I knew it as soon as they told me he’d been “missing from the Air Force base for a few days.” It turns out that was just a lie they invented to keep me from having an emotional breakdown in a car full of my friends, but almost no one who’s been “missing for a few days” turns up alive. That was on Sunday, and on Monday, when I was in the solitude of my own apartment, they told me he had been found dead.
That was almost four months ago, and ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out how to properly eulogize him in the context of a sports blog. It’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem; without sports, we wouldn’t have been friends. He was the kid in my third-grade class who had a Denver Broncos hat to go with his Kansas City Chiefs winter coat, and who always got into a little more mischief than our teacher would’ve liked. The very first thing he ever said to me was, “Do you want some blueberry ice cream?” Of course I did, so he fished around in his backpack, pulled out a toy dump truck, and said “HONK HONK!” As upset as I was at the lack of ice cream, blueberry or otherwise, this was an comically unconventional introduction, the only one from elementary school that has stuck with me for all these years.
We stormed to victory as running mates in the 2000 Tioga Elementary School mock presidential election (our opponents’ slogan was “There Should Be More Taxes,” so we had it in the bag). We found an unopened container of Mexican candy on the playground, and devised to give it to a classmate of Puerto Rican heritage, “because she sounds Mexican.” But it was our mutual appreciation for sports, especially football, that cemented the friendship. Having inherited his dad’s favorite team, he was a Broncos fan. The family home had one of those fake blue-and-orange street signs that read “John Elway Avenue” hanging on the wall above the pool table. But unlike most kids in our demographic, he didn’t just have a passing knowledge of the superstars. He stayed faithful to his team through the lean Brian Griese years, and then the slightly more palatable Jake Plummer era. His verbal indictments of Tatum Bell and Ashley Lelie were spirited and always on point.
When my parents’ fantasy football league, which had existed since the 1980s infancy of fantasy sports, made the transition from scour-the-newspaper offline scoring to an automated online system, my parents gave me permission to welcome some new blood into our yearly competition. He was the clear choice, and his entrance into the league marked the beginning of a dynasty so unchecked in its supremacy that it would make even Bill Belichick show some emotion for a second or two. When he started high school, enrolled in college, and joined the Air Force as an air traffic controller in training, the fantasy football league was our best excuse to stay in contact.
The dynasty ended with what the Air Force special investigator told me was “a single gunshot wound to the head,” one that was later confirmed to be self-inflicted, and that no one I’ve talked to has said they saw coming.
I had seen him just over a month before it happened. He came down from Dover for the weekend, and on Saturday night we took the Red Line to the Verizon Center for a Washington Wizards game. He was quiet for most of the night, and said he hated having to deal with the crowded city streets, but this wasn’t out of the ordinary for him. He was at his best when we kept things low-key, staying in to play video games, just as we did most weekends when we were in high school. Neither of us really cared to party, and we were both socially reserved without being socially awkward. A couple underage raids of the liquor cabinet notwithstanding, whenever he came over, we had a job to do. We’d fire up the Xbox, throw in whatever sports title happened to catch our eye, and spend hours GMing our teams through years of play. Most of our friends would’ve fallen asleep after about half an hour of proposing trades, combing through stat lines, and adjusting depth charts, but it never got old for us. That particular weekend, we took over the lowly 2012-13 Orlando Magic and guided them to a few championship seasons. I had no reason to think those would be our last titles together.
He was scheduled to come visit the weekend after I got the call. We had three tickets to a Nationals game, and he was finally going to meet a college friend of mine whom I’d been telling him about for a long time. I was hoping the Nats game would help him get interested in one of the only sports he never warmed up to. When I sat at the game with another friend, an empty seat beside me, I wondered how he would’ve reacted to certain moments in the game. Would he have been impressed by Ian Desmond’s game-tying home run, or would he have said that the whole afternoon was slow and overpriced, and that Screech was the worst mascot in the MLB? But I learned in the following months that I didn’t always have to wonder what he would think. When you grow up with someone, your shared experiences shape your developing brains, values, and perceptions in similar ways. I’m still carrying his sense of humor around in me, and I intend to pick up where he left off in his heckling “Old-Ass Al” Harrington the next time I’m able to attend a Fujian Sturgeons game.
One area where our brains did not develop similarly was our acumen for fantasy sports. I was the cellar-dweller to his dynasty; my middling finish last year was a moral victory, a momentary departure from my usual failures. I doubted whether we would continue the league without its heart and soul, without the one person who kept us all on our toes with his forward-thinking waiver claims. But we continued, defiantly looking into the camera and saying something about the show must go on. We filled his spot with the ten-year-old son of another participant, who may (but let’s be honest, almost certainly won’t) grow into the same type of sleeper-picking wunderkind as his predecessor.
The draft was a lonely affair. I didn’t have anyone to snicker with when the guy who ALWAYS encounters technical difficulties encountered them yet again, and delayed the draft by 15 minutes. I didn’t throw anyone a furtive glance when the guy who can’t keep track of anything asked if Matt Forte was still available in the fifth round. But just as it was almost as though I had formed an owner-player relationship with Toby Gerhart by drafting him as my second starting running back (don’t laugh, this is a serious part), it was almost as though my friend was there to share those moments. I knew him too well not to see him shaking his head.
Suicide is a funny thing. Just when you think you have someone figured out, it gets all up in your business and says, “Hey, maybe there was more going on with this person than you thought.” Maybe all of those times in our naive teenage years, when we laughed at NFL “troublemakers” for their drug addictions or violent outbursts, were masking similar struggles. Maybe if I had taken a break from sarcastic jokes to look him in the eye and ask, “Hey, man, how have you been feeling?”, he would still be here, working as Crooked Scoreboard’s resident golf expert, as he intended to do one day. Any counselor worth his salt will tell you that nothing good comes of asking those questions, dwelling on hypotheticals, but it’s impossible not to do so from time to time. Especially when I still see him so clearly, scrolling through the lists of players, laughing at the guy before him who just drafted yet another underperforming player from his favorite team. At some point this season, I’m sure I’ll feel compelled to send him a boastful text about my big win. But I’ll have to remind myself that that urge, like the whole game of pretend that is fantasy football, is just an attempt to grasp something I can never really reach.