Every Pittsburgher has their own weekend rituals during the football season. On Friday nights in Oakland, Pitt students mix up vats of electric blue mystery punch (spoiler: the mystery is bargain bin vodka) and play real-life Tetris by figuring out ways to fit multiple kegs into hand-me-down hatchbacks for the next morning’s tailgate.
On Saturday nights in Wexford and Ambridge and everywhere, Hall of Fame tailgaters marinate steaks and clean the soot out of their hibachi grills. Some even adorn their houses with black-and-gold Christmas lights. Others drape Terrible Towels over their televisions and go to sleep with a smiling Heinz Ward bobblehead on the nightstand.
In high school, my friends and I had a rather embarrassing ritual on Saturday nights. We couldn’t wait for real football, so we staved off our anticipation by playing hours and hours of the virtual replacement – Madden football for the Playstation.
Now, for the readers over the age of 35, it is truly hard to explain just how seriously my buddies and I took the competition of Madden. See, my friends were all crazy sports fans. And as crazy sports fans, we all thought we knew the most about football. Being the best at Madden wasn’t like being the best at pinball or Pacman. It was a cerebral experience. You had to call the right defense. You had to read the opponents’ blitzes. You had to be a better virtual football coach than your opponent.
Madden is just like real football, only for people who have no desire for actual physical contact, preferring instead to sit Indian-style in front of a TV with a plastic controller and a delirious smile.
Nearly every Saturday night, while our peers were doing cool things like smoking their parents’ stolen Parliament Lights on county park benches or huffing paint fumes in a shed, my friends and I were huddled around a flickering television in someone’s unfurnished basement, living and dying with every virtual Hail Mary.
The revelry would last until 3 or 4 in the morning, or until someone’s mother banged on the floorboards with a broom for us to shut up and go to sleep. We drank Mountain Dew and busted each other’s chops, and since we didn’t have any money, we made preposterous non-monetary bets on each game.
Once, my buddy Mike lost half of his VHS collection after he squandered away a lead at snowy Lambeau field. To the victor went the spoils: Die Hard, BASEketball, Jaws, This is Spinal Tap and an unmarked Cinemax After Dark dub.
My buddy Justin put up his favorite hoodie sweatshirt against someone’s Sony Walkman. I can’t remember who won – all I recall is negotiations heating up over whether the accompanying Weird Al Yankovic CD would be included with the Walkman in the wager.
Using an old NFL general manager’s trick—future considerations—someone even put an upcoming Christmas gift of their opponents’ choosing on the line.
The atmosphere at these events was both sad and hilarious, in retrospect. Picture a hot, hazy, unfinished basement littered with Doritos crumbs and ten screaming, hysterical yinzers pointing at the TV and high-fiving and hugging over the heroic actions of computer pixels. It didn’t help that half the basements in Western Pennsylvania are lined with drywall that has the consistency of Play-Doh.
Once, in the wee hours of the morning during a particularly heated game, a friend who shall remain nameless hurled a Playstation controller in frustration after throwing a crucial interception. The controller stuck right in the drywall, fossilized.
For some reason, none of us had girlfriends.
These days, it’s hard to imagine caring about anything like I cared about the outcome of those Madden games. For a brief time, the world was as big as a 200 sq. ft. basement. Life was a television, a Playstation and good friends. Before we knew it, the world caught up to us. We got cars. We got cool, or something approximating it. We went to college.
My buddy Steve Freund would go on to join the Marines. He was, without a doubt, the best Madden player of our group. He played with an unbreakable intensity. He couldn’t be rattled. He won our biggest tournament ever and took home a grand prize of $100 – 80 dollars cash and a 20 dollar Best Buy gift card that a particularly broke friend had thrown into the pot.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen happiness like I saw it when Steve won the Madden title. Along with his $100, he won a plastic WWF Heavyweight Title Belt that signified that he was the indeed the World’s Best Madden Player in Pleasant Hills, Pa. That night, he slept on the floor of the basement cradling the belt.
The next morning, Steve went to Best Buy and bought an off-brand mp3 player with his prize money. It held something like 40 songs. Steve didn’t even own a computer, but he bootlegged some Metallica and Limp Bizkit off of our friend Mike’s Gateway Pentium II. In those days it took hours for the songs to download, so Steve, Mike and I laid around the basement watching NFL Sunday Countdown and eating cereal as the white light of Sunday morning came flickering in through the tiny glass-block window above the television.
Myron Cope’s shrill voice echoed from the kitchen radio upstairs. The smell of pancakes came wafting down through the floorboards. Someone was still sleeping on the floor in the corner of the room near the radiator, using a hollowed out Mountain Dew case for a pillow.
We didn’t realize how much fun we were having. Most of us would soon go off to college and gradually fall out of touch.
Steve went a different route. He became Marine Pfc. Steven Freund. He became a man. He went on to serve bravely in Iraq until May 23, 2006, when he was killed by a roadside IED while riding in a Humvee in the tumultuous Al Anbar province. He was 20 years old.
I was off at college at the time, and a friend sent me a text message about it. It was blunt. “Did you hear? Steve Freund died.”
And that was that. I was in my car at the time. I sat in a parking lot for half-an-hour. I couldn’t think of anything but our Madden games. I thought that was strange. I thought that would change.
On each Veterans Day since Steve’s death, I see the old World War II veterans on television visiting the graves of their fallen friends who passed on some 60 years ago, and I wonder what parts of their friends they choose to remember as they solemnly salute the headstones and the monuments.
It takes a lot for me to remember the sadness. I have to try hard to remember the funeral. The stars and stripes draped over his casket. The circle of friends, reunited, digging their heels into the carpet, not knowing what to say. Steve’s sweetheart in the corner of the room, sobbing relentlessly into a Steelers sweatshirt.
I think about how strange it seems now, and how strange it could seem in 40 years, that when I think of Steve, what I choose to remember is this: a fall Sunday in a shabby rec room. No one speaking, throats too raw from the previous night’s videogame marathon. Shadows growing longer on the shag carpet. A Terrible Towel draped over the television. Chris Berman making cartoon sound effects over the pre-game highlights. Steve smiling when his Metallica download finishes. All of us waiting—on breakfast, on the Steelers game, on life—with visceral hope and anticipation.
Some things we can never get back, but some idle moments remain vivid forever in our hearts, only to be understood by us, and few others.
Pfc. Steven Freund: 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force. A Pittsburgher.