Gary Speed had already left Newcastle United by the time I began obsessing over the club.
I knew his name from playing FIFA video games when I started to get into European club football in the early 2000s and noticed him whenever I watched Bolton. I thought he was a pretty damn good player, especially for someone in his late 30s. But I had no real emotional connection to him. I suspect there are quite a few football fans around the world who would say the same thing.
So why, then, do we feel genuinely distraught over Speed's death? Why do I find myself wiping away tears while reading quotes from those who knew Speed? And why does a Manchester United fan in the middle of Wisconsin look like he's been sucker punched when I tell him of the news?
I can't think of many American athletes in any sport who are as universally admired as Speed apparently was in the football community. Usually someone who plays 23 years at the professional level tends to rub at least a few observers the wrong way. But the tributes to Speed from fans, former teammates and coaches all tell a similar story: He was a model professional on the field and a genuinely nice guy off of it. That combination isn't easy to find.
So if there's one thing that makes sense in this horrible, confusing story, it's this: Football isn't just about what jersey you're wearing on a particular day; it's about playing the game the right way. Based on the millions of tears that have been shed in his memory, it's clear Gary Speed understood that.