Josef Martinez almost died once. Right in front of us. And God. And everyone.
It would have been a weird juxtaposition. Amidst the celebrations of a go-ahead goal, everyone would have slowly stopped their beer throwing and high-fiving and hugging of strangers and realized: “Josef Martinez just died.”
It would have dominated the news cycle for at least two months. Not only would he have been the first professional athlete to die mid-game in America in years, he would have died for a reason devoid of athletic necessity. There would be no fatal injury caused by the nature of the sporting event he was participating in. No ball flying at his head at a hundred miles an hour, no medical issues, no fall from a dangerous height.
It’s the summer of 1992 and Metallica is co-headlining with Guns N’ Roses in Montreal. The crowd, of course, is massive. It’s almost a year to the day since Metallica released their first of six number one records.
Metallica begins their third song of the set. “Fade to Black” from 1984’s Ride the Lightning.
It’s late in Montreal. The set is pitch black. The squealing guitar lead-in starts. There’s cheering. And then there’s flames. They’re right at the front of the stage. A singular burst followed by an entire row. The music, on the edge of charging forward, stops.
Metallica’s lead singer, James Hetfield, steps too close. The pyrotechnician doesn’t see him.
“I’m up there playing the part, you know, and these colored flames are going off. I’m a little confused on where I’m supposed to be. I walk forward, I walk back, the pyro guy doesn’t see me and ‘whoosh’ a big colored flame goes right up under me. I’m burnt — all my arm, my hand completely, down to the bone. The side of my face, hair’s gone. Part of my back. I watched the skin just rising, things going wrong,” he’ll later say.
The show stops and Hetfield is taken to the hospital for second and third-degree burns.
Axl Rose comes out a few minutes later and agitates the already agitated crowd. There’s a riot. In Canada of all places.
Weird thought, but do you ever think about how we’re all steps away from death? Like at all times?
Seems like a design flaw to be honest. Too late to change it now though.
A month and three days ago, people showed up to a Tennessee Titans game. On purpose. I mean, maybe a few stumbled from Broadway and waded through the Bachelorette parties and country music that is far too good to played on the radio and accidentally ended up inside the stadium. But, remarkably, most showed up on purpose.
The game finished 19-17 in favor of the Colts. No one is really sure how either team scored.
It’s likely that before kickoff everyone knew they had already seen the most entertaining thing they would see all day.
The NFL does this thing where they introduce every single starter individually. Seems weird for a sport dominated by dudes who worship black and white footage of Vince Lombardi screaming about sacrificing your pinkies for the greater good of the team and the detriment of the Dallas Cowboys. But for some reason, NFL fans give this stunning display of individuality a pass nowadays. Please bring this and fantasy football up the next time a guy in a Steelers jersey tries to explain how football is the ultimate team sport.
Anyway, when they’re introducing the starters, many teams are shooting flames into the air as the players enter the field. The pyrotechnic boxes sit on both sides of the player. A corridor of fire if you will. Heavy metal.
Before the game, one of those pyrotechnic boxes exploded. Not like Bad Boys style, but still, very much on fire. No one got hurt. However, the field did catch on fire. The NFL announced a temporary ban of on-field pyrotechnics five days after.
It’s June 24, 2017. In the 67th minute against the Colorado Rapids, Martinez retreats from the six-yard-box to receive a pass from the right wing. Martinez, having lost his defender, receives the ball in space. A few steps away from the penalty spot, he turns his hips goalward. There’s a ferocity to his movement. There always is. It’s the kind of thing that gets in a defender’s head.
This particular defender -- this poor, helpless, desperate, deeply broken defender -- knows he’s on the precipice of embarrassment. He’s lost his man. And now his man is turning. With the ball. Toward the goal he’s supposed to be protecting. He drops to the ground. To save himself. To save his dignity. He’s only made it worse.
He’s the blustery Dad trying to balance a phone and a kid and a coffee as he opens the door to the Starbucks and drops the coffee only to try and catch it as it’s falling which just makes the coffee explode all over him, the phone and the kid. Martinez knows this. He wants the coffee to explode.
