It's become an annual Mid-Majority tradition. I try to be the last man in America to know who won the Super Bowl, and the last man in America to know the score of the game. Together, these two pieces of data combine to form The Knowledge. There's no pastime like this: a race against yourself, a game played against the world. Short title of the game: Last Man
I've been doing this for 23 years, ever since I was in high school. But this is the fourth year the game has been played on this site. Feel free to play the game yourself. You'll never be the same. Keep Running. Avoid The Knowledge.
- Wednesday morning; death by television
- Thursday night; death by West Coast Conference commissioner
- Monday morning; death by airline stewardess
- Tuesday night; death by Valparaiso student section
Remember: you can hear me, but I can't hear you. You don't know where I am, and I don't know where you are. I've gone into an information cocoon with no television, no radio, no social media, no outside web. I am typing these updates into a blind text box. They will appear below. Follow me and other players with the #LastMan Twitter hashtag.
The game is over when you know
Sunday 8:39 pm [9 minutes]
It's just after 9:30 PM Eastern, and it's time to assume that the championship of football is either over or all but decided. With that, the game begins. I am far from a city. It is always a bad idea to begin Last Man in a city, any city. The Knowledge spreads easily in cities. I am in a suburban chain coffee shop with two women behind the counter, headphones on. The place is empty except for me. It's about to close. I'll have to go outside soon.
This is the lonely part, right at the beginning. Always best to start the game with cash in pocket, well-fed, and mobile. Most important: don't talk to anybody. The Knowledge is fresh.
Sunday 9:46 pm [1 hour, 16 minutes]
One can hide in a virtual bunker to escape The Knowledge. But bunkers make crazy. There is a time for hiding like that, and that time is Monday. The second-safest place is in a car, hurtling down a highway at night, moving among the trucks, cars, red lights and white lights and green signs. What's the worst that could happen? You run out of gas. (Use the CardMatic, keep your head down.) But out on the road, there is no way for the information to get to you then.
In the earlier days of Last Man, that might have been the case. But innovation and evolution have made this game harder than ever. In American-Style Football, there was no coach challenge when this game started two decades ago. But just like those red flags on the field, small red discs on color smartphone screens mean that no matter how fast you run, The Knowledge is right there. It rides with you. I turned off all notifications so that Last Man wouldn't be ruined with a pop-up blue bubble. But knowing that this little box contains the end of the game is disconcerting and troubling. It's right there in my hand.
A quick note: there will be a Stardate tomorrow morning. This is still, believe it or not, a site about college basketball.
Sunday 11:08 pm [2 hours, 38 minutes]
Every year, no matter how much preparation goes into Last Man, there are always holes and heels. For super-mundane instance, I mentioned earlier how important it is to have cash on hand so that ATM use becomes unnecessary during the early stages of the game. What I forgot about was the importance of carrying small bills.
Getting through Sunday requires a minimum of human contact, and when you have a couple of twenties in your wallet, breaking them requires an exchange of both money and words. This especially comes into play when hunger strikes; avoiding The Knowledge can make your tummy rumble. Food rules in this game come down to the three D's: Drive-thrus, Dollar-bill vending machines, and Don't go into restaurants.
Luckily, I'm driving on a highway that costs money to be on. So about half an hour ago, I broke a bill with a toll collector. ("Thanks," I said. It was the first word I uttered since the game started.) At a service area just now, with headphones in place, I put two bucks into a candy machine -- and got 50 cents back along with a small Milky Way bar. It tasted like victory.
Sunday 11:39 pm [3 hours, 9 minutes]
It's always best to forewarn those around you, family and friends, that you're playing Last Man. They may not fully understand what it is you're doing, what the point is. But this is part of the game: choosing whom to offer a cocoon connection. Trust the wrong person, and it's all over.
Just now, before sleep, I had an actual conversation on an actual phone. I was curious about certain elements of the spectacle. "So how was the halftime show?"
"It was god-awful," came the reply. "It was the soundtrack to hell. Fergie's mic went off, and her backing track came on, and it was completely obvious. But the backup dancers were okay."
"Were there Robots?"
"Well, there were people dressed up like Robots. They had boxes on their heads. It was right up your alley."
"I'm sorry I missed it."
Sunday, survived. Curtains drawn, TV off, bed as comfortable as it can be in a room with three temperature settings. Every hour counts in Last Man.
Monday 4:00 am [7 hours, 30 minutes]
Up with the larks. We're on the move like Mannequin 2
Monday 5:49 am [9 hours, 19 minutes]
On Sunday night, just as the running started, hundreds of sportswriters sat typing away at long tables in a high-ceilinged media room in Texas. Thousands of words, features and sidebars, all distilling the big game into standard sports narratives: the hero who becomes immortal, the surprise performance that fans will never forget, the failed effort that will haunt forever. Redemption and vindication, the fall from grace, a human moment, a celebrating city. Only the names and colors change every year.
