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Chapter One: Last Season
"Dude, I get more f****ing e-mails from you than from the girl I'm seeing!"
This was the exasperated, fourteen-word e-mail that told me once and for all, like a bucket of freezing-cold water to the face, that I had officially become a fantasy football junkie.
It was December 2002 and I was desperately trying to make a deal before the trade deadline cut me off. My target was my friend, former coworker, and Felon Fantasy League-mate, Mark "Big Dog" Moll, co-owner of the eponymous Big Dogs. You see, my team Acme Fantasy Football, Inc., named in honor of the perpetually frustrated cartoon character Wile E. Coyote was 6-4 and tied with three other squads for the last of four coveted FFL playoff slots. But I was way behind in total points, our league's first tiebreaker. I knew I couldn't pull ahead and make the playoffs without acquiring a total stud and having an absolutely huge final four weeks. Enter Mr. Total Stud, Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes. I sent Big Dog approximately sixteen e-mails within the span of, oh, three minutes, frantically trying to get him to trade me Priest for near-stud Buffalo Bills running back Travis Henry whom I didn't really need now that Saints RB Deuce McAllister had emerged into a weekly stud and Quincy Morgan, the Cleveland Browns receiver who had just had a not-a-chance-in-hell-will-he-do-it-again 118-yard, 2-TD game against Jacksonville. Sell high.
Henry and Morgan for Priest was a very fair deal. And by very fair, I mean that I was trying to rob my friend blind. Undeterred by being compared to his latest love interest, I sent Big Dog e-mail number seventeen, the cloak of cyberspace allowing me to grin like Beelzebub himself while typing. "You need a stud receiver," I reasoned, "and I need a stud running back. Henry's almost as good as Priest this year, and Morgan steps right into your starting lineup at wide receiver." Then I added every savvy owner's favorite trade-talk phrase: "This deal helps both teams."
But Big Dog was one of the more obstinate traders in our league, and, dammit, he just wasn't biting. His reply came swiftly and cracked me across the cheek like a mean-ass bitch-slap. "Lucky me," his e-mail read, dripping with sarcasm. "You've got some serious free time on your hands, my friend."
I hated it when they said that! I knew I spent more time on fantasy football than most of the other owners in my league combined. I knew that visiting fantasy football message boards and chatting with total strangers about strategy, trades, and lineups officially made me the league's lone total fantasy geek. My devotion to the game was all too evident.
But the truth was I didn't have much free time on my hands at all. I was way behind schedule on a couple of print ads I was supposed to be writing for behemoth tax/audit consultant Deloitte & Touche, a client of the Connecticut ad agency for whom I was working at the time. Not that writing ads was splitting the atom visual of earnest-looking Deloitte employee; cheesy headline touting said earnestness; and earnest corporate tagline "The answer is the people of Deloitte & Touche," which would be a logical response to "Which giant accounting firm do I really not want to write ads for anymore?" but it nevertheless required some effort. Still, that didn't stop me from pouring all of my valuable time into my fantasy football team.
There was simply nothing more important in the world than acquiring Priest Holmes from Big Dog. Not the health of my wife or family. Not the growing nuclear threat in North Korea, or al Qaeda. Not Martha Stewart's legal troubles, SARS, or the disturbing number of Ashton Kutcher-related news stories dominating supermarket checkout lanes. And sure as hell not the Deloitte ad I wasn't writing at the moment.
No, my only lucid thought on that December day was trying to beat Big Dog into submission until he finally caved and said, OK, for the love of God, I'll give you Priest for a couple pieces of string...a sack of used jockstraps...anything! Just stop e-mailing me!
After I presented the deal from thirty-four different angles, he finally e-mailed me the words I had been dreading from the very start: "I have to talk to Erik." This is fantasy football code for "I'll say anything right now to get you to stop harassing me, you fucking psycho, and I'll even pretend to bring it up with my co-owner. But I can tell you right now there is no way in hell we're making this trade."
Priest Holmes was the missing link to something that, over the preceding five seasons, had become my personal Holy Grail: winning the Felon Fantasy League Super Bowl. Not that we had a trophy or anything Grail-ish the winner just got $600 in cash, which I'd gladly accept, but always considered pretty unimaginative. Countless leagues across the country had trophies the winner could proudly set on his desk at work or on his mantel at home or, to really rub it in on his vanquished league-mates, have surgically attached to his head.
