In what seems to be a pattern of departing Green Bay Packers lobbing verbal grenades over their shoulder on the way out of town, former Green-and-Gold icon Charles Woodson seemed to pen his own obituary as a Packer.
“It’s not going to be tough. My last team will most likely be the Oakland Raiders and so that’s who I will retire with. That won’t be a tough decision at all. A couple of years ago I signed an extension here in Green Bay. I figured that this will be the last team that I played for and I looked forward to that, but it didn't happen. So now I’m in Oakland and that’s where I’ll retire.” - WFRV
It would seem to be a very direct dismissal of his time in Green Bay, winning a Super Bowl ring, and resurrecting his flailing career when he departed the Oakland Raiders. Naturally, Packers fans took the stinging remark as a shot to the heart, as naturally happens when a former beloved player disses the hometown team.
Not that Packer fans have had any experience with that over the last five years or so.
It what appears to be a throw-away statement, Charles Woodson seemed to have forgotten how much Packers fans loved and idolized him. The idea of signing a one-day contract with the Packers isn't an option right now. There could be several reasons for this sudden burst of lemon juice in the wounds already festering by the fans feeling the loss of one of the greatest defensive leaders the team has ever had.
Perhaps he wants to ingratiate himself with his new/old team and their fans by pledging allegiance. Perhaps he has some resentment towards the Packer brass for not letting him finish his career in Green Bay.
Or, maybe, he's just crazy.
Oh, not crazy as in "clinically insane". I mean crazy, as in "desperate". Woodson is at a spot in his career where not a lot of players get to reach--even though the Packers appear to have had more than their share, lately. Charles is dealing with the fast and sudden deterioration of his skills on the field, and like so many other grizzled veterans before him, might be having trouble accepting it.
What are the first stages of coping with loss? Denial, anger, blaming all come to mind. Like Favre and Driver before him, we fans are more worried about preserving an aging player's legacy with the team. But for that player, who has known nothing else besides football over the first thirty-odd years of his life, there's a desperation to hang on to the only world you know. The money, the fame, the mastery of your craft: all of these come to a screeching halt because you've lost half a step, and there are hungry young kids ready to take your spot.
The patterns aren't pretty. Perhaps the most iconic Packer of all time, Brett Favre, took umbridge to any suggestions that he was no longer the player he once was, and was willing to implode his entire legacy as a Packer in order to get himself to a place he felt he could hang on to that way of life...the only way of life he's ever known. Even Donald Driver stretched out his career one year too long, sitting on the inactive list and also flirting with wearing another team's colors, just to put off his retirement for one more year.
At this point in a career NFL football player, blaming your own body for your demise is hell. You've survived that first 53-man roster cut, the battles in your first few years with other young players' challenging you, the career-ending injury. Not many get to this point, when the average length of an NFL player's career is just three or four short years.
And to be only in your thirties and to be looking at the end of the only career you've known? Some players go behind the mic. Some players try to get into coaching. But most end up out of the game with just their pile of money to live off of until they figure out their lives. The divorce rate for athletes post-retirement is between 60 and 80 percent, while roughly 78% end up bankrupt. Add to that the literal crippling effects of a lifetime of pounding on the body, and its no wonder these Peter Pans never want the story to end.
And in those moments of desperation, you'll say anything to convince someone to let the dream continue for one more season, one more game, one more play, and stave off the silence when the cheering has stopped.
The good news is, however, that this craziness is temporary. Someday, like most athletes, Woodson will come to his senses when his playing days are over and realize where his true legacy lies. The saga of Brett Favre, while perhaps the most extreme of examples, tells the tale of what Woodson will face.
In 2008, with clear signals that the Packers were ready to move on with Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre executed one of the most dramatic divorces in NFL history. His storied skills were no longer wanted, and no matter the efforts of the team or the fans to preserve his legacy, Favre was willing to do anything to continue playing. And, eventually, he got his wish, joining Brad Childress and wildly cheering fans in Minnesota, much to Packer fans' chagrin.
But even at the time, you had the feeling that the Minnesota fans weren't in love with Brett Favre, but the very idea that he might be a messiah, bringing the magic they had so often watched from the sidelines. They thought they could stab Packer fans in the heart by stealing one of their most iconic treasures. They didn't go through the drug addictions, the death of his father. They couldn't name every member of his family or how old his daughters were, as Packers fans could easily rattle off.
Vikings fans didn't love Favre. The loved the idea of Favre.
When the cheering stopped for ol' #4, Brad Childress and most of the players he revived his career alongside were gone. And, slowly, Favre has gotten hit with a hard slap of realization where his legacy survives, damaged though it is. You never hear of Favre Days in Minnesota, where they gleefully, yet temporarily cheered his name. He isn't throwing out first pitches for the Twins or acting as honorary captain for the Vikings. Favre is just another failed messiah in a long line of failed messiahs in Minnesota.
Thus, we have the continued pokes and prods by the Packers' organization to see if the fans are ready to welcome Brett back. You know there's been conversation by both sides, that Favre's craziness has subsided, and he realizes that no one claims him as their legend other than the Packers. He knows it, and has given some contrite statements expressing his regret over how he handled himself in those rocky years.
He was crazy then. But, now he's realizing his mistakes he's made, and where his home really should be. The prodigal son is waiting to return.
The same is true for Woodson. Maybe he'll say some more crazy things between now and the end of his career, throw more potshots at the Packers as he tries to hang on in the twilight of his career. To a degree, you can't fault him. He's a better athlete than 99.99998% of everyone else in the world, but the loss of that 0.00001% is the difference between being an All Pro cornerback and a liability on the field.
The fans in Oakland will welcome him back, for now. It must be a weird feeling for them, now cheering for a guy who was allowed to leave the team almost a decade ago, labeled injury-prone and a burgeoning locker room cancer. To see him move on and become an icon with the Packers must have been difficult for them to swallow.
The Raiders are in love with the idea of Woodson, hoping just a little bit of that Super Bowl magic will rub off on them. And Woodson will buy into it, hook-line-and-sinker, because all he wants right now is to keep extending that career just another season, another game, another play.
Eventually, probably sooner than later, Woodson's skills will erode to the point where he will, again, be considered a disappointment in Oakland, and he again will leave the team without the fanfare that he so desperately craves. Except this time, it will likely be for good, and his playing days will be over.
And, when the cheering has stopped, he'll come to his senses. He'll realize where he was truly loved not only for what he did on the field, but who he was off the field. And he'll look back on his comments made this past Friday and regret them, and come back to Green Bay to make it right, and to live among the legends we all so revere.
And we will cheer for him, the way we should cheer for one of our icons. Even if he went crazy for a little while.