All these stories will be disposable and forgotten by most, except for a few that will earn awards from peers. They are easily ignored now by Last Man players, and tomorrow the remainders will be wrapped deep in the inside sections. For now, they're on Page One, accompanied by splashy color photos and 72-point headlines. Monday is media avoidance day. In the 22 previous Last Man games, about half have ended within 24 hours. TV screens glow and can be turned away from. Newspapers can show up anywhere, blowing in the wind.
Someday, there will be no printed newspapers anymore. This will benefit the environment, the campaign against false poetry, and the game of Last Man. There will be countervailing forces at play, I'm sure, that will conspire to make the game more dangerous still. But this is a day to stay out of convenience stores and away from newsstands, a day for hiding. Right now, I'm out in the open, plotting a path to safety. All it will take is one piece of newsprint, with some quarterback or another pictured with his arms raised in a V, to do me in.
Monday 7:49 am [11 hours, 19 minutes]
There was an accident up ahead. Looked pretty bad. Three state police cars and two medical trucks sped along the right shoulder, and everybody in the right lane steered out of the way to let them pass. That's always an interesting dynamic: how much of this is genuine concern for the anonymous victims, and how much is the ingrained knowledge that if the emergency vehicles get to the scene, we will all move along faster?
This extra time in traffic gave me time to consider airports. That is where I am headed: to an airport. A game of Last Man seems incomplete without the dangerous rush a place like that provides. Not only are there TV screens and newspapers everywhere, there are usually people in logo gear. Monday is too soon to have obtained the official locker room shirt, so nothing says "Champions" quite yet. It's usually jerseys and caps. In the past, I've found later that a majority is not necessarily a leading indicator... there are those who will want to align themeslves with the winner, hoping for a random high-five from a stranger fan, but then there are the true fans who want to sulk in their sweatshirts.
After 15 minutes, the traffic cleared up, and the lanes started moving again. Up ahead, there was no accident on the side of the highway, nothing for people to rubberneck at. Whatever it was had been surgically removed from the road. Nothing to see here, folks.
Monday 9:30 am [13 hours]
Airports will drive you nuts. So much to look at, all these things going by. Look at this! A man with a satchel bearing a round logo with three colored diamonds. That couldn't have been something just purchased. Would he have turned it the other way, logo towards him, if his team had lost? There, over there, a t-shirt that reads, "Hustle beats talent when talent don't hustle." Does this mean something? Is it all connected, does it add up?
I am in one place. Soon, I will be in another place. Between that place and the bunker is a treacherous shuttle, undoubtedly filled with more merchandise and slogans and t-shirts. The game is over 12 hours old now; it doesn't get any easier yet.
Monday 10:31 am [14 hours, 1 minute]
Those who play Last Man wear no uniforms. There are no jersey numbers or team colors or logos. This is an individual event for which there are no special clothes. People who play Last Man, who run from The Knowledge, blend in with the rest of the population, and don't draw any attention to themselves. The person next to you on the bus might be playing the game. Obvious clues: headphones, wild eyes, always looking down. You
might, and not even know it. There are people in Alaska and Hawaii and Wyoming who are expert Last Man players who will never get the recognition they deserve.
There is no Last Man Hall of Fame. Where would it be? Who would vote? If one were identified as an expert Knowledge Runner, wouldn't that preclude them from ever playing the game again? How does one retire from a game they don't even know they're playing?
Monday 12:53 pm [16 hours, 23 minutes]
In transit, I had a dream about The Palestra. It was the day of a Temple-Saint Joseph's game, and I was in the basement kitchen. I know that there is no kitchen down there, but there was in my dream. I was surrounded by bakers and concession stand workers, who were all preparing soft pretzels for that evening. Another thing: it was a movie, but only I knew it was a movie. The movie was called "Concessions." The title may have ended in a Z, I am not sure.
While I was walking around the kitchen, I came upon a young Latino woman who wore a white button-up shirt and black pants. She was one of the people who sold the pretzels at the concession stands. I noticed that she was a poorly-written one-dimensional character: crude comic relief. All she could do was fart at inopportune times, which made everybody laugh, especially at moments of elevated tension (for instance, there weren't enough pretzels for all the fans who'd be there for the game). I approached her and grabbed her by the arms. She was tall, slightly heavy, mysteriously pretty. "You're interested in snowflakes," I said. "You like how none of them are exactly the same."
She looked back at me, and her dark eyes moistened. "Thank you," she said breathlessly.
Monday 3:20 pm [18 hours, 50 minutes]
I am in a city without football. There are any of these in America, but many of them lack other services. Like efficient taxicabs, for instance.