That said, it wasn't a trophy or a big pile of money that mattered: it was what a league championship would have represented to me vindication. It was the reward I wanted for five years of being the most devoted, hands-on GM in the league. (Note: we fantasy football players like to call ourselves GMs, short for "general managers," possibly because having a lofty imaginary title makes us feel less guilty for blowing off the work required by the titles on our real-life business cards.) Yes, in the last half decade I'd reeled in one third-place finish, two sixth-place finishes, and, in the utterly forgettable, injury-plagued 2000 season, a dismal ninth. And if I didn't do something to change my fortunes for the 2002 season, I well, I didn't know what would happen. But it would no doubt involve lots of sulking, followed by lots of swearing, followed, inevitably, by my cranium exploding.
Even worse, another failed season and I might have to come to terms with my identity as a loser. For once in my life, I was actually giving a 100 percent effort, and I didn't know if I could take still coming up short. Let me explain by giving you a brief history of one Mark St. Amant, competitor:
Grade school I was the kid who just wanted to make friends with everyone, hated confrontation, and always made sure everyone was included in the kickball games from the shy, bookish girls with a mortal fear of flying red, rubber balls, to the weird, pale, unathletic boys who typically wandered alone near the woods eating bugs, studying their own hands, or staring up at nimbus cloud formations. And if it took sitting out my turn at "bat" so someone else could have a chance to play, so be it.
High school I was the kid who was satisfied with C-plus/B-minus grades, i.e., good enough to get by, but not so great that they were a result of actually trying. I got the occasional A in things that piqued my interest: creative writing, English, and other courses. But my GPA was always anchored down by two-ton D-pluses in physics and calculus. I knew damn well my future did not hinge on knowing why an atom does whatever the hell an atom does, or what function of X is a subset of B. Of course, I also fell short of being a three-sport varsity athlete the Mt. Olympus of high school sports achievement when my coach, the very serious Mr. Briggs, who never really liked me anyway, informed me that I hadn't played/won enough matches to earn a tennis letter to go with my hockey and soccer letters. I just shrugged and said, "Sure, Mr. Briggs. Whatever." At least I think that's how it all went down; I was still wildly hungover from an all-night graduation party.
At a good-but-certainly-not-great college I settled right into my familiar roller coaster ride of scholastic apathy mixed with occasional bouts of manic, Herculean achievement...for every A-minus in British literature, I'd counter with an F in psychology. I played soccer well enough to be a decent player on a fair Division III team, but not so well that I didn't eventually quit out of sheer boredom with five games to go my senior year.
Out in the real world I did enough to get by, make a decent living, and win the occasional award that no one (except other advertising pinheads like me) gave a shit about, but I was never going to be the star copywriter whose drive and talent would make his boss whisper reverently to the other agency bigwigs, "That kid, my friends, is the future of advertising."
What I'm saying is, I'd always been utterly nonconfrontational. I'd been in exactly one fight in my entire life, and that was only because my sadistic older brother and his delinquent friends set up a ring in our backyard and used me and my friends as human cockfighters, transforming a peaceful Boston suburb into a blood-soaked Tijuana cantina. (And to Ricky Rath, sorry I punched you in the ear.) I'd always been average in just about every way good enough to be considered a potentially great find by a coach, a boss, or a girlfriend, but average enough to be quickly forgotten and returned to my rightful place in Vanilla-ville.
But then, five years ago, at the advanced age of thirty, I started playing fantasy football, and all that changed.
I found I couldn't just say "whatever" about fantasy football. Vanilla-ville wasn't good enough anymore. This stuff actually mattered to me. But why? Why was I suddenly an achievement-obsessed, competitive, stomp-all-competition, take-no-prisoners holy football terror? Why was fantasy football the lightning rod that conducted 30 million volts of effort into my flatlined apathy and got my juices flowing? And maybe just as important why does the game do the same thing to so many millions of other people?
I often thought to myself, good Lord, is this the kind of thing a married, thirty-five-year-old guy should concern himself with? I mean, should a guy like me be wasting time on a little hobby that, from the outside world, looks as frivolous as, say, Dungeons & Dragons or Pokemon cards? I had no idea, but I loved it, and it consumed me.
I remember a few years back, talking to a friend of a friend at a wedding reception, Rob, a copier salesman from Dallas whose "testimony" about how he got addicted to FF was eerily familiar. One Sunday back in college (University of Texas), he came home to find his two roommates arguing and hovering over piles of spreadsheets just before a Cowboys-'Skins game. "They looked like a coupla hyenas picking at a deer carcass," he chuckled, sipping his Bud Light. At that moment, he and I (not to mention every other able-bodied man under the age of ninety-three) had escaped to a hidden, golf-plaque-covered, downstairs bar/bunker, while upstairs in the main ballroom our slow-dance-crazy wives/girlfriends frantically searched for us as the band stumbled through "Unchained Melody."
