Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fantasy fulfilled

Three years ago, Matt recruited me to his fantasy football league.

Not because I was a football fan. In fact, that was the point: He wanted to turn me into one and thought this was the ticket.

It was a stroke of genius, actually. We’d been together through enough NCAA tournament bracket contests for him to know that just a little money on the line throws my competitive nature and attention span into high gear.

My fantasy involvement would get me watching football games, he reasoned, and as I watched I’d learn the rules by immersion, grow attached to some of the players and eventually, I guess, yell things like “Unnecessary roughness!” at the TV screen.

Matt actually belongs to two fantasy football leagues, or as I like to call them, leagues of dorks. (He has quite a bit of company – an estimated 14 million Americans play fantasy football. Many of them manage their teams on company time, costing U.S. companies an estimated $10 billion per year in lost productivity, according to Chicago employment consulting firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. And did you know there’s such a thing as fantasy football conventions? It’s all a little disturbing. But I digress.)

Anyway, Matt was convinced of fantasy football’s allure. But convincing me took a little more work.

The first item on his agenda was to assure me that drafting a fantasy team was easier than it seemed. All I knew was his approach: untold hours researching players, reading analysis and pondering strategy.

He was unusually diligent, he told me; plenty of people relied on widely available “cheat sheets” – rankings of players by position – for the initial draft as well as weekly team management: whom to play, whom to bench, whom to trade. It’s not the most respectable way to manage, but it will get you a decent team.

Next, he started relaying anecdotes about some of the more likable players’ personal lives: This one has been married to his high school sweetheart for 13 years; that one kicked his drug habit and started a foundation for underprivileged kids. He theorized that the more fond I felt of individual athletes, the more enthusiastic I’d be about watching them pound each other into the ground. (Inexplicably, this proved true.)

I drafted a pretty good team, learned how to propose trades and began to pick up on some of the finer points of fantasy etiquette. Matt started making comments like “We’re living in an era of runningback by committee” that a year earlier would have made just as much sense if he’d said them in French.

This is the thing about fantasy football: It requires enough strategy and skill to warrant pride on the good days, yet involves enough luck to deflect blame on the bad days. Of which I had many.

After one particularly disheartening day for my fantasy team, Matt e-mailed me an excerpt from a column by’s Matthew Berry (whose official title, I kid you not, is senior director of fantasy sports).

“[ESPN analyst] Tim Hasselbeck plays in a league with his brother [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Matt. Matt owns himself and [Minnesota Vikings quarterback] Brett Favre. Two weeks ago, Matt BENCHED HIMSELF for Brett. Matt wound up with four touchdown passes and a much better fantasy day than Brett,” Berry wrote. “When the guy who will actually be executing the plays and knows the game plan doesn’t know ... We’re all just trying our best to make smart, educated guesses. Nature of the game.”

Matt may not have expected that three years into this venture there still would be so many rules I don’t know and plays I don’t follow. For a sport associated with remedial academics and large quantities of light beer, there is a lot to learn.

I’m making progress, though. I was grateful for my increased football knowledge when I interviewed NFL cheerleaders for an article, and again when friends invited us to watch a game with them in the Carolina Panthers owner's box, surrounded by rabid fans.

Most importantly, Project Football Fan Wife pays off every time Claire naps while Matt and I huddle – excuse me, cuddle – on the couch with football on the TV and StatTracker on a nearby computer. I can honestly say that football-filled fall afternoons have become a source of anticipation rather than resentment.

Well played, Matt.

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