To get between the airport and the bunker where I'm going to be staying at for a while, I took a bus. It seemed like such a good, efficient idea -- and buses provide only a minor, low-level risk. If The Knowledge is on the bus, it is as a loud conversation between or among men. As Last Man players know, those can be avoided with headphones and recorded music, something that many people wear on the bus anyway to avoid conversations of other kinds. This worked, at least for 10 minutes.
Up ahead, on a city street, there was a tractor-trailer in a jack-knifed position. The driver had believed, hope against hope, that the gigantic truck would have sufficient turning radius to move from a small service road onto a thin two-lane artery. Perhaps it might have, but he turned the wheel far too late and too suddenly. Now there was this big white box blocking the street. It happened just as the bus arrived, and a few minutes later the police came. As the red and blue lights flashed, the cop made the driver fill out a ticket, and directed auto traffic around the truck on a three-turn detour. The bus, the policeman decided, was too big to move around the blockage. He held out his hand, stop, don't try it..
There were about 15 passengers on the bus. Five got out and started walking, they had somewhere to go and be. Nine just sat there in their seats, waiting. I guess that's how bad the economy is, or something... some folks would rather just sit on a stranded bus than do anything else. I tried calling a cab. We were half a mile from the city center, on a street called Main Street and in a commercial district, but the dispatchers I called couldn't send a driver.
"I don't have anybody for you right now."
"It'll be an hour."
"We're booked. Try calling this number."
"You just called here. I told you it'd be an hour." Finally, I started gave up and started walking too. It was three miles to the destination, and that would take less than an hour. I slung my bags over my shoulder and made my way up Main Street.
I walked for 20 minutes and a mile and a half. On both sides, convenience stores and newsstands and bars with glowing screens, full of The Knowledge. Then, behind me, came the same bus. I flagged it down. "At least you got some exercise," the old driver said cheerfully.
I am in the bunker now. It is warm here.
Monday 5:00 pm [20 hours, 30 minutes]
There are few written rules for Last Man. Rule Two goes like this: don't flee the country. Leaving America means immediate disqualification, because it's right there in the full title of the game: The Last Man In America To Know Who Won The Super Bowl
. If you're not in America, the game is over for you. Last year, I went to Canada on the Friday following (for the Olympics), but was eliminated by Rule One on Thursday night.
You can be anywhere in the 50 states, it doesn't matter. People new to the game might think, "Well, you can just go to some cabin in the woods and go forever, right?" You can. But cabins produce Cabin Fever, especially in winter. Bunkers produce Bunker Madness, which sets in once you go to ground. There are offshoot variants of the game like Last Man Extreme, in which players spend Sunday evening in a sports bar like Buffalo Wild Wings and attempt to survive. But for most players, you're going to have to hide sometime.
I'm hiding now. The curtains are drawn, the television is off, and any entertainment was recorded and stored ahead of time. (Pro Tip: one place immune to The Knowledge is Netflix.) There is no food here, so delivery will be attempted later. Snacks are procured from vending machines -- remember, small bills
. But as the hours go by, the uncomfortable nature of this game strategy becomes more and more obvious. The white walls tilt and close in. It's better to be out there, at airports and in traffic and in cities. That is active living. This, on the other hand, is an existence that happens to you. This is jail.
The one day mark approaches. And so do the first inclinations of abandonment: it would be so easy to turn on that television set, to check the iPhone, to plunge the knife into the stomach and lose. What is the point of this? Why would anyone do this to themselves?
This is Last Man Madness.
Monday 5:21 pm [20 hours, 51 minutes]
Buzz, what is that sudden blast?
Does this mean I won't be Last?
The phone it keeps on ringing-ringing,
E-mails keep on pinging, pinging,
Voices echo in my head,
Should I hide beneath the bed?
Knowledge lurks in shadow spaces,
Digits, hyphen, names and faces.
Who is for me or against me?
Will an open door forsake me?
Have they found my secret bunker?
A pizza pie to fix my hunger.
Monday 5:56 pm [21 hours, 26 minutes]
Back in college, I always had to go to class on Mondays. I never had one of those full-time TuTh-only schedules that students dream of, those four-day weekends. I remember one time, my greatest teacher and hero, the late Thomas Rubick, gave us a Friday pop quiz in a design class. He handed back the papers on Monday morning. I don't remember what my grade was on that quiz, but it was likely very high. I was a good student in college.
After class, as I was gathering my belongings and moving on to the next class, Thomas stopped me for a second. "Did you turn it over?" I didn't know what he meant. "The quiz," he clarified. "Did you turn the sheet over?"
I fished the paper out of my bag. On the other side from the questions and answers, in red pen: "Cowboys 27 Steelers 17."
Don't trust anyone. Anyone.
Keep running. Avoid The Knowledge.