Rob had asked what his roommates were doing, and they explained that they were playing something called fantasy football and went into all the details about their draft, their scoring system, how they had to choose their lineups every single Sunday, the whole bit and they also informed him that today was their league Super Bowl. "And it was like bing! a light went off in my head," Rob confessed. "From that point on I was hooked." And his instant excitement about fantasy football only gathered more steam when he saw his roommate's reaction at the end of the game, when a late Aikman-to-Irvin 53-yard touchdown won him a league title and five hundred bucks. The kid went absolutely ballistic jumping on the furniture, screaming, talking smack to Rob's other roommate (the poor sap whom he'd just beaten in their league championship). "It was madness," Rob said. "I've never seen someone get that excited about one touchdown. But what really got me was that he was even more excited to win the crappy little league trophy. The thing cost like two bucks. He didn't even care about the five hundred. That's when I knew it [fantasy football] was something I wanted to get into."
We laughed and shrugged in that man-I've-been-there kind of way, picking peanuts out of a little wooden bowl and glancing up at the NHL Stanley Cup Finals playing on a TV suspended behind the bar (the controversial "Brett Hull's-skate-in-the-crease" Stars-Sabres game, if memory serves). We both just...knew we knew how quickly FF can seize you in its clutches and just own you, take over your life.
I got the bartender's attention for another round of Bud Lights, and that's when it happened the door burst open and a gaggle of angry, Ann Taylor-clad females came storming in on high heels like undercover DEA agents raiding a crack house, the butchered sounds of the Righteous Brothers wafting in right behind them like their own estrogen-laced Cops sound track. In seconds, we were all upstairs once again, shuffling in depressing little circles to "As Time Goes By." It wasn't pretty.
Anyway, Rob's tale is one that's familiar to a lot of FF players they just happened upon a friend or relative or coworker playing one day, casually asked what was up, and that was that, they were reeled in. And like Rob's victorious roommate, I'd found that my enjoyment and (obsessive, sick, twisted) desire to win my Felon Fantasy League was far less about the money and far more about the banter and smack talk, the league camaraderie, the pride, the accomplishment, the hard work and hours of dedication to a "craft," and, of course, showing up my friends in a very public forum.
Ask my poor, beleaguered, confused wife, Celia, about it. Celia's a devout nonsports fan; she can't understand my fixation with the NFL and she doesn't want to. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she still doesn't believe that I can sit inside on a sunny, beautiful Boston Sunday for approximately fourteen straight hours watching ESPN's Edge NFL Matchup (hosted by my football dream girl, Suzy Kolber), Sunday NFL Countdown, the early-afternoon game, the late-afternoon game, all the way through ESPN's Sunday-night game, one that often doesn't end until after midnight. She can't understand how I can spend that entire time clicking, ducking, feinting, and jabbing on the remote with the dexterity of Roy Jones Jr., only moving from my pillowy Jabba the Hut-esque throne for food, beverage, and calls of nature.
And she flat out refuses to understand why, when we return from a late dinner or movie on a random Tuesday night, I must immediately sprint across the living room, hurdle the coffee table, grab on to the ceiling fan, and with the perky precision of a young Mary Lou Retton, stick my landing ass-first into the swivel chair in front of the iMac that I've somehow managed to flick on with my toe. All of this to check on any important fantasy football developments that may have occurred in the two hours I was out wincing and squirming through Chicago.
And when I find out that phew! some totally insignificant player like, say, Aaron Stecker or Ricky Proehl didn't break his ankle (only sprained it), I lean back and breathe a sigh of relief while my beloved wife stands in the doorway, arms held tightly crossed, wondering how in God's name she'll survive another football season. On one hand, I pity her because she has to live with me; on the other hand, I pity her because she doesn't play fantasy football. After all, aside from enduring the nonsensical ramblings of Michael Irvin on Countdown dude makes Eric Dickerson sound like Alistair freaking Cooke I can think of few other fourteen-hour stretches I enjoy more than a full day of NFL-watching.
While sitting there in my office trying to steal Priest from Big Dog that day in December, I couldn't help but wonder how I could go on like this, constantly angling and maneuvering for fantasy football success, especially if I didn't finally receive some vindication from the cruel, fickle fantasy football gods that I was in fact worthy to play their game vindication in the form of a Felon League Super Bowl title. Something had to give, and it had to begin with completing that Henry-and-Morgan-for-Priest trade.
