Why Do I Play This Game?

I’m a little behind on my posts and for that I apologize.  But the fact is it’s fantasy football season, so my writing output is going to suffer.

Yes, I am a Fantasy Football nerd.  Correction, I’m a fantasy sports nerd.  Last year, in addition to my two fantasy football leagues, I started a fantasy hockey league, played in a fantasy basketball league (and I don’t even watch the NBA), and created my own college bowl game pick ‘em league.

Yeah, I’m a dork.

I don’t know why I love fantasy sports so much.  It’s not like I’m all that good at them.  I won my very first fantasy football league 15 years ago but haven’t sniffed the title since.  Fourteen straight years without a title.  It’s not that I’m bad at fantasy football, it’s just that, despite all the hours I pour into it, I’m decidedly average.  It’s very frustrating.

To give you an idea of  how long I’ve been playing, when we started our league there weren’t online fantasy sites that kept score for you.  Nope, I did it all by hand.  I’d pick up a newspaper on my way to class every Monday morning and use the box scores to score while I was supposed to be paying attention in lecture.  (Which might explain why I have the dead end job I’m in now.  But that’s another story.)

In one of my favorite movies, Rounders, there’s a great quote about poker players:

Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.

This might be the truest statement I’ve ever read.  Looking back on that championship I won in 1996, I remember almost nothing of my championship team other than a few key players.  I don’t remember a single big win, can’t recall a single detail from that championship game.  What I do remember from that first season of fantasy sports was a devastating loss at the hands of my nemesis, Family Man:

We had battled it out through the weekend, and going into Monday Night Football it was still anybody’s ballgame.  We both had a big gun playing; I had Rod Smith at wide receiver (he would finish the year with 12 TDs and top 5 in WR fantasy points), and Family Man had Terrell Davis, the top running back in the game.

We watched the game together at his place.  Shit talk was flying back and forth with every carry or catch by one of our guys.  I was less than one touchdown down when John Elway hit Rod Smith on a deep crossing pattern and Smith broke away from his defender towards the end zone.  I was up out of my seat screaming and yelling and dancing and swearing as Smith streaked past the 30, the 20, the 10…  Finally, a safety caught up to him and dragged him down at the one yard line.

This is where fantasy football can be so cruel.  Normally, a wide receiver making a 54 yard catch down to the one yard line is a good thing.  But not when your fantasy opponent has the team’s running back.

One play later Terrell Davis ran in the score and sealed the game not just for the Denver Broncos but also for Family Man’s team.  I’ve still never forgotten that empty feeling when Smith got brought down at the goal line and I instantly knew I was finished.

Why do I play this game?

Another heartbreaking moment that many of you can relate to came in 2008, when I had drafted Tom Brady with my first pick.  Brady, coming off a record-setting 50 touchdown season, and never having missed a game due to injury in his career, had his season ended approximately 12 minutes into the year.  What’s worse, by this time I was playing in two fantasy leagues, and I had drafted Brady in both of them.

I remember the excitement of opening day, that optimism I feel every year that my team will lead me back to glory.  And I remember that moment when Bernard Pollard launched himself at Brady’s legs, shredding his ACL and my entire season in a single play.  It is one of the most vivid memories I have in 30+ years of watching football.  Why can’t I remember Florida State’s national championships as vividly as that horrible moment?

What did I do after that?  I immediately grabbed my cell phone and, too impatient to even power it down, ripped out the battery and threw the phone across the room before I could be inundated with texts and calls mocking my misfortune.  Yeah, my friends are assholes.

Why do I play this game?

But possibly my worst fantasy football moment occurred in 2000.  After several piss-poor seasons following my inaugural championship I had finally regained a small measure of self respect by making the playoffs.  I had a loaded backfield with three solid backs that could have started for most any fantasy team.  Unfortunately, you could only start two.

The week of my playoff matchup I poured over box scores and stats trying to determine which two backs to start.  After about three days of getting nothing done at work I thought I had made up my mind.  But, seeking reassurance, I emailed Family Man to get his thoughts.

Now, I will not blame Family Man for what happened to me, because it is my own fault for not trusting my instincts.  But I allowed Family Man to talk me out of starting one of my backs.