Monday 7:34 pm [23 hours, 4 minutes]
During a phone chat with my only conduit to the outside world, a discussion of rarely-invoked Rule Four. "Say that the Bears were playing the Titans in the Super Bowl. And I told you that the Titans had won, but they hadn't."
"Stuff like that has happened. Others have tried to f___ with me during Last Man. But players have to consider the source of The Knowledge and question mere hearsay. I could opt not to believe you and keep playing."
"But okay, what if the Titans really did win? Then what?"
"The game's end point would be retroactive to when the actual result was known. I'd have to honor and accept that I'd already lost."
Rule Three goes like this: always play honestly.
Monday 8:10 pm [23 hours, 40 minutes]
Here are some scores of basketball games. Uneven Butler beat one-win UIC 72-65 in the G!O!T!N! (and #ALLCAPSGAME preview). Also in the Horizon, Cleveland State was upset by Detroit 81-78. Over in the SWAC, Alabama State is about to close out Mississippi Valley State; UNCG beat The Citadel in the SoCon. With very few exceptions, teams lower in the standings are beating those with more wins. At least so far this evening.
Is society's fabric fraying outside these drawn blinds? All I have to go on as far as that theory goes is a list of mild small-conference college basketball upsets and a strange difficulty in finding a place in the phone book that would deliver a pizza.
"We're not doing delivery now."
"I know we're four blocks away, but you're outside our delivery area."
ring... ring... ring...
I almost went ahead and ordered Papa John's online, but I remembered that they now have some sort of paid official-pizza thing with the NFL. All the boxes I see in recycling bins have the shield logo on them, and I was afraid/hesitant that The Knowledge might be prominently displayed on their website. As in, "Team X Won... Buy A Celebratory Pizza, City X!" You can't be too careful, or too paranoid.
Monday 8:33 pm [1 day]
One. Day. Down.
Monday 11:03 pm [1 day, 2 hours]
All the games in our sport are over tonight. Tennessee Tech beat Austin Peay in the OVC, so that race has now clearly become a repeat of last season's Morehead-Murray face-off. In a non-conference game, longtime independent and provisional MEAC member Savannah State beat longtime independent and ex-Southland champion Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in overtime. It was the Tigers' 11th road win in 11 years of Division I membership. Hope takes small and different forms.
And so Monday turns into Tuesday. In the game of Last Man, Day Two has its own unique set of challenges. But for now, there's nothing that runs the clock quite like sleep.
Tuesday 6:38 am [1 day, 10 hours]
Is it possible to be too good at Last Man? Can a player's strategy be so fundamentally sound, so solid, that they can never lose? Perhaps I have mastered this game. This was my first thought upon awaking this morning: I've made it through Sunday night and all of Monday, maybe I'm unstoppable.
The prime enemy on Tuesday is overconfidence. The media landscape is different today -- the Super Bowl is stale news, and the big color pictures are off the front pages. Tuesday is the day between the dailies and the weeklies, and Sports Illustrated
hasn't hit shelves yet. After 32 hours, players are conditioned well not to look at television sets; e-mail and social media avoidance is now second nature. It's easy to feel superior and comfortable.
But that's a trap. The way this game works is that it can all be over in an instant, one slip-up. A player must control their own mind on Tuesday, and never falter for a second. Diligence. Discipline. The precision and exactitude of an athlete. These are what Last Man requires.
Tuesday 7:02 am [1 day, 10 hours]
Yesterday, I was thinking about Last Man as a possible charity event. That would be easy to do. I've thought about that in the past, but I never wrote it down. It would be pretty simple: people would sponsor me and pledge $X per hour, and then when the game is over, they'd send a check to charity. It would also be devious on my part, because it would dissuade people from trying to spoil it for me. The game has no rules against that. It would be a win-win: the longer I'd last, I would benefit and so would the kids. Anyone who broke through the cocoon to tell me the score of the Super Bowl would be a total dick.
Intense thoughts filter through to the subconscious, and so I dreamt of this last night. I was at a press conference held by rock legend Neil Young, where he announced that he would be playing Last Man and taking challenge donations on his website. On a spotlit stage backed by black curtains, he pulled out an acoustic guitar and played "Long May You Run," an apt and poignant song for this context.
I stood up and interrupted the song. "You can't be a Knowledge Runner and play Last Man," I exclaimed. "You're from Canada.
Behind the dais, Neil huddled with his handlers and agents and record company execs. After a lengthy discussion, a man in a suit stepped up to the microphone. "There's been a change of plans," he said. "Neil will instead be donating 100 percent of the profits from his new live album to help AIDS orphans in Africa."
And all of a sudden, I
was the dick.
Tuesday 9:52 am [1 day, 13 hours]
Right now, I am making plans to attend a college basketball game. That part of the journey must continue, because that is a larger season-long quest: 100 games. The next will be the 50th. It's not because it's the halfway point, but this will have to be painstakingly elaborate.
