DETROIT -- The tabloids and the news helicopters weren't there. Ryan Longwell, Brett Favre's wingman for more than a decade, slipped out into the cold night before the locker room doors swung open and the hordes had a chance to corner him for one last moment of pontification. It was almost like an awkward going-away party at which someone forgot the cake. Favre was leaving, walking roughly 50 steps up a drab, concrete hallway with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a row of buses waiting to whisk the Minnesota Vikings away from this debacle of a season. And no one really knew what to say.
Favre had saved a glossy souvenir program of Sunday's season finale between the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions, a game he didn't play in. He walked briskly and didn't linger.
"There goes a famous guy," a man loading equipment into a truck said to a little boy beside him. Favre just kept on walking. He climbed onto the first bus, past the hardy flock waiting on some dead grass outside Ford Field. FAVRE FOR PRESIDENT, one sign read. ALL I ASKED 4 WAS TO MEET FAVRE, another said. When it became clear that they wouldn't, most of the fans left.
Perhaps it was fitting that a 20-year NFL career filled with so many crescendos, pomp and drama would end this way, in a fog of wadded-up locker room socks, blank stares and little emotion. With no ceremonial bookend.
"I'm sure he wants the hoopla to be over," Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said. "I think we all do, you know?"
Finally, mercifully, it's over for Favre. He said he's retiring. The pundits probably won't believe it until September, when, assuming there's a season, training camps break and the annual Favre waffle watch concludes. They've been duped too many times. Such as in 2008, when he retired as a Green Bay Packer and wound up in a New York Jets uniform. Or 2009, when then-Vikings coach Brad Childress infamously picked Favre up in an SUV as a helicopter swooped overhead.
This past summer was another ratings extravaganza when Allen, Longwell and Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson flew to Mississippi to persuade Favre to play one more season. They were coming off a gut-wrenching loss in the NFC Championship Game. They had a loaded roster built for a Super Bowl run.
Five months later, that scene was as distant as the Minneapolis skyline. Favre is battered and grayer, Childress is gone and Sunday's game was a battle to avoid last place in the NFC North, a 60-minute slog to a 20-13 Lions victory. Five months ago, Favre was considered a 40-something medical wonder. Now he's just old and tired and hurt. A giant knot in his throwing shoulder ended his record regular-season starting streak at 297 games last month, but ultimately, it was another injury that told Favre that he's had enough.
On Dec. 20, in his final big-stage appearance on "Monday Night Football," Favre dropped back to pass and was smothered by Bears rookie defensive end Corey Wootton. His head slammed on the frozen turf, and he stayed facedown and motionless for about 10 seconds. Favre said it was the first time he'd been knocked unconscious, and it obviously worried him.
He's done some reading on the long-term effects of multiple concussions. He knew this wasn't an aching shoulder or a chin laceration that eventually would heal. He knew this was about his future.
"It's time," Favre said. "I know it's time. And that's OK."
Favre hadn't been on the first bus that headed to Ford Field on Sunday morning, the first sign that he wouldn't play. Still, his followers held out hope. They dressed in Favre jerseys, breaking out the old Green Bay No. 4s. They peered through gates and around security guards, waiting for Favre to come out for warm-ups.
About 90 minutes before kickoff, the announcement came that Favre was inactive. And the 1 o'clock game, once thought to be the final speed bump on the Vikings' Super Bowl tour, was effectively meaningless. Jack and Linda Allen stared at the field, where rookie quarterback Joe Webb was warming up. They had traveled 530 miles from Nashville to see Favre's finale but now would have to settle for watching him in a T-shirt and sweats on the sideline.
It was Favre who had helped Jack land his wife many years ago. Their first Christmas together, he bought her an autographed picture of Favre, and Linda melted. It still hangs in their dining room. Linda has loved Favre from afar and loved everything about 2009, when, at 40, Favre had his best statistical season ever, throwing for 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
But when she heard he'd return for Season 20, Linda winced. She wondered whether he was tempting fate.
"We had to see him one more time," Linda said of their pilgrimage to Detroit. "We had to see his arm one more time. See his smile one more time. To witness him throw some impossible throw and it's a touchdown. I'm going to cry. "
"He's such a competitor. I don't know what he's going to do. He's wired differently."
By kickoff Sunday, after he stood at midfield for the captains' coin toss, Favre already appeared bored. He fidgeted with his hats and paced the sideline. He chatted with Hutchinson, who's on injured reserve. Hutchinson had an interest in Sunday's game and crouched and analyzed the action. He's expected back next year on a team that most likely will look much different.
Thing is, it's already different. Webb, who carried the Vikings' hopes on his young shoulders Sunday, was filling in at receiver a month ago. Tarvaris Jackson, Favre's backup, is on IR. And the Vikings' two other quarterbacks -- Rhett Bomar and Patrick Ramsey -- weren't even on the team a few weeks ago.
Ramsey is a journeyman, a veteran in the league, but he still has childhood memories of watching Favre. Ramsey was a teenager when he sat in the stands for Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans, the year Favre won his ring.
Ramsey spent much of Sunday at Favre's side, engaging in what he called casual banter. He said Favre didn't do any reflecting. And when this long regular season was finally over, he seemingly couldn't wait to leave. He sprinted off the field, waved to the Lions' sideline and headed to the Vikings' locker room.
"It is sad to see it end, but you know it's got to happen eventually," Ramsey said.
"Honestly, I don't know Brett as well as many, but he really seemed perfectly OK with it. I mean, it seemed like he was at peace with it."
Hutchinson, one of Favre's closest friends on the team, didn't want to talk about it or reflect on that summer day when the future was bright and nothing could stop them. He called Favre a professional and said he'll go down as one of the best players ever, regardless of position.
Allen was a little more open. He recalled the trip and the message they had. "Come back and have some fun with us," they had said. They hadn't seen the storms ahead, the texting controversy between Favre and Jenn Sterger, the roof collapsing at the Metrodome. But they had no regrets.
"Honestly, he did some great things for us last year, and this year obviously wasn't the best," Allen said. "But he's a good dude. He's a good teammate. No one ever expected this, but it's a team effort, win or lose. And he's had a hell of a career."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.