Life lessons via 'Madden Football'
When you're a bachelor who works crazy hours like I do, you have to find different ways to spend what little free time you have. The Internet bores me; I've read just about every site out there. I read books and listen to the police scanner before I go to sleep. Except for sports, TV sucks.
So I play Madden Football 06 online against opponents from around the country. Sometimes, I plug in the headset and chat with the other player if I'm up to talking.
There's always at least 1,000 players online with Madden at any given time, so finding someone to play against is never a problem. The quality of the opponent, of course, varies.
I've found that there are two types of Madden players: kids under 15 and old stoners like me. The kids will do anything to win, including cheating, so I make sure I never play any of them.
Even though I don't smoke weed anymore, I still like talking to stoners, because they have a unique take on things. And chronic pot smokers usually like the same music I like: old R&B, classic rock and old-school rap, so there's that rapport.
I've talked to people from Queensbridge, San Diego, Manhattan, Idaho and just about every state in the country. I've learned a lot about the game from them and have shared some laughs and have tested out comedy material I've later used on the radio or in print.
The other day, though, a friend requested me to play a buddy of his called "OneHand." I accepted the challenge, played the game and, unexpectedly, I got a lot more than I'd bargained for.
"OneHand" is the screen name of a guy in Washington, D.C., who became a quadriplegic after an accident a few years back. One of his links to normalcy is his Playstation 2, the games he plays and the discussions he has with people while playing the games.
His real name is Leon, and he's one of the best, if not the best, Madden player I've encountered. What makes it even more amazing is that, true to his name, he only uses one hand to play.
Madden 06 is an insanely complicated game to master. The Playstation controller has 10 buttons and two joysticks, all of which are used in various combinations to call and execute plays in the game. It takes two hands to hold the controller, let alone use it.
Leon plays with a special joystick that has eight buttons. He's taught himself how to pull off different combinations of button presses while using the joystick.
He can juke and jive LaDanian Tomlinson down the field for brutal open-field runs. He can take slow-ass Doug Flutie and scramble for 20 yards with him. He can get Randy Moss to catch a pass over five defenders.
Most of the time, we just talk about football and the merits and shortcomings of various teams. Leon is proud of his all-NFL trophy, which he earned by using and winning with every team in the NFL. His few losses came from trying to win with the woeful 49ers and Texans.
Every once in a while, though, Leon will open up a little bit. He'll talk about his various doctor's appointments, pretty nurses, chronic, flirtatious women on the other online games he plays (no woman has ever been known to play Madden) and his buddies.
One day I had to ask him about his condition. "It's rough," he said, and that's all he would say. He then changed the topic to Terrell Owens.
But, really, what could he say? For me, Madden is a diversion from stress, an antidote to depression and a time-killer when I'm bored. For him, it's one of his major links to the outside world, one place where he's not constrained by his physical injuries.
Meanwhile, in my real life outside Madden, I hear very little else but people complaining. Don't get me wrong; there's a lot to complain about these days. We have an outlaw president bent on destroying freedom. The economy is in the toilet. The cost of living has skyrocketed.
I complain every day about something or another, whether it's justified or not. I bitch if I have to wait 10 minutes in line at the grocery store or if someone is spreading untruths about me.
But I've never heard Leon complain about anything, except a pass interference call against him or an untimely fumble. I called him out on that once. Everyone else is bitching, I said, why not you?
"Doesn't change anything," he said. "I get to have fun. I talk to pretty women all the time. I have lots of friends. I can kick your ass with any team in the NFL. What do I have to complain about?"
This isn't one of those columns that has some high moral message or offers some keen observation about human nature and our inability to recognize the blessings each of us has.
But I do know that every day I wake up and am still drawing breath is a victory over everything that could have conspired to prevent that from happening. I know that all graces come through God and without that, I'm bankrupt morally as well as financially.
And I know that occasionally I meet people like Leon who inspire me to celebrate the good in the world, even as I rail about the injustices.
Like I said, there's no big moral lessons here. I like my new friend Leon.