I've been burned in the past. Three years ago, the Valparaiso student section was ready for me, and displayed a sign with the score: "WHELLISTON NY 17-14." I now realize my error: I'd announced my global position by securing a media credential to the game. Word got out. I was dead on arrival.
This time, I will go incognito. The plan is this: blend in, buy a ticket, sit in the stands like everybody else, like we did way back at the beginning before the words were paid for. I am planning my costume. I will not wear my usual gameday garb: suit, tie, sneakers. I don't know how much to obscure my appearance, and I still have some time to decide. How far will I go to protect myself? Ballcap, glasses, a fake beard or mustache? Most people don't know what I look like, so it might not matter.
My pocket-sized travel companion has his own ideas.
Back to the drawing board.
Tuesday 10:28 am [1 day, 13 hours]
If I knew exactly when the Super Bowl ended, I'd know the winner and the score too. This is why Last Man players assume a start point of three hours after kickoff. I have since been informed that this game did not begin at 9:30 PM Eastern, when I originally thought it did. Instead, the American-Style Football season was complete much later than that. When I finally consume The Knowledge and lose, those extra minutes will be deducted from the game clock, the final score. That's Rule Three in action.
I know this piece of information because of my Conduit to the outside world. This is the first time in over two decades of Last Man play that I've used a Conduit. There is no numbered rule that says you can't, and it is not cheating. In fact, being a Knowledge Runner with a Conduit ratchets up the danger considerably. Last night, as Bunker Madness set in, my swagger and confidence were peaking.
"I'm the best Last Man player in the whole world," I said. "I'm the bomb."
"No, you're not," said the Conduit. "You're not the bomb."
"Listen, I'm going to drop some science on you. You know that old-school phrase, 'drop some science?'"
"Yes." Then, a long period of quiet. "I'm waiting for this so-called science to drop on me."
"Don't you get it?" I said. "I'm
the science. Kyle Whelliston is a motherf___in' science bomb
"I hate you so much right now," came the reply. "In fact, I'm going to go right ahead and tell you who won the Super Bowl."
They didn't. But you have to be very, very careful... overconfidence in this game can kill.
Tuesday 11:58 am [1 day, 15 hours]
One of the more common questions I get about Last Man is this: why isn't there such a thing as Last Woman? Aren't there Title IX considerations to take into account? Is this some sort of institutional sexism? I say hogwash on all counts. This is one game where women have unfair and unmistakable advantages over men. Most females in the United States can't name more than a few NFL teams, much less bother to keep track of the pro playoffs. There is no possible way an American man can compete on a level playing field.
In realistic terms, swagger aside, I am a decent player who's had some good years recently. I have by no means created some sort of Last Man dynasty. My best years were when I was young, when I attended a prep school on top of a remote hill where television viewing was restricted and a green truck dropped a stack of newspapers on the front steps of the main building every morning. No internet back then, not even Compuserve. I could go for at least a week back then, easy. There have been dark periods of mediocrity, too. I hate to think back to the early 2000s, but when I do, I blame my father for my failures.
My dad introduced me to Our Game when I was a child, and regularly took me to see the Celtics at Boston Garden after he divorced my mom. There, I learned at an early age what basketball excellence was: 1981, 1984, 1986. He's always understood what Last Man is about, because he doesn't like football much either. My father has always been a baseball-basketball man, and we'd spend the summers following the Minnesota Twins together. Wherever I've lived or gone to school, we've always talked on the phone at least every other day, and we always talk about sports. That's what dads and sons do.
But at the turn of the century, my father developed an intense man-crush on New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "I know you don't like football," he'd say. "But that man is a genius, a master tactician, the very best at what he does. I read his book, and I have a whole new level of respect for him."
"I have not read his book," I said. "I can't even spell his name correctly without looking it up."
The Patriots were the best team in American-Style Football back then. I never watched games, or followed the standings, or kept track of any teams. But I always knew how well the Patriots were doing.
"I know you don't like football," my father would say. "But Belichick's game plan against the Jets last week was so perfect, so precise, that I was nearly moved to tears. It was like a symphony, or perfect architecture, something like that."
"I don't care," I'd reply. "Next topic, please."
In 2003, I was living in Philadelphia. On the night of Super Bowl Sunday, I called my father. "Did you watch the game?" I asked. Once he replied to the affirmative, I reminded him about Last Man. "Don't tell me."
We made small talk, discussed the Celtics and the weather and Washington politics. But he was bursting at the seams, couldn't take it anymore. "I know you don't like football," he said. "But I've got to say, that was maybe the greatest Super Bowl in history. Of all time. One of the greatest games in any sport, ever. The way Belichick put the Pats in a position to win, and then that final field goal..."
"Goddamn it," I said. "Holy motherf___ing s___."
