[CONTENT WARNINGS: Death, grief, drug use, curse words and Detroit Lions football.]
I have no fucking business writing a memorial for Neil Bulson.
First of all, he should still be here. He should not be gone. I should not have heard via mutual friends that Neil died unexpectedly at home last weekend. But he did, and he would not appreciate my wallowing in bullshit hypotheticals.
Neil Bulson was a brilliant, fierce, singular writer. Well, I say “singular”–but despite all the obscenity-laden epics about elder gods and killing fields, the heart of Neil’s writing was exactly that: heart. He poured his heart’s blood out onto the page, hoping others would see their reflection in the puddle. He took pieces of himself and set them out for the crows, hoping to attract fellow crows. He expressed his passions unflinchingly, unreservedly, just trying to connect with somebody else who felt the same way.
That his passion project, his life’s work, was being completely and utterly honest about how much about things like the Detroit Lions and professional wrestling meant to him didn’t diminish that labor in the slightest. Caring too much was the point. Creating what he wanted to exist but didn’t, in hopes others who knew exactly how stupid and pointless these things were and cared anyway could feel seen.
The Lions lost every single game that year.
He chronicled it all, from the firing of Matt Millen to a minute-by-minute diary of the ultimate failure. I wasn’t reading along as it happened; I was only vaguely aware of sports blogs at that point and wasn’t connected to the Lions blogosphere at all.
But the next day, I woke up and decided I just had too many feelings to keep inside. So, like him, I went to Blogspot and let them all out through the keyboard:
It wasn’t long before we found each others’ work, and became massive fans, supporters, and promoters of each other–even though, on the surface, our approaches were completely different.
His site, Armchair Linebacker, was a rough-and-ready collaboration with a like-minded guy named Raven Mack (and, off and on, several others). Their stated ethos says it all:
Mine, The Lions in Winter, was a solitary effort made to as professional a standard as I could manage. The literary aspirations were implied in the title–and though I didn’t exactly include this bit in the About page, I was testing myself.
I wanted to see if the unmentored work of a floundering Gifted-and-Talented Program Xennial was good enough to get attention. To draw a crowd. To open up opportunities. To quit the dayjob. To see if I could be, as I was oft assured as a child, whatever I wanted to be.
I never swore in posts. Neil might not have ever not cursed. For quite a while I avoided politics and religion; Neil introduced himself as our guide to Hell and passionately stood up for the rights of the downtrodden. I actively promoted myself on every forum and social channel I could get a logon for; Neil let the audience come to him.
But in the end, what we were doing was the same thing: writing way too long, way too raw, and way too personally about the Detroit Lions. I once said “I soar through my blue-sky optimism on patched and tattered wings, while he trudges through the marshes of the river Styx, protecting his blue-flame candle from the muck and the mire.”
For a while, both our approaches worked.
We networked, cross-promoted, made friends with all the other Lions blogs. As we all began to pull serious eyeballs away from traditional-media websites, and new forms of connecting to audiences were emerging, people were getting hired left and right.
Neil and I both started doing freelance work; he did culture writing at places like Heavy.com while I did link round-up posts for MLive, a regional newspaper site that remains a top destination for professional Lions coverage. And when you’re getting paid good money to write, doing it for free stops being a release and starts being a burden.
Just before the start of the 2012 season, Neil announced the closure of Armchair Linebacker. The “Viking Funeral” I penned at the time–and the graphic of a longboat being immolated in my site’s famous metaphorical blue flame–hit me much harder now than I ever could have imagined.
…and I’m crying again.
Give me a second.
In that post, I admitted the indie thing was starting to wear on me, too. I was already a paid columnist for Bleacher Report; by the end of the season I would quit my day job to cover the NFL for them full-time. Four years after we started our blogs at the beginning and end of the same season, we effectively ended them at the beginning and end of another.
Matthew Stafford, Jim Schwartz, and the Lions spent the brief heyday of the indie sports blogosphere rising from the lowest possible depths to a 10-6 playoff team, built in what looked lie a perennially sustainable way.
So we both moved on.
And we both lost touch.
Well, “lost touch” is overselling it; we were always tight on Twitter when we had time to be. But we very rarely connected behind the scenes. Occasionally he’d return to Armchair Linebacker in one form or another; his 2018 post called “The Passion of Mathew Stafford” is a beautiful and brilliant 10-year retrospective on his career to that point.
As always, Neil saw straight through all the bullshit and captured the truth:
Neil died one day before Stafford led a team to a Super Bowl win, and four days before Stafford, wearing a ballcap and probably drunk, turned his back on a photographer who fell off a stage and broke her back trying to take his picture.
In fact, for much of the last year or two, Neil had been returning to his blogging roots. He was posting regularly on the him-only mirror of Armchair Linebacker; multiple times we publicly mused about doing a podcast special with former indie scenester Jeremy Reisman, now a credentialed Lions beat writer and the editor-in-chief of Pride of Detroit.
But Neil had also been struggling. All writers these days are frustrated at how much more difficult it is to get our work seen, even by those who signed up to read it. The Wild West Internet of the aughties has been tamed, colonized, professionalized. What was once a wide-open prairie where anyone could find anyone is now a concrete jungle of opaque algorithms and walled-garden apps.
That’s what prompted me to start this newsletter!