That running back’s name was Mike Anderson.  And that weekend he had one of the greatest games in NFL history.  251 yards.  4 touchdowns.  He very nearly outscored my opponent single handedly.  And he was sitting on my bench.

Again I ask, why do I play this game?

But despite all the misery, all the heartache and frustration and things thrown across my apartment, I still love fantasy football and will keep on playing.  Someday I might even win again.

But in the meantime, the frequency of my posts may suffer a bit.  For that I apologize.  Bear with me, by week 8 I should be eliminated from playoff contention and ready to resume my normal writing pace.

If you know of any good sleepers, email me.

Free Agents of Love

I have always contended that being in a relationship is akin to being a Restricted Free Agent.  The problem with this argument is 1) Most women don’t know what the hell a RFA is, and 2) Even most people who understand the NFL’s CBA can’t quite grasp the concept of someone in a committed relationship being a “free agent.”  So, for the sake of both women who don’t understand free agency and men who don’t understand relationships, here is the definitive comparison of relationships to the world of professional sports contract negotiations.

#1) When you’re single, you’re an Unrestricted Free Agent (duh).  This is the most obvious analogy.  When you’re single you’re free to pursue any team (i.e. piece of tail) you want to fall in the sack with.  Whether that team is interested in you is a different matter.  Occasionally a truly coveted asset will find themselves a UFA (at the end of a long contract, or due to a parting of ways with your old team), but usually if you’re an Unrestricted Free Agent it’s because nobody thinks you’re worth a whole helluva lot.

#2) When you enter into a relationship you become a Restricted Free Agent.  Although you are technically with someone, you are free to explore other options, you just can’t act upon them without giving fair warning to your partner.  In other words, the person you are dating has “right of first refusal.”  Although you are not locked into anything (you can be free as a bird with one simple break up conversation), societal norms and common decency demand that you inform your current partner of any outside offers and give them the chance to match that offer.

“Matching” an offer can take many different forms.  Maybe your partner isn’t fulfilling your needs– mentally, emotionally or sexually.  Maybe you have a chance with someone so ridiculously hot and out of your league that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  Or maybe you’ve been offered a chance at a threesome.  These are all perfectly legitimate reasons to consider signing up with another team.  But remember, you have to give your current team a chance to match the offer.  And who knows, maybe your girlfriend will surprise you and match your threesome just to keep you under contract!

#3) Sometimes, after a lengthy courtship and months or even years of dating, there comes a point where you have to make a drastic decision on the course of your future.  It’s put up or shut up time.  You either have to walk away from the relationship or move to the next level.  That next level, of course, is getting engaged.  This is the equivalent of the Franchise Tag.  In football, teams can slap the Franchise Tag on a player and lock them up for one more year, during which time the player gets paid very handsomely (the average of the top 5 players at his position), and they are unable to look elsewhere or even talk to another team for that year.

The only difference between getting engaged and the Franchise Tag is that both parties have a say in getting engaged.  One person proposes, the other either accepts or denies.  With the Franchise Tag a team applies it to a player and there’s nothing they can do about it for one year.  But other than that they’re identical.  When you’re Franchised or engaged, there’s really no way out.  Breaking an engagement can be done, but it’s a long and painful process.  It will require alienating not just your partner but all of his/her family, all your mutual friends, everyone that bought you an engagement gift, etc. etc.  In other words, the “fans.”  For all intents and purposes you’re locked in for about a year.

If you’re happy with this arrangement, great.  This is just the first step to a long term deal.  If you prove your worth to your mate, then you’re ready for the next step…

#4) Marriage is the proverbial Long Term Contract.  Unless you’re a celebrity or you were drunk in Vegas, there’s no quick and easy way out of marriage.  Even if everything goes to total shit within two weeks of getting hitched, you can count on a couple years of pain and suffering before you can finally break out of that multi-year deal.  Basically, you’re stuck.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound too terrible.  Most marriages, like most Long Term Contracts, are mutually beneficial to both sides, make both parties extremely happy, and bring years of joy to not just both parties involved but their “fans” too.  But the fact remains that you’re locked in.  Don’t even think about looking to greener pastures.  To do so will only harm your relationship irrevocably and damage what should be the best years of your playing career.