The three years when New England won the football championship, I never got out of Sunday night alive. In 2004, when the Patriots and Eagles played, The Knowledge hit me within five minutes of the final gun. That was the absolute low point of my Last Man career.
I don't talk to my father during the week after the Super Bowl anymore, whether the Patriots are playing or not. Call me angry, call me bitter, but forgiveness and forgetting only go so far. This is Last Man. This is serious. I am a Knowledge Runner, and this week I am related to no one.
Tuesday 3:28 pm [1 day, 18 hours]
Cold pizza for breakfast, cold pizza for lunch. Diet Coke, Diet Coke, Diet Coke. Snickers bars and M&M's. This is part of the problem with playing Last Man out of a bunker: it's like Y2K without the supplies.
I fantasize about walking into a restaurant in slow motion. I sit down at the table, fasten the napkin to the front of my shirt, I'm ordering a meal. I want the best of everything: a fine red wine, a deep and green house salad, a 14-inch plateful of golden pasta covered in rich sauce. For dessert, I point my finger on the menu to the house specialty: a tub of liquid chocolate, in which is submerged an entire chocolate cake, which in turn is filled with thick and gooey chocolate filling. "Oh my," I say as the trough is laid before me minutes later. "Now that's what I call a Super Bowl."
The server laughs. "And wasn't that a fine game on Sunday, too."
"I must admit that I didn't watch it," I demur. "In fact, I just found out what the score was no more than an hour ago. The first thing I did when I heard the news was come here, to your restaurant."
But reality snaps back into focus: there's no restaurant like that around here. I have found out that the only things I can have delivered to this place are Domino's Pizza and Chinese food. Out my window, in a bleak blue afternoon, I can see a package liquor store close by. (That's one way to survive Last Man: get really drunk.) Just beyond that, I can see a gas station with an attached convenience shop. I will attempt to negotiate those aisles later. There is no choice for me but to leave here; I will starve otherwise.
Tuesday 4:10 pm [1 day, 19 hours]
Let us, just for a second, contemplate what it means to quit. It's one of the words we have that means multiple things, a small failure of our language. Sports is a world where there are many quitters: the DNF's, the abandoners, those who give up in the middle. In Our Game, quitting is to retire from competition even as the competition continues on. Players walk away suddenly; teams give up hope in the middle of seasons or games. It's the Q word, the worst thing.
In real life, quitting means to stop doing something. To quit a job is to leave and do something else, to quit a relationship is to snap a string connecting you to another person. I don't think this is the same thing as in organized sports; in one of the two, it's the wrong word to use, and I don't know which should stop using it. In sports, the primary narrative is the team, the season, the game itself. To remove individual will from a grander collective effort and struggle is only a small piece of the story; quitting will not disrupt things that much, if at all. In the human arc, quitting anything represents a major plot twist.
This is why Last Man is more like life than sport. There is no set time goal, and it's wide open, featuring a beginning but no middle or end. The game can theoretically last until actual death, and nobody among us knows if there's television in the afterlife. I do, however, have a strong inclination that hell gets each and every one of the ESPN channels.
Beginning marathon runners often report a powerful urge to abandon, which kicks in after 20 miles or so. It gets very psychological: Why am I running? What would finishing this race really prove? My legs hurt. There, over there, that grass patch... doesn't that look comfortable? Let's sit down.
Those who give in and stop are quitters in context: they know they still had six miles to go, and there's no ambiguity about that.
In Last Man, there is no finish line. But I will not quit. I will not stop. I am a Knowledge Runner.
Tuesday 5:31 pm [1 day, 21 hours]
Before moving back East, I lived in a nice place near 19th Street and Willamette, up near the high school and Civic Stadium. It was a spacious one-bedroom apartment with a sunporch, privately absentee-owned, in a 20-unit building. Three doors down from me was an Oregon Duck football player, a cornerback. He played his music loud, threw parties every weekend, and had the kind of sex that reverberated across three apartments. The others in the building didn't do anything about it, too nervous or scared, and the landlord wasn't willing to intervene. But I was in my final year, and I was staying up until 3 a.m. all the time working on papers and projects. All I cared about was quiet. So I would call the police every time.
One day in September, I got a loud knock on my door. It was the cornerback.
"Heard you been calling the cops on me," he said angrily.
"You're right," I replied. "I have been." I shut the door in his face.
After another night and another call to the Eugene police department, he came back. I opened the door. He was drunk. "I just have this feeling like you don't respect me or something," he said. "Like I ain't a human to you."
"I don't have a reason to respect you," I said. I closed the door again. He moved out a few weeks later, and I didn't care enough to get the rest of the story.
