On August 13th, 2014 when I was an assistant volleyball coach at California State University, Fullerton, I was checking my phone, looking at texts during an athletic department staff meeting when I saw the preview, “Kevin, I thought you should know….” Pure dread washed over me as there is usually only one reason somebody starts out a text like that. And I was right.
My best friend was dead. How it happened, nobody is really sure, but after a night out with his girlfriend, she left to go pick up some things and when she returned to his house early the that morning, he was lying in his bed, not breathing, no pulse. He was gone. And dear reader, as much as it seems like I am simply recounting the death of my best friend, there is more to this story that quite frankly relates to just about every single one of you out there.
Huh? Video games?
Yes. Video games.
Although we met coaching volleyball camps together at the University of Oregon, it was our love of video games that became the glue to our 11-year bond. For 11 months out of the year we wouldn’t see each other, but when we arrived for camp for that one month out of the year, it was like no time had passed. We’d pick up the sticks on the PlayStation 3 and go to work.
You see, we both stayed at the head coach’s house during that month of camp and he had two sons that also loved to play. In fact, they had a loft completely dedicated to video games. With two X Rockers, a large couch, and both a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox, we had five guys playing video games during our off hours, in-between camps and basically anytime we could make it back to the house. It was bliss.
We had a defined rotation of games that we played – it was always the same; Call of Duty, NCAA Football, and MLB: The Show. Ah yes, The Show.
While we played the first two titles and had a great time playing against “the boys” as we called them, it was MLB: The Show that turned two guys that didn’t know each other into best friends.
You see, we both had a love for baseball. He lived in Portland and would travel to Seattle to watch the Mariners and then, when it was camp time, we would go catch the Eugene Emeralds, a Single A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. I. on the other hand. could go see both the Dodgers and Angels. But I digress.
Each of us, prior to arriving at camp, would play MLB: The Show tirelessly, trying to find the teams that would get us the win in our annual best of seven World Series. And then, when it was time for our annual trek to Eugene, we would get together and in a pick/ban style draft, select the seven teams we would each use to play in our own World Series.
Some of the series were glorious. For instance, in our series played in July of 2010, it was the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 and my buddy had Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers trying to finish off a complete game ahead in the score, 1-0. I had a runner on first because of an error and one Mr. Jim Thome at the plate. This was a lefty-on-lefty matchup, one in which Thome was supposed to lose. Not this day. Kershaw threw a slider down the heart of the plate and I deposited that pitch deep in the right field bleachers. A two-run walk off home run to win our World Series.
I acted like a complete idiot, running around the house doing victory laps. He just laughed. He never took offense to anything. It was a rare win for me, as he was the final winner of the series beating me seven years to three. He was just a better player than I was.
It’s been two years since his death and yet I continue to hit the sticks each year trying to figure out which teams are the best. I play like he’s still with us, not wanting to believe he’s gone.
In life, there are always lesson you can learn from both the good and bad things that happen if you dig deep enough. Some people think video games are just something you play for entertainment or to pass the time, but I disagree. Video games are much more than that. They have the ability to bring people together in ways that transcend human judgements. That’s exactly what happened to me.
Thanks for being that guy Matt Hartner. You are missed. Terribly.