Fantasy world: Football league provides another way to enjoy the game

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2019

Another football season is coming to a close, and that means that my four-month addiction each year is over … until September rolls around again.

It’s called Fantasy Football, and I haven’t been able to find a cure since joining a league 24 years ago.

I’m not alone. The fantasy sports craze, led by football, has continued to gain momentum — particularly in the days after the internet took hold and social media became a way of life. In my research, I discovered somewhere around 60 million people play fantasy sports in the United States, which translates into more than 20 percent of Americans involved.

For those who don’t know, fantasy football is a game where the participants serve as general managers of a virtual professional team where they choose players in a draft in which all players of a real football league are available.

The first league — the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League — was created in 1962 by one of the individuals with a financial stake in the NFL’s Raiders, who finished 1-13 that year.

The new game apparently spread by word of mouth to bars and workplaces and really started to take off when ESPN’s SportsCenter became so popular and showed highlights of long touchdown passes and other plays that fed the fantasy fever. It has since become an epidemic with leagues being started online — with the ability to follow the stats in real time – through all kinds of avenues.

When I first came aboard in 1995 in a league at the News & Record in Greensboro where I worked at the time, the internet was in the early stages, and we were still having to tally the scores by hand as they came across the Associated Press wire or in the daily newspaper after the completion of the games each week.

I’ve always been a big NFL fan — the Pittsburgh Steelers have always been my team — but struggled with how I would handle it if my fantasy team was playing a team featuring a Steelers’ player and then having to actually pull against him.

One solution was to draft as many Pittsburgh players as possible for my team, but you can’t have them all, and sometimes there is a better player at the position you are trying to fill. So I learned over time to hope the other Steelers that weren’t on the team I was playing against would score against me and just shake it off if a Pittsburgh player on the opposing fantasy team scored — knowing it was helping my “real” team.

It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on my new hobby. I named my team “Blitzburgh” after the swarming Steelers’ defense of the mid-1990s.

I learned quickly that you have to draft well before the season, stay on top of things by adding players weekly through the transactions process to improve your roster and make trades when needed.

In our 10-team league, which started in 1986 and still has two charter members, I finished second in my first season and then won back-to-back championships the next two years, including the league’s all-time league record for most points scored in a season in 1996.

Denver running back Terrell Davis was the anchor behind those teams as he led the Broncos to Super Bowl wins, and Green Bay’s Brett Favre was my quarterback in the record-setting season.

All of our league’s records aren’t complete, as we made the conversion to online with CBS Sports in 2005, but I leveled off after my fast start. Still, I have added two more championships over the years with more wins than losses.

Actually, I thought it was more challenging when I first entered the league when there wasn’t the steady stream of information that is now available everywhere. You can go online and go to a few sites or listen to some podcasts and have everything you need, even if you don’t know a thing about the game. Back in the day, you had to pay attention, watch the games and keep up with newspapers and weekly sports publications to have an edge.

Winning is always the goal, but the long-lasting friendships — and trash talking among owners — adds to the enjoyment.

It certainly changes the way you watch the games. In fantasy, you’re watching individual players instead of teams, although I still follow the Steelers as a team and enjoy the actual games and ultimate outcomes, too.

My wife has never understood my obsession with fantasy football. After all, it’s called “fantasy” for a reason.

“I don’t know why you get so upset,” she often says after one of my players falls just short of the goal line or I have a touchdown nullified by a penalty. “You don’t have any control of what happens.”

She’s right, but I can’t change. After all these years, it’s a habit I just can’t break.