 2009

Brett Favre is in the pressroom of the Metrodome, holding court.

"You know, my arm feels great," Favre says in his soothing Mississippi drawl.

Favre suddenly breaks off. Just outside, someone is bellowing.

"The Sil-Ver Faaaaaaawwx!"

Favre grins. He knows that voice.

"Jared Allen," says Favre, motioning toward the 27-year-old Vikings defensive end.

Allen gave him the nickname, because, well: "He's old, man. That dude—can we please stop calling him Brett Favre? It's the Silver Fox. That's his name: 'The Silver Fox.'"

In football, a sport notorious for chewing up and spitting out players, the 40-year-old veteran is practically a miracle. His athletic accomplishments have made him a multimillionaire and a superstar, but he still retains his down-home attitude. Here's a star low-key enough to wear Wranglers, who warms up for the season by throwing to high school kids in Mississippi.

"A lot of American men that watch football, they look at him as, 'Oh, well, Brett Favre, he's out there playing—and that's something I could do,'" says Jon Kendle, researcher at the NFL Hall of Fame.

This is all a marketer's dream. In one Sears spot, Favre pokes fun at his will-he-or-won't-he reputation by waffling about whether to buy a TV. But even as he's put into heavy rotation on the Sunday commercials, he never looks like a sell-out.

"His ruggedness, his no-nonsense attitude, his pleasure in what he's doing—you don't think about him as an overly marketed guy," says Michael Oriard, a former professional football player and professor of English at Oregon State University.

Though Favre is in many ways the classic man— five o'clock shadow, dirty ball cap—he also subtly upends the tradition of male reticence, says Jesse Steinfeldt, who played professional sports in Europe and is now a psychologist at Indiana University. "In a news conference, he wept openly. I think that he allows men to see how this tough guy, if you will, this iron man, can express himself emotionally and be okay with it."

Now at the ripe age of 40, Favre has led the Vikings to clinch their division. In a year that sorely tested many, Favre has transcended football and become a symbol of the will to endure.

"For especially older, middle-aged guys, there's like hope there," says Doug Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociologist. "Hope to overcome. It's like the fountain of youth."

On game day outside the Metrodome, throngs of men engage in a war ritual. They slather their faces in purple paint and cover their heads with horned Helga hats. Clad in the purple jerseys of their heroes, the fans prepare for the battle by downing beers.

Inside, the stadium erupts into a thunder of cheers and hollers as a giant inflatable Viking ship materializes at one end of the stadium. Fireworks explode. The speakers blare—the sound of wind whistling over water. A clap of thunder. A drumbeat begins.

The players dash onto the field. Some 64,000 fans bear witness. By far, the majority of them are men.

In recent decades, the rulebook on how to be a man has been rewritten. Historically, men were supposed to provide for their families, protect the weak, and procreate. "People talk about those as the three P's," says Andrew Smiler, a Wake Forest psychology professor. "Those are all kind of good and well, but they don't really fit post-industrialized America."

As physical labor decreased in importance to the economy and women entered the workforce, the template for manhood began to morph. This brought many benefits—fathers who are more involved in their children's lives, men who share household duties with their partners, the emancipation of half of a population previously shuttered by an equally narrow definition of what it meant to be a woman.

But it also left men without a roadmap. "So in a lot of ways, sports has kind of taken that place," says Smiler. "We talk about it as men at their best."

In football, dominance, competition, leading other men—these ancient traits are on full display, and Favre is king.

"He is our ultimate male," Hartmann says, "The alpha dog."

Favre's story is the classic hero myth: The son of a football coach from Kiln, Mississippi, he grew up hunting and fishing between football games played with his brothers in the backyard. The kid could throw, but his team had good running backs and his dad emphasized hand-offs—so young Brett learned the value of teamwork.

When it came time to go to college, Favre's arm was an unknown commodity, so underrated that Southern Mississippi was the only school to offer a scholarship. He was recruited as a defensive back but wanted to play quarterback so badly that he rode the bench as a seventh-stringer.

One night, Favre and a buddy stayed up late downing 36 beers. He was so hung over the next day that he vomited during pregame warm-up. Coach put him in during the third quarter, and the passes started flying—really flying. Favre threw two touchdowns and led his team to a come-from-behind victory over Tulane. He became a starter.

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