But Neil seemed to take it personally. His work had been about putting himself out there and finding community, and now none of his friends would even see anything he wrote unless he tagged us. And even though I’d long since taken a cue from him and been my authentic self online, that meant I’d made valuable connections with a ton of people who had no interest at all in lengthy, Hard-R rants about the Lions. It was hard to recommend his unfiltered, unedited work to everyone who followed me.
He seemed hurt and confused. All the colorful language he frequently deployed about mental illness and drug use edged into his Twitter feed in scary, autobiographical ways. Many friends and acquaintances reached out to him in one way or another; as I did so during one extended drug-fueled episode I realized I had no idea if he had anyone who could check on him, or even what city he lived in.
He’d spent over a decade writing millions of unflinching words about his deepest feelings, I’d thought, but he’d kept much more of himself private than I realized.
Over the last few months, he frequently Tweeted about love: how freely he loved, and how little he felt loved in return. How big a toll the loss of his father had taken. How hurt he was by his friends seeming to turn on him. It all seemed desperately lonely.
But now that he’s gone, I’ve found out he wasn’t alone at all.
His family was in close contact the entire time, loving and supporting him all the way. Some of his friends say he took their honest concern about his well-being as judgment about his lifestyle, and he turned away from them. He wanted people to love and accept him exactly as he was. He insisted he knew what he was doing, that he was in control of his life. That he was happy, and excited for the future:
But Neil had been fighting COVID for weeks. He’d been making, as he often put it, poor choices. From the outside, his unexpected death had seemed inevitable–but everyone closer to him that I’ve talked to, including family, is sure Neil’s death was not intentional.
But no matter the cause, he’s gone. And as much as I’ve tried to make this about him, I can’t extricate what made him special from what made him special to me. If our situations were reversed, I know he’d put every bit of his feelings about me on the page. I can’t do any less for him.
If there’s one bit of Neil Bulson’s work that encapulates who he is and why he mattered, it’s “The Great Willie Young.”
At the end of a series of posts dedicated to each new member of the Lions’ 2010 draft class, Neil came to a last-round pick named Willie Young–a “‘tweener” prospect who way too slim-bodied for the role Detroit wanted him to play. Many like him get cut at the end of training camp and are never heard from again.
So, with little info to go on and no real hope of him making any kind of impact, Neil wrote a 3,000-word fanfic of him as an immortal warrior:
Somehow Young not only made the team that year, but played eight seasons in the League. He registered 32 career sacks, including a 10-sack season in 2014. Neil kept the character up for years, chronicling all sorts of improbable and unmentionable folk-hero adventures along the way.
Late last year, Neil discovered Young is currently billing himself as “the great Willie Young” in his YouTube fishing videos.
It’s delightful. It’s ridiculous. It’s stupid. It’s genius. There is no way that Neil’s unsponsored, unedited, unhinged fan fiction about a skinny kid he’d never met from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida should have made its way to the guy himself and be appreciated. It just proves that even though many people aren’t in tune with Neil’s wavelength, the vibes he put out into the universe are real and true and resonate all the way down to the bones.
I wasn’t family. I wasn’t as close to him as Raven Mack, some of his other collaborators, or a few our mutual friends and readers from back in the day. Part of me still doesn’t think I’m worthy of speaking up about him like this when so many others are feeling his loss so much more keenly.
But I think it’s telling that on his tribute wall, someone already beat me to posting the same Hunter S. Thompson quote I was going to finish this tribute with:
# # #
If you’d like to contribute in some way, the family suggests donations in his name be made to the Rogel Cancer Center at the University of Michigan.
Longtime readers know I’m prone to tread a few boards now and then, and somehow I agreed to be in a show that went up right after the Super Bowl.
But I’m not actually treading the boards for Starlight Dinner Theatre’s run of “Guys & Dolls”–I’m the drummer! It’s my first time in the pit instead of onstage, and I’m having a blast. It doesn’t hurt that half the cast and crew are either found-family-level friends or actual literal family (including the stage manager, my wife Kelly, and our youngest Rae in the cast).
Opening night was Friday the 19th, and the early reviews are glowing. If you’re anywhere near Lansing over the next two weekends, come for Kelly’s “background projections of theatre scenes,” stay for my “real, mini-orchestra of six” and be delighted by the “general musical excellence” of this super talented cast.
I say this as a lifelong figure skating fan, the dad of a former competitive figure skater, and a FiveThirtyEight colleague of Dvora’s: read it, read it, read it.
Millionaire’s drinking, his sobriety, and his continuing of a life-defining work that was defined by drinking now that he doesn’t drink? It’s incredible story after incredible story, all wrapped up in an incredible story.
I don’t think Amro, a French Zelda streamer, made this extremely funny video of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man attempting to wall-crawl inside Breath of the Wild.
But they shared it, and it rules:
I try hard not to repeat people in Everything Awesome too often, but Lenz’s personal exploration of reading forbidden books is too good, too topical, and too personally resonant to leave out.
I can FEEL the bandwidth opening up now that we’re after the Super Bowl. I’m working on a novel-draft read for a critique partner, and another friend and I were discussing our problems with trying to resolve character arcs in a “rogue noble joins the revolutionaries” plot, which is a big part of my trunked project CODEX 17.
They asked to read it, and suddenly I was compiling a revised 1.5 draft of all the changes I’ve made? Setting me up to finally finish revisions? While I’m still chomping at the bit to finish A&A?!
Anyway, point is, progress continues.