I’ve skydived, fast-roped from a helicopter and drunkenly leaped from the roof of a two-story apartment building into a pool – none of which matches the thrill of rubbing a friend’s face in shit after I beat him in a fantasy football game.
I’m not the nerd at the bar wearing an XXXL-sized throwback Redskins jersey. I’m the nerd constantly refreshing the web browser on my smartphone to update stats on CBSSports.com, the one mysteriously cheering for Olindo Mare to shank a field goal because it would form the margin of victory over my weekend foe, the one who’s screaming at the bartender for the Texans-Seahawks game to be shown on the big screen TV because I think I can make Arian Foster run faster if I see him better.
Who loves Plaxico Burress? I did for one weekend, bitches, when he caught three TD passes against San Diego in Week 8 last season. Who loves Tim Tebow aside from his mom and apparently Mark Sanchez? I did, when Tebow threw for two TDs and ran for another as the bye week replacement for my usual starter – pretty boy Tom Brady, who propelled me to second place last season. Ah-h-h, feels like yesterday. I’m aroused. Hug me.
This is a sickness for which there is no cure, nor do I want one. If the NFL is part of “The Matrix,” I’m the bald guy who wanted to be brainwashed and returned to a pod because the prospect of being chased by genocidal robots for the rest of my life sucked.
Now, substitute genocidal robots with homicidal wives and girlfriends incensed that football – pro or college – is televised on Sundays … Mondays … Wednesdays (sometimes) … Thursdays … Fridays (do Mountain West Conference games count?) … Saturdays (yeah baby, college football) … and of course, Sundays. Yes, I mentioned Sundays twice – Sundays are awesome-awesome.
I grew up on a steady diet of USC football, engorged with cardinal and gold spirit as I walked across campus with my brother on our way to Saturday afternoon games, echoes of “Fanfare” in the background, everyone wearing Trojan garb waving “V” signs for victory, kicking the base of the flagpoles on Jefferson Boulevard for good luck. All the games seemed so life-and-death because a single loss could put anyone out of the running for the national championship, the Pac-10 title or a New Year’s Day Bowl – so every game felt like a playoff game.
But on Sunday mornings, with my throat still raw from cheering on the Trojans the day before, I would turn on the TV to find primadonnas in pads strutting like peacocks after touchdowns, weird fans wearing game-day outfits made from kitchen appliances, aloof owners who watched their investment play out not on the field, but in the number of luxury boxes and seats they could fill. Though I have always been a Raiders fan, the overall environment of the NFL felt greedy and boring.
Things changed in 1997, when I joined my first fantasy football league; I’m still a member of the same league, minus a few seasons due to deployments. We play for money – the winner gets over a grand, the runner-up about five Benjamins and third place essentially gets his money back. The loser of the Toilet Bowl – a matchup of the worst two teams in the league – actually has to pay more money into the pot. A quick primer about fantasy football can be found here, but the bottom line is you draft a team from among the NFL’s players and manage the team throughout the regular season. Your team goes head-to-head against others, and players score (or lose) points based on their statistical performance – yards, TDs, field goals, safeties (negative points for interceptions and fumbles).
Everything about the NFL became important. I began scanning the two-deep rosters of perennial bottom-dwellers like the Seahawks and Browns, and the injury report became regular Sunday morning reading. Likewise with practically every Twitter or blog-based rumor that emerged from media-generated locker room dramas, which played out like a guy’s version of a telenovela. Anything to get an information edge.
The core group of my fantasy league’s players consists of college fraternity brothers, childhood friends and relatives. They include four brothers from the same family, one father-son combo, one father/son-in-law pair and a flaky co-owner duo that manages its team by auto pilot (hooray for the easy win).
We are all professionals of some sort – businessmen, a lawyer, chiropractor, school principal, singer and an unsung ex-actor who for a while made a tidy living off TV game shows – but when the fantasy season begins in August, we become professional assholes. A little-watched TV show on the FX network called “The League” captures the environment perfectly – a bunch of childish nimrods who get satisfaction not from winning, but from being bad winners.
If I said fantasy football has reinforced the value of friendship, I’d be lying. In reality, it has harnessed my worst instincts and emotions – a cutthroat, win-at-any-cost obsessive compulsiveness that consumes me from August to January. The insidiousness begins when the draft order is published and we begin to putting out feelers to friends to determine their draft day intentions. I imagine it’s a little like what a spy does, pretending to be interested in idle chit-chat – “Your lawn is so green. Do you use fertilizer?” (I don’t give a shit) – before slipping in, “Who do you think you’ll take with your pick?” Keep talking because I’m taking mental notes, memorizing your silly scribbles on your preseason fantasy football guru magazine, spreading disinformation, scheming, strategizing. It’s like the HBO series “Game of Thrones” without the sex and violence … so I guess it’s not like “Game of Thrones” at all.
We have managed to coordinate most of our schedules to pick our teams in person, a far cry from the virtual drafts most leagues conduct. Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Austin and Rosarito (no donkey) have been past destinations. We return to Vegas for the 2012 draft on the first weekend in August.
As you can imagine, drafts become a mosh pit of booze-soaked ridicule and smack talk. Don’t be the moron who thinks Amani Toomer is still an elite player (or even alive). It’s probably not a good idea to pick a player who suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason, got pinched for beating his baby mama or was exiled to Cleveland. Stupid draft day moves are penalized with a shot, drafting anyone from UCLA or Notre Dame earns you a shot, and paradoxically, good draft picks can be celebrated with a shot.
We actually had one fight at a draft: Our beleaguered, now graying commissioner had his head introduced to a mirrored wall by one of our best friends. I remember an easy chair getting tipped over, black-clad bouncers rushing in and, worst of all, my beer spilling. (They hugged it out a little later, but no more tequila for them). Another of my best friends threw a phone at my face – a phone is not soft! We did not hug it out afterward and payback is a bitch.
The draft in Palm Springs, held at an oasis-like resort, concluded with our resident golf stud mumbling the lyrics of a rap song – “party, party, party … everyone wanna party …” – stumbling around a fairway at twilight. When he tried to walk up a steep hill toward a sand trap to retrieve his beer, he rolled backward like a boulder and crumpled at the bottom in a heap. He seemed comfortable, so we left him in the dark to go to dinner. Vegas drafts can be dangerous, especially when you’re a gambling savant such as myself. I picture a few of us crowded around a high-roller blackjack table with Michael Jordan, smoke from MJ’s Cuban cigar clouding the entire pit area, laughing about Kobe Bryant’s “Dream Team” comments, then abruptly screaming at him: “MJ, you gotta hit a soft 17! You can’t play third base anymore. Andy, take over!”
We appear to melt back into our ordinary lives after the draft, but don’t be surprised if our computers’ browser histories are crowded with repeated visits to CBSSports.com, NFL.com and AdultFriendFinder.com (oh, sorry Jim). Phones may buzz a little more often with texted smack talk (“grab your ankles, it only hurts the first time …”).
And Monday nights, when fantasy football matchups are often decided, may be punctuated with sinister, maniacal laughter when my team, the Red Dongs, notch another victory.