Only now, with the word that Brett Favre is really and truly done, does the ritual begin in earnest.
He's retired, great.
Until training camp is done?
Until Brad Childress can talk him back into the fold?
Until his left ankle feels better?
Until Tarvaris Jackson goes down in Week 4?
The Favre camp will issue the customary assurances, no doubt, reiterating his suddenly famous text: "this is it." But after all this time, I know better. You know better. Certainly, Childress knows better.
"Everything's fluid," he said at his customary Tuesday morning presser. "This is a very fluid situation."
Give the coach some credit here, too, as he's handled himself with great aplomb. "Is this really the end?" he was asked. "I'm not a hearsay person," he said. "I'm a horse-say person. I got to hear it from the horse's mouth."
It's reasonable to assume that Favre himself will soon appear and declare his intention. He might cry. But you've seen that before, too. His tears and his words are tokens of mere sentiment. By themselves, they prove nothing.
But again you will hear: Is this really the end?
Of course not. It's the beginning. Today he's done for good. Yesterday, he was a lock, an absolute lock, to return to the Vikings. His wife had activated her gym membership in Minnesota. His kid was enrolled in school there. Hearsay? Sure. But as it concerns the Brett Favre ritual, hearsay is an incantation, a benediction.
Crazier still is the idea that part of you identifies with him -- even as you sit on the couch with your remote and your chips, kidding yourself that it's only light beer. You nurse your own regret and ambition as if it were his. Your sorry middle-aged ass understands exactly what he feels. Soon, you're fully adrenalized and your own ankle feels better than ever. Why shouldn't he come back, you wonder?
Favre has finished two of the last three seasons with interceptions in the NFC championship game. It can't end like that, you tell yourself. He has to go to another Super Bowl. It's not Faustian. It's common sense.
But justification is just a final stage in the ritual, both yours and his. Last year, at the age of 40, Favre threw 33 touchdowns against seven interceptions. That season has to rank among the greatest age-defying feats in the history of sports.
Consider Favre in relation to other greatest-ever quarterbacks. Johnny Unitas played until he was 40, when he started four games for the Chargers, throwing three touchdowns and seven interceptions. Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway all finished playing at 38. For the record, Montana made 14 starts, throwing 16 TDs and nine interceptions. Marino had 11 starts, 16 and 12. Elway was 12, 22 and 10.
The Streak is a number. Art is less easily quantified. And Favre made an art of endurance. But here it is 2010, and you're wondering if a grandfather really means what he says. Or if he even knows what he means.
The real merit of his work has been lost amid this incessant talk of retirement. The will-he-or-won't-he debate is now in its fifth year. It has both dominated and demeaned the last act of maybe the greatest, and certainly the most interesting career in the history of professional football.
As rituals go, this has been a regrettable one.