#5) The Long Term Contract is important for another reason too.  Most all athletes will at some point suffer a serious injury that threatens their career.  A long term deal gives you security that you won’t be left without a team, alone and penniless.

In the Game of Life, pregnancy is that serious injury.  It’s a season-ending and possibly career-threatening injury.  How’s that, you ask?  Simple.  For women it’s fairly obvious: pregnancy ravages your body for at least 9 months, and some women just never recover their looks period.  On top of that, emotionally it makes you a wreck.  And lastly, having a kid is like tying a ball and chain round your ankle; any man who isn’t the father is going to view that excess baggage with a wary eye before jumping into any sort of Long Term Contract.  Not saying it can’t happen, but the deck is stacked against you.

For men, the damage to your body isn’t as severe (although who doesn’t know a man that let his workouts go to shit as soon as he was a daddy?), but the emotional component and the baggage of being a single dad are just as prevalent for a man as a woman.

So there you have it.  Everything in sports is a life analogy.  Or, more precisely, everything in life is a sports analogy.  Now get out there and find your Long Term Contract!

Edit: It’s been brought to my attention that the final line of my post (the “get out there and find your LTC.”) could be construed as gushy, sappy and I-want-to-fall-in-love-ish.  That was not my intent at all.  Remember, this is the guy who’s been single for over 98% of his life.  I’m not good at relationships, and what’s more, I do not believe AT ALL in trying to force one.  When it happens it happens.  That last line was just my normal, typical smart ass sense of humor.  I apologize if I made anyone feel like I was pimping for Hallmark.

Devastating Losses

Going into yesterday’s game, I thought the prospect of my beloved Bears losing to the dreaded Packers in the NFC Championship game would be the most demoralizing of all possible scenarios in my entire life.  I mean, the evil Packers, hoisting Papa Bear Halas’ own trophy in our own stadium?  Unthinkable.  Suicide-inducing.

And I’m not gonna lie, the loss hit me like a heavyweight’s body blows.  Every big 3rd down conversion by Aaron Rodgers; every blown opportunity by not one, not two, but three different Bears quarterbacks, they were all like daggers.  Every shitty, second-rate high school play call by the so-called genius Mike Martz; every punt by the Pack downed inside the 10 yard line. (Who the hell is that punter anyway?  I’ve never seen a punter dominate a game so thoroughly.)

But after sitting in my darkened apartment for a couple hours, iPod blaring the angriest music I could find, I realized that this loss really wasn’t as bad as some I’ve experienced in my life.  Not nearly as gut wrenching as some, not by a long shot.

So now, for your reading pleasure, I present the five most devastating losses in my life:

#5- February 14, 1998.  West Lafayette, IN.  College Basketball.  #8 Purdue 75, Illinois 72

 Although the Illini would later back their way into a share of the Big Ten title, at the time this loss seemingly cost them their first conference crown in 14 years.  Worst of all, the loss was caused almost entirely by bad officiating.  Purdue outshot the Illini 37-7 at the foul line (37-9 actually, but I’m not counting the two foul shots on Gene Keady’s technical foul, which he intentionally drew to fire up the home crowd).  And yet the gritty Illini still clawed back from a double digit deficit to tie the game at 70 before finally falling.

And I have a more personal reason for the game causing me such pain.  This was back before I was the veteran alcoholic you see before you.  At that point in my life I might have been drunk twice.  Ever.  And a friend of mine took advantage of my moment of weakness and got me the drunkest I have ever been in my life.  In all honesty, I’m pretty sure I had alcohol poisoning.  Threw up for an entire day and I think I was still drunk 16 hours later.  I had a hangover for about two and half days.  I probably should have died.

#4- June 19, 1999.  NHL Hockey.  Buffalo, NY.  Dallas Stars 2, Buffalo Sabres 1 (3OT)

Yes, I’m a hockey fan.  I won’t apologize.  And a Buffalo Sabres fan.  I know most of you don’t care, but this was one of the greatest robberies in sports history.  With the Stanley Cup on the line, Dallas leading the series 3-2, game 6 was an absolute classic.  It was well into the 3rd overtime, almost six hours of edge-of-your-seat drama, when Brett Hull finally put the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in the back of the net.