And then Big Dog shot me a final trade-killing e-mail saying, "Dude, sorry, I wanted to do it, but Erik negged it. We'll pass." I should have known! That was always Big Dog's MO: string me along, pretend that he's the sole negotiator, get my hopes up, say things like "Dude, we can make this work" and "We're getting close," and then blame it on the other guy when it all comes crashing down. Reading his final communiqué that day, my eyes bugged, my brain hurt, and I wondered whether my blood pressure was going to blow the top of my head clean off. Freaking no-good two-owner teams! I hate two-owner teams! Goddamn Erik! I'd only met this "Erik" person maybe once or twice, and yet here he was, single-handedly ruining my season...and my life for that matter!
In full panic mode now, I did exactly the wrong thing I made a knee-jerk "revenge" trade with a different team, a meat-loving squad known as All-American Angus: Travis Henry and my superstud WR Marvin Harrison for Steelers WR Hines Ward (then the #4 overall WR in fantasy football) and the injured but with high upside former überstud RB Marshall Faulk of the St. Louis Rams.
"Okay, so I don't get Priest, but if Faulk returns to form, I'll cruise to a Super Bowl," I told myself. "This was the best trade you could make. Screw Priest. You don't need Priest." Yes, I was a freaking genius! Ward and Faulk were mine! Might as well send me the first-place check right then and there, boys!
And how did all that really work out? The guys I traded stayed hot; the guys I got were not. Harrison kept blowing up with 140-yard, 2-TD games, and Henry stayed consistent as the Bills' number one rushing/goal-line option. Meanwhile, my newly acquired, gimpy Faulk the alleged jewel of the trade played a total of about, oh, three downs for the rest of the season. Bottom line? Using my players, All-American Angus cruised to the championship game (where they lost to Priest and the Big Dogs) and I missed the playoffs. Again. I flew too close to the fantasy football sun and blew it. Again. And I was sick of it. But what to do?
The answer came one night in May 2003, months after that painful season had ended with me in a tie for sixth place (right in the middle, average, Vanilla-ville as usual). Unable to sleep despite the best efforts of the Blind Date marathon I was half-watching, I grabbed a notebook and wrote the following fantasy football to-do list in big, black, all-cap letters, my course of action more clear than ever before:
Step 1: Quit Job!
Yes, in the midst of one of the worst recessions since the Hoover administration, I would kick my salary and health benefits to the curb, a risky proposition that would surely have both mental and financial ramifications. After all, Celia was a freelance producer, which paid her pretty well, but, as the yang to that yin, wasn't steady and had no health benefits whatsoever. God help us if we accidentally got pregnant or if one of us fell into a manhole somewhere in the Big Dig construction and broke a leg. Then you factor in other things that cost money mortgage, car insurance, minor survival staples like food and heat. And, self-esteem-wise, having a job to go to every day is always better than sitting home all day watching A Dating Story on TLC. Nevertheless, if I was going to finally make a real run at my league title, I would have to flat-out quit. And I'm not talking any wishy-washy sabbatical; I'm talking a final, definitive, skydiving-without-a-parachute, Take this job and shove it! resignation. It might even feel kind of liberating, now that I thought about it. I mean, c'mon, all this nine-to-five, conference-call, status-meeting, birthday-party-in-the-break-room, client-ass-kissing nonsense was beginning to cramp my fantasy football style, taking up valuable space on my mental hard drive that would be better suited for storing running back rankings or performance splits on grass vs. turf. And little luxuries like a steady paycheck and free dental checkups? We'd just worry about those later. So, yes, folks, before the start of the 2003-4 NFL season, I decided that I would make fantasy football not advertising my full-time job.
Step 2: Drain the Brain of Every Fantasy Football Player Alive!
After cutting the employment cord, I'd have to make it my sworn mission to get inside the heads of other fantasy football players. I'd meet as many fellow players as possible twenty-year "vets"; first-year "newbies"; middle-of-the-pack-experienced folks like myself; guys and gals who play in free, local leagues with their friends; people who play in leagues with complete strangers and have a little cash riding on it; total fanatics who play Vegas-based leagues with mammoth entrance fees and six-figure championship purses; anyone. Maybe by interviewing other players and following their leagues, I would learn more about how to finally dominate my own league? Maybe I'd learn more about myself as a player (and maybe even as a person, though I sincerely hoped there would be no Richard Simmons-esque "Deal-a-Meal" infomercial hugging or crying involved). And if all that failed? Well, I'd at least be able to watch and talk a ton of football for six straight months and call it "work."
