The Tennessee Titans had a problem. The team’s practice facility was undergoing some summer renovations, which meant that when players arrived for training camp in July, the ultramodern TVs and PlayStations, common in every NFL locker room, were nowhere to be found.
So Taylor Lewan, the team’s starting left tackle and 2014 first-round draft pick, decided to take matters into his own hands, creating a teamwide phenomenon in the process.
“I brought my own Nintendo 64, my own controllers, everything,” Lewan said. Long snapper Beau Brinkley freaked out at the sight: “This was what I got for my birthday when I was 10.”
And so the Titans became addicted to Super Smash Bros. The fighting game, released in 1999, was a sensation in its time, and has lived on as a cult hit. On any given day, four Titans players can be found playing the game in the middle of the locker room, while a line of teammates looks on, waiting to get next. After an August practice, two TVs were set up near each other, with players reacting to the Super Smash Bros. moves on one set and a particularly raucous episode of Cops on the other, making the Titans locker room perhaps the most fun in the NFL.
The goal of the Super Smash Bros. is to defeat opponents in combat by knocking them off a stage. There are 12 characters to play as (four that must be unlocked), and when it comes to choosing one — be it Mario, Yoshi, Pikachu, Luigi, Captain Falcon, or Donkey Kong — players take their selection as seriously as a snap in the red zone.
According to Lewan, some Titans players are “dogshit awful,” and so he asks them (especially the rookies) to “play their role” to ensure his victories. He’s enlisted the help of one particular undrafted free agent, Nick Ritcher, a tackle out of Richmond, for this task. “He’ll just be Pikachu and he’ll shoot a lightning bolt over and over and over again and distract people and while he’s doing that, I’ll go fight the other guys.” (Lewan has also dubbed Richter “Marv” because he resembles Daniel Stern’s Home Alone character.)
Center Brian Schwenke said the team’s love of the game is an act of nostalgia: “We had all these PlayStations, and those will come back at some point, but we wanted to turn it back a bit.”
“The best thing about the N64 is that there’s no loading, just get up and go. The simplicity is what makes it fun. I mean, it’s a classic console — GoldenEye, Diddy Kong Racing, just classic,” said Brinkley, who claimed that if the players “have 10 minutes, we are going to get a quick game in.”
Lewan bought the Nintendo 64 while attending college at Michigan. He found a store where “kids buy trading cards and adults played those weird soldier games.” He bought a console there — refurbished ones still go for well over $100 — and some games, including Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party. He said three of his friends in his dorm were “unbelievable” at Super Smash Bros., so actually beating people at the game is a new feeling.
Players rave that Lewan has mastered the Super Smash Bros. character Ness, who can be unlocked with high achievements in the game. Ness has a baseball bat that can defeat an opponent with one swing and is considered one of the toughest characters to use properly — and to play against. “What sets Lewan apart is Ness,” Schwenke said. “If you can use Ness, that’s the ultimate.”
Schwenke said most of the Super Smash Bros. competitors come from the offensive and defensive lines, because those players’ lockers are closest to the television. But Schwenke thinks that nearly the entire team has played at some point. Three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo is “pretty solid” with Pikachu, according to Schwenke, and Brinkley, who may play more than anyone other than Lewan, is also good.
Brinkley, who actually prefers more advanced games like Call of Duty, said the team had been trying to find ways to be more competitive during downtime. The new collective bargaining rules implemented in 2011 have limited practice time, along with how much contact coaches can have with players during the offseason. Coach Mike Mularkey has staged cornhole and ping-pong tournaments, as well as basketball games. But for some players, those games are nonstarters. “I have no interest in shooting a basketball. I am terrible,” said the 318-pound Schwenke.
He claims to be the second-best Smash player on the team, after Lewan. However, Lewan said there is “no chance in hell that is true,” instead bestowing that title on Orakpo. Lewan is so good, he’s taken to playing two teammates at a time in a two-on-one battle. He compared it to taking on two defensive linemen at once. “But two defensive linemen is much harder.”