When I tell people this, they tend to reply, "Oh, that's why you don't like football." It makes logical sense: a dweeby bookworm who got jealous of second-standard students and scored one for the nerds. But I used to love that sport. When I was a kid, I watched three games a week (Sunday, 1 and 4; Monday at 8), collected plastic helmets out of the gum machine, and cheered for the Minnesota Vikings. I memorized their names, numbers and positions, and painted the blue team in my electric football game (varumrumrumrum
My favorite player was the quarterback. His name was Tommy Kramer. But he was a fragile fellow who kept getting hurt. All my lasting memories of him involve some kind of seam-burst in the offensive line, a devastating sack, and No. 9 hobbling off the field. In my young mind, that was the only part of the game that resembled actual personality or person-hood; otherwise, these were a bunch of colorful robots banging into each other. I didn't know if I was supposed to feel bad for Tommy Kramer or not, but the rest of it was fun to watch.
Then, during middle school, the Taylor-on-Theismann hit, on national TV, on Monday night. I threw up in my lap. I'm not the only one for whom that moment ruined football, but I'd already spent most of my childhood trying to reconcile violence and compassion in a game that I was too tall and skinny to play anyway.
So I chose to avoid and ignore the question altogether. My position was that football players were neither human nor cyborg, they simply didn't exist.
The first game of Last Man happened by accident. It was 1989, I was a junior in prep school, and I had stopped watching the Super Bowl every year anyway. A few days went by, and I didn't know that San Francisco had beaten Cincinnati, and the game hadn't left enough of an impression on the tiny population in our boys' dorm to create any buzz. Then, a week went by. I realized out loud, "Hey, I don't know who won the Super Bowl. Don't tell me."
I don't remember how long I went. It was weeks and weeks, almost to March. But I do remember how I found out. There was a stack of old Sporting News
copies in the local public library. On the cover of one, a color picture and a headline: "49ers Strike Gold."
And that formed the first piece of Last Man game strategy: look out for newspapers and magazines.
Tuesday 7:19 pm [1 day, 22 hours]
It's colder than it looked. Under cover of darkness, the wind's effects were not visible, not that wind would be against a series of low-slung boxes. But the chill outside bit into my hands and face. On the walk, the gas station seemed farther away than it appeared from the window.
A Last Man player who finds himself in a convenience store must first identify where the newsstands are. Look down at all times. But realize that this is also the pose of the nervous holdup artist, and darting glances will promote storeowner suspicion. Offset this by focusing on products while waiting in line. Gas additives, air fresheners, "smoking supplies."
The setup was a simple one, three cramped aisles. Just enough space to provide enough merchandise to provide the operation with enough profit margins to offset break-even gasoline. When I walked in, I realized that I'd given more thought to surviving the experience without stumbling upon The Knowledge than I had considered any type of shopping list. I placed my items on top of a counter, under which was a lucite display of scratch-off lottery tickets. One had a football helmet on it.
"Eight dollars and sixty-two cents," the man said in a thick accent. Small bills, keep the change.
Walking back, the cold wind froze my hand around the plastic bag handle. Once back inside, I ran my hands under the faucet, felt the hot water thaw my fingers. I looked at what I'd bought, and realized there was nothing to make a meal out of. I'd grabbed anything and everything that looked vaguely healthy or remotely sustainable: a gallon jug of orange juice, a bottled water, a small bag of salt and pepper potato chips, a pop-top yogurt.
I guess I have to call that Chinese delivery place after all.
Tuesday 7:30 pm [1 day, 23 hours]
"They're looking for you," the Conduit told me. "They're cross-referencing game schedules and Monday flights out of Philadelphia. They're even trying to find news stories about semi trucks stopping traffic. There's a hashtag on Twitter now: #FindTheLastMan. Watch out, Kyle."
Maybe it's time to pick up and move. Keep running. Run. Run.
Tuesday 8:58 pm [2 days]
Back in college, I worked at a print shop to pay rent and buy school supplies. I managed the bindery. During evenings and weekends, I fastened books, drilled stacks of papers, operated the glue press and saddle-stitcher. One of the shop's biggest customers was a man named Donald Something-or-other, who called himself "Coach D." He was a motivational speaker. Once a month, he would come in and have hundreds of copies of his workshop materials professionally spiral-bound. That was my job.
The print shop went bankrupt and closed six months after I left Oregon. A primary reason: the owner took too much business in trade instead of straight cash. One Sunday night, all workers were summoned to the print shop for a mandatory meeting, no excuses. We'd get time and a half, and there would be a special guest.
Donald was there waiting for us as we trickled in. He was dressed in a suit and tie, and had folding chairs arranged in a circle. In the center of the circle, a stack of the materials I had bound the previous weekend. When we were in our seats, he stood up and asked us all a question.
"I'd humbly like to ask your permission," he said quietly. "Would you allow me to be your coach?"
We looked at each other, then back at him. "Sure," we all said. "I guess you can be our coach."
