ANN ARBOR — They used to go back to their apartment after the games, and friends would come by and the two of them would put on a rap record and shout along with it and do some dancing and laugh until it hurt. It would be easier after a win, but they’d do it after a loss, too. Hell, most losses fade quickly enough.
Most losses. Fred Jones calls Pablo Lopez his “closest friend,” and on Saturday, each time Jones made a crunching tackle against Michigan, with the swell of more than 100,000 fans ringing in his ears, he would get up, breathing hard, and whisper, “How’d you like that hit, Pablo?”
Only Pablo wasn’t there, wasn’t on the field alongside his buddy, where he should have been. Pablo is dead, murdered at a campus dance two weeks ago, a moment of madness that comes when young men take anger to ridiculous extremes.
What were they fighting over in that parking lot that night? Someone kicking a car? It was that senseless. But Lopez was in the wrong place, the line of fire of a 12-gauge shotgun, and when Fred Jones heard what was going on, he ran outside and realized his best friend, his roommate, his teammate since high school, was on the ground, lying still and bleeding. And Jones fainted.
The crowds parted. The two young men were rushed to the hospital separately. One came around. One never did.
Fred Jones was suddenly alone.
At the funeral, he was speechless. For days after, he was withdrawn. He continued on the team, because, well, that is where he belongs. On the back of his helmet, in black letters, is “LO” for Lopez. For loss.
“Do you think about Pablo now while you’re playing?” someone asked him, after his team, Florida State, lost to Michigan, 20-18, Saturday.
“I do,” he said, looking down. “I try to play for the both of us now. I talk to him out there, to be honest with you. Little things, you know, football stuff. It sounds funny, I guess. But I can’t help it.” Good memories, bad memories
Some losses fade. Some losses never do. Fred Jones, one of FSU’s better defensive players, has a sad and simple face, atop an oversized body, and one moment his eyes can light up like sparklers, and the next moment they seem a blink away from tears. That’s a pretty fair barometer of his emotions. He is 21, and few people know when they pass him that he has lost a best friend, a mother and a sister in the past year. When you see him on the football field he is simply No. 55, another hulking linebacker in the middle of another hulking college defense.
But there is a story behind every face mask out there. Some are simply tragic.
“It’s up and down these days,” Jones said. “Certain times are harder than others.”
“Which times?” he was asked.
He sighed. “The nights, I guess. Like tonight, we would go back and watch the scores on TV, and talk about the plays, and maybe do our music thing.”
He fingered a chain, clasping it and unclasping it, watching the two halves come together, then be pulled apart. He stopped with them apart.
Pablo is gone.
“A lot of people have been coming around,” he said. “That’s good. But I’m just living alone. His bed is still in the room. I like it better that way.”
He looked up. “I don’t know, man,” he said, “we just had fun, you know?”
He said it as if he couldn’t understand why that had to end. Why did it? School of hard knocks
Football is about winning and losing and giving your all. But it is also about camaraderie, friendship. Most players, when they are done with the game, tell you the thing they miss the most is the other athletes, the heartlines that are stitched in threads of blood and effort.
Fred Jones misses Pablo Lopez. Somewhere, somehow, Pablo misses Fred. There was a game that went on here Saturday, a pretty good one. But what does it really matter?
“We used to do the rap songs like Run DMC,” he said suddenly, his eyes widening. “You know those guys? Run DMC? We used to do that like in front of the mirror,” he laughed. “It was funny.”
It was sad. College students shouldn’t have to think about murder, shouldn’t have nightmares about running out of gymnasiums to find their best friends bleeding away. But sometimes your education comes sooner than you planned. You learn about losses. The kind that fade, and the kind that never do.
It is no fun. No fun at all.
“I gotta go,” said Fred Jones, and he buttoned the last button on his shirt and walked off slowly, carefully, as if carrying two hearts inside him.