You don't really make friends on the internet. We maintain friendships on the internet, just by communicating and helping out and exchanging jokes and Houston Astros GIFs as friends do. We can identify affinities with people on Twitter or message boards or (and I can't imagine this, but sure) comment sections. The relationships we make in the online world's semi-real space -- instant and more distant than arm's length; conversational and silent -- are only as real as their environment.
So I can say that while I exchanged something like 65 emails with Jeff Cantrell over the course of writing several stories on his quest to get GWAR the halftime gig at the 2015 Super Bowl, and while I enjoyed every one of those exchanges, I didn't really know the guy. I know what his voice sounded like, but only because I hooked him up with a radio producer I know in Seattle; the show had him on for a deliriously great segment that revealed Cantrell to be as winning out loud as he was online.
But although we both enjoyed our correspondence enough to keep it going even when he took a breather from the whole #GWARBowl endeavor a month or so ago, I don't know that I can say that Jeff and I were friends. We never met, and never really came that close to meeting. I think this is part of why I felt so sad at the news, on Friday afternoon, that Cantrell had died suddenly, late Thursday night. The bigger part of it, of course, is that it's sad that he won't be around for his wife and family and friends, and also to continue to push on with his sprung quest to have the most disgusting band in the world blast stage blood (and, um, other stage fluids) all over the meticulously branded spectacle that is the Super Bowl. The sadness I'm feeling most acutely right now, though, is that I would have liked to have been his friend.
I imagine you would have, too, if you are the sort of person who likes other people. I knew very little about Cantrell beyond the fact that he did video stuff and lived in the West Virginia-adjacent part of Kentucky, and that he had a unique and wonderful sense of humor. You never know what to expect from email correspondence with someone whose address has a "69" in it and ends in hotmail.com, but Cantrell's emails were little bits of goofy, exclamatory art: reliably both wry and ribald, with an emotional tone unfailingly somewhere between a bear hug and two bear hugs.
I could never quite figure out if he really thought GWAR might play the Super Bowl, although I suspect he knew it wasn't going to happen. But he wasn't trolling in a put-on character, either: he knew this was a great idea, and if he knew that it was impossible, he also knew that it was hilarious and so very much worth the doing. The NFL, being the NFL, gave him an email address and a name to which he was to address some questions, and never gave him anything else.
But he pushed on, and more and more people signed his Change.org petition and he planned some new ways to get the NFL to pay attention to his dream, even if it was just to issue a press release reading, "Dude, obviously not." Cantrell had been in touch with the man behind Improv Everywhere, and was considering some sort of happening at NFL headquarters. Jeff went so far as to post a Craigslist ad in New York looking for participants, but made it so vague -- he wanted to surprise the NFL -- that it got no response. In one of our later emails, he made his first concession to the grim reality of the NFL's humorlessness: he'd decided that it would be okay if GWAR played the Pro Bowl instead of the Super Bowl. He really did want the NFL to hear him out, and Greg Aiello responded by blocking the @GWARBowl account on Twitter.
The last email I got from Cantrell was on Thanksgiving. He and his wife had gone to a GWAR show earlier in the month, but he mentioned that he "had to slow down a bit (finally made my first ER visit!!)." He ran some new ideas by me, reiterated his desire to achieve "Double Yankovic" -- twice as many signatures on his petition as on this one advocating for Weird Al to play the Super Bowl -- and wished me an "awesome T-day"; I told him to take care of himself, expressed my certainty that he'd achieve Double Yankovic (he did), and wished good things back at him, and that was that.
I am not communicating what I want to communicate, I fear, because I only know so much about him; the nature of our relationship and the medium in which it unfolded ensured as much. But here's a last thing that might help you understand. Cantrell changed his email signature frequently, although it was generally themed around Things You Should Know About Me. Here's how it read in that last email:
1) I have excellent phone skills, to the point that other hill children would say, "Why you talk like that?"
2) A level I made for Warcraft II was included on the CD that came with PC Gamer (it was the one with Hexen II demo on it).
3) I love "Evil Dead" so much that I spent two spring breaks in college going the real place where it was filmed in Tennessee.
4) I caused international unrest by asking for GWAR to be at the 2015 Super Bowl.
5) Robocop offered to buy me from my mother (well, it was Peter Weller).
Who would not want to be friends with that person? Who but the NFL could resist this person? So: rest in peace to one of the more interesting men I never knew, and thanks.
Here's a link set up by one of Cantrell's friends for donations to the American Heart Association in Cantrell's name.