But here’s the problem: the goal shouldn’t have counted.  I’ll try to keep this simple for you non-hockey fans, but basically in 1999 it was ILLEGAL for a player to be in the crease (that’s the blue ice around the goal) unless the puck was also already in the blue paint.   As you can see in the picture above, the puck was clearly not in the blue paint.  And Hull’s skate clearly was in the crease.

The NHL reviewed literally every single goal in the 1999 season.  Roughly 1300 games throughout the entire regular season and playoffs.  And yet, with the Stanley Cup on the line, the most important goal of the season was not reviewed and the Dallas Stars were awarded a Stanley Cup they didn’t earn.

#3- September 23, 2000.  Champaign, IL. #10 Michigan 35, #19 Illinois 31

Another game stolen by the officials.  (I think that’s a trend.  Losing fair and square hurts, but you can live with it.  Getting screwed just leaves a sickening feeling inside you that never goes away.)  This was the game that brought instant replay to college football.  The officials blew three fumble calls (all in Michigan’s favor) in the final 6 minutes to hand the game to the Wolverines.  The next year the Big Ten instituted the first instant replay.  Within another year or two it had become the rule all across Division I-A.  Too bad it took the Big Ten blatantly stealing a game from Illinois for it to come to fruition.

#2- April 4, 2005.  St. Louis, MO.  College Basketball.  #2 North Carolina 75, #1 Illinois 70

The National Championship.  The culmination of the greatest season in Illinois sports history.  A team of unbelievable will and character.  Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head, James Augustine, Roger Powell, Jack Ingram.  Even today just their names make me smile.

I could blame this one on the refs too.  James Augustine, who didn’t foul out of a game all year, played just 9 minutes and drew 5 fouls.  But although the officiating was pretty shitty, the reality is the Illini played probably their worst game of the year at the wrong time.  Just 12 of 40 from the 3-point line (and it was a lot worse than that before they made a furious run in the last couple minutes).

I’ll go to my grave believing that if this had been a best-of-7 series like the NBA, Carolina would have been lucky to get to game 6.  The Illini would have run them out of the building on almost any other night.  But unfortunately all that matters is that one night in April.

The worst moment of all came right after the game.  Walking out of the dome in St. Louis, I walked by a warehouse that had, no shit, at least 30,000 “Illinois National Champs” T-shirts ready to sell.  I almost started crying right there.

#1- February 21, 2007.  Champaign, IL.  College Basketball.  Illinois 54, Michigan 42

What, an Illinois victory is the most devastating loss ever?  Well, yes.  Because 2/21/07 will always go down as the last time Chief Illiniwek ever represented the University of Illinois as its honored symbol.

It would take me days to finish my rant on the political correct bullshit that led to the death of the most honored and revered mascot in all of sports.  So I’ll just say this: I cried like a baby during that last dance.  And after the game, I walked out of the Assembly Hall and haven’t been to a university event since.  I didn’t lose a ballgame that day, I lost my alma mater, the school I had cheered for since before I could walk.

I’m fairly fortunate in that I haven’t had a great deal of tragedy in my life, I haven’t had any truly close family or friends die yet.  But I can still say without a doubt that Feb 21st, 2007 was the worst day of my life.

RIP, Chief.

Da Bears!

I am a Chicago Bears fan.  I wish I wasn’t but I am.  It’s how I was raised.

Being a Bears fan is like being in an abusive relationship.  They keep hurting me and hurting me, and yet I can’t bring myself to leave them.  Yes, I suffer from Battered Wife Syndrome.

By any reasonable measure, the Bears should have a cakewalk this weekend.  Facing the only team to ever make the playoffs with a losing record?  But I’ve had a sick feeling in my stomach since about Wednesday.  I’m absolutely terrified, because I’ve seen them shit the bed before.  ’05 against the Panthers and ’01 against the Eagles come to mind just as recent examples.

So tomorrow I’ll be locked in my apartment, phone off, sweating through another big game.  Waiting for my beloved Bears to break my heart and my spirit yet again.

Here’s hoping this is the year it all changes…