Martinez fakes the shot. The defender goes down in a heap. His mother screams out in terror (probably). His dad shakes his head and wonders how he can avoid inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner (probably).
Martinez moves the ball to his other foot. Another defender slides in far, far too late. Martinez fires the ball into the back of the net. The crowd at Bobby Dodd Stadium goes worse than bonkers.
Josef Martinez begins running toward the fans.
It’s July 4th in San Diego. THE July 4th in San Diego for anyone well-versed in firework lore, a thing I think exists.
They call it the Big Bay Boom. A set of barges sit on the San Diego Bay and shoot off one of the largest collections of fireworks in the entire world each Independence Day.
This particular Big Bay Boom…..look y’all, holy smokes this video.
From Thrillist’s amazing oral history of the event:
Crouch: When that thing went off like that, it scared the crap out of me. You have to imagine this barge: 135 feet long, 45 feet wide. It’s heavy. The barge probably jumped a good six inches. The tug jumped. I ducked. Everything shook.
Frailey: This was like every grand finale you’ve ever heard, in the room with you. Absolute cacophony.
Crouch: The pyrotechnicians on the barge, they were running around. I’m listening to the radio and everybody’s asking everybody else what just happened. Nobody knew what was going on until the pyrotech came back and said, “That’s it, something went wrong. Computer glitch. There are no more fireworks.”
Every single firework. At the same time.
Josef Martinez begins running toward the fans.
He’s taken to jogging toward the endline after he scores and just standing there, staring at his admirers. Later he’ll begin taking a knee, and there’s a whole Dragon Ball Z thing and really you can mark the passage of time by which celebration he does after a goal. There are entire eras involved here.
This time though, he decides to run past the endline. He waves off a couple of teammates. And he jumps over an adboard and onto a box shooting smoke into the air. His feet make contact. He jumps too close. The pyrotechnician doesn’t see him. Flames shoot out of the box. Real, burn you to the bone flames.
They miss him by inches.
This is volatile. It all is. There is always a chance it blows up in your face in more ways than one. You are always trying to outrun the next explosion. Not in a Bad Boys kind of way but in a “If I can make it to this point I can make it to the next” kind of way.
Sports are this idea playing out over singular, time-constrained events. Winners are the ones who avoid the disaster or overcome it. Sometimes you get the Big Bay Boom. It doesn’t hurt you, but it’s impossible to ignore. For example, oh, I don’t know, maybe the team next to you gives up ten runs in one inning in an elimination game, or the other team next to you misses an extra point to lose a game, or the other team loses to Will Muschamp and/or Mack Brown, all in the same week. And the noise of impending doom around you becomes collective and overbearing.
Or maybe the explosion doesn’t affect anything. It just gives you something to look at for a while and nudge your friends and talk about how wild it all is. Maybe a few players openly show disdain for the new manager and there’s some yelling but it all becomes a footnote.
And then there’s the ones that nearly kill you. Where you’re right on the brink of being unscathed or going up in flames.
“Fade to Black” by Metallica literally fades to black. The end of the song is just the guitar and drums slipping away into nothing. The live version probably wraps up with a couple of down beats from the guitar and drums together. A DUH. NUH. with the cymbals crashing. But who knows how it would have ended in Montreal. There may have been a plan in place but obviously whatever cosmic thing approves those had no interest in this one. There are infinite possibilities to how that song might have ended.
Three teams have won back to back MLS Cups. Don’t act like you don’t want to be the fourth. You know you want it. This next month may be hectic and anxiety inducing, and the format may be dumb, and there’s always the old fall back of “But the Campeones Cup”, but you know you want it. All of it.
The rest of the state is reeling. Nothing has been perfect this season. But there’s good news.
Josef Martinez almost died once. In front of all of us and God and everybody in one of the single dumbest, most horrific sporting accidents of all-time. But he didn’t. Which means that every possibility is still in front of us.