Among the nerds: A day with the most obsessed fantasy football fans in America

Former Bills QB Jim Kelly was fantasy-football gold in his day.STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )
Former Bills QB Jim Kelly was fantasy-football gold in his day.STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )
Posted: September 09, 2012

There we were: me and NFL Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, bonding over our glories on the gridiron, just chewing the fat and slapping backs on a wild guys night out in Atlantic City.

"You scored two touchdowns in one preseason game when you were 14? Well, damn, you got me beat," he said. "We're hitting up one of these classy, casino steak joints and I'm buying."

We were standing on the floor of the Atlantic City Convention Center. Hall of Famer Bruce Smith was also standing there, grinning. We all fist-bumped, and rolled out. In the parking lot, we ran into Troy Aikman and then that little crybaby, Eli Manning. Bruce held Aikman while Kelly pummeled him with body shots.

I ripped off my shirt.

"Let's do this, Eli," I said, slapping myself in the face. Eli peed his pants.

When it was over, Kelly, Bruce and I pawned Aikman's Super Bowl rings on Atlantic Avenue, then we all bought matching Armani suits and hit the town. The next morning, I called SportsWeek from my suite at the Borgata and dropped a bomb.

"Yeah, so I'm taking