Step 3: Hunt Down the Experts!
Absorbing fantasy football into every pore of my body wouldn't only be about gathering funny league stories, player rankings, and Joe Schmoe's draft strategies. No, I would also have to learn as much as humanly possible about fantasy football itself. I'd delve into the business side of the game and interview the men and women who have been there from the hobby's infancy, those visionaries who jumped on the early wave of a fledgling technology called the Internet and, in a few short years, rode fantasy football from a mom-and-pop cottage industry to a multi-million-dollar worldwide phenomenon. I'd learn about the history of fantasy football who started it? When? Why? How? And maybe out of all these industry "experts" there'd be one Yoda-like Jedi Master in some far corner of the universe who could tell me that the fantasy football Force was strong in me, or, if it wasn't, how I could crank it up to a respectable, Luke Skywalker-esque league-winning level.
Step 4: Give Project a Cool Name!
I realized I couldn't just call my newfound mission "Mark Kinda, Sorta, Tries to Win His League." I had to come up with something memorable, something that would imply a shock-and-awe assault upon my league...or something really idiotic and childish. Hence, after much soul-searching and thesaurus consulting, I decided on "Project Kick My League's Ass."
Step 5: Get Permission from Celia!
Yes, I love my football, but I'm not a total caveman, and I'm not ashamed to admit that my wife, and not Bruce Springsteen, is The Boss. And though she's always encouraged my "creative efforts," having a steady salary and health benefits have also been important to us. So, quitting a job to play/learn about fantasy football would be a dicey proposition no matter what. I'd have to convince her that this wasn't just a clever ruse to slack off, get fat, and eat, sleep, talk, breathe, and watch football for six straight months. I'd have to convince her that this quest of mine would be a fulfilling endeavor both personally, artistically, and perhaps someday even financially I'd tell her that I was doing research...for a book!
Eight weeks after making my list, I presented it to my wife on a cool, midsummer day while sitting on the deck of Farnham's Fried Clams, overlooking a picturesque New England salt marsh and enjoying two of their famous clam-belly plates. More nervous than in any advertising new-business pitch I could remember, I was armed with one PowerPoint slide set, eleven rational arguments, two wild-eyed emotional speeches, a marketing plan (complete with pretty pie charts), a budget planogram, and, if all else failed, a washcloth doused in chloroform, some bungee cords, a burlap sack, and a shovel. But her immediate response to the idea just the idea, nothing more was simply "Do it." What? It couldn't have been that easy, could it? I didn't even get to show the graph demonstrating that my self-esteem and happiness would increase exponentially the closer I got to a league championship.
"It's a great idea...do it," she said again, with even more conviction than before, dipping a belly into her tartar sauce and grinning. She was clearly as enthused by the whole book idea as I was. "Yeah, it's risky," she continued, "and people will think we're nuts if you quit your job our families already think we're insane because we're not pregnant yet but sometimes you have to take a risk, right? I mean, especially if you want to do something unique, something great." God I loved when she made complete sense like that!
While she was actually as nervous as I was about this, she was supportive and even downright excited about the plan, far more than most wives whose husband had just suggested quitting his job to play fantasy football would be, anyway. I was a lucky man. But like any sane woman, she had her limits. Case in point, her reaction when I suggested that part of my "book research" could include visiting every NFL stadium and interviewing FF fanatics during tailgates. "So you want to use this 'book' thing as an excuse to go to a bunch of football games and tailgate for six months?" she quizzed me, eyebrows slightly raised. "Did you inherit some money I don't know about?" If you're worried about my spending money on motels, I argued, I'll sleep in the car! I'll eat nothing but McDonald's! Hell, I'll mooch off people's tailgates and eat nothing but beer and sausages donated by kind, shirtless, face-painted strangers! "So what you're basically saying," she replied, "is that when you return from Jobless Football Stadium Tour '03, you'll be a four-hundred-pound, raging alcoholic with a fatal heart condition. Yeah that's not going to work for me." Shit. I got greedy. Flew too close to the sun again. My taking Celia on in a battle of reason was like Urkel climbing into the ring with Tyson. So I retreated, which was fine I'd sold her the main idea, and that's what counted.
A few weeks after that clam-belly feeding frenzy, I gave my notice at work. I didn't break into "Take This Job and Shove It," but they got the idea. I was now officially, 100 percent unemployed. And with that, my friends, my insane, jobless fantasy football quest Project Kick My League's Ass was born.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark St. Amant