With that, he ripped off his coat, tore off his shirt, buttons flying everywhere. Underneath, a t-shirt that said in big letters, "COACH D." He pulled a red ballcap from his back pocket and put it on his head. Around his neck was a whistle on a rope, which he began to blow loudly in everybody's faces.
"OK, listen up, team," he said. "Grab your playbooks. It's time to start winning!"
The print shop was transformed into a locker room. Coach D offered up an inspirational pep talk, peppered with Vince Lombardi quotes. "It's not whether you get knocked down," he said. "It's whether you get up!" We were all assigned football positions. The floor manager, a wiry-haired college girl named Mary, was named quarterback. As bindery guy, I was a nose guard. The owner was... the team owner.
Everybody played along, even me. But David, a gangly, long-haired freaky Deadhead who ran the massive Xerox Docutech, was less than enthusiastic about the whole thing. He was supposed to be our running back. Finally, Coach D called out David for his non-winning attitude.
"The metaphor doesn't work, brother," David replied, raising his outstretched palms to chest level. "This ain't a football game. No winning or losing here. We're just trying to get our work done, collect our paychecks every week, pay our bills, and have enough left over to make life not suck. Nobody's keeping score, man."
I didn't realize it until just now: David would have made a great Last Man player. Maybe he's out there, somewhere, playing right now.
Two days down.
Tuesday 11:28 pm [2 days, 2 hours]
Is this story complete without a redhead? Of course not. Those of a certain age remember Carmen Sandiego, the auburn-tressed criminal mastermind. (For a subset of those folks, the very name triggers memories of public television, a catchy melody, finger snapping, and a bald guy with a very low voice. There, now it's stuck in your head. Boom.
) The backstory went like this: raised an orphan, she grew up to become an ace detective so skilled at solving crimes that she became bored with justice. After she turned to the dark side, she donned a red trenchcoat and committed a series of despicable crimes around the globe. But her heart remained soft, and her soul resisted evil. This was evidenced by the fact that she always left geography-based clues that were simple enough for 11-year-olds to solve.
I fell in love with Carmen at a young age, and learned much about Last Man from my pursuit of her. Lessons: Boastfulness is bad. Don't leave too many crumbs, because crumbs leave a trail. If you really don't want to be found, drop fish. Three more things: 1.) Facilities have multiple and unintended uses. 2.) Everything is movable from its original source. And 3.) I left out the part about the train.
Sleep well, gumshoes.
Wednesday 6:37 am [2 days, 10 hours]
The trick here, apparently, is to reserve a taxi 10 hours in advance. On the move again.
Wednesday 8:40 am [2 days, 12 hours]
Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25. As of 9:37 am EST, the game is over: death by television.
Isn't is always like that? The one gap in the game plan, the seam in the defense, an arrow in the back of the foot, the Spanish Inquisition. You prepare for everything except the one thing
. There's the time gap between the immediacy of the daily papers and the big-picture weekly magazines, but there's something that happens in between. The parade.
I was at T.F. Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island. It's a small airport, just 20 gates or so, and everything is tight and compact. There's nowhere to focus the eye that isn't on something
. There are TV monitors everywhere, in the restaurants and in the corners. I walked by, head down and gazing at the carpeting as it rolled by my feet, but the screen was glowing and OMG what's-on-that-screen and I took just a quick split-second glance.
I screwed up.
There, on the screen, was a cable news broadcast with blocky scrollers along the bottom. A man held aloft the shiny silver thing, oblong with a handle, a trophy named for Vince Lombardi. He was wearing a dark coat, and a green and yellow ski cap. I immediately knew what that meant. I stopped, shut my eyes tight for a few seconds, but the image wouldn't go away. I was beaten.
There are people still playing Last Man. Most don't even know they're doing it. Nobody knows who they're competing against, and the only score is one's own. And that's Rule Five: nobody ever wins. It's the ultimate expression of The Mid-Majority's primary credo: it always ends in a loss, no matter what.
My final score for Last Man XXIII is two days, 11 hours, 23 minutes
. It's not as long or as far as last year, but it's better than the year before. All players can strive to improve next time, because the finish line is forever.
Soon, these updates will be reversed in true chronological order for posterity storage. Just as in other years, many things about this year's game will have to remain secret -- the travel path, the bunker location, the identity of the Conduit -- in case I need to replicate my strategy in a future game. I will tell you this, though. I traveled many hundreds of miles, the geographical start point was Bridgewater Township, New Jersey, I changed my plans midstream, and it was a lot of fun as always.
There might not be an NFL season next year, just like there might not be an NBA season next year. If either or both are wiped out for labor reasons, you can blame or thank the Sports Bubble. But if there's no Super Bowl in 2012, I'm really going to miss playing Last Man. It's a race against yourself, a game played against the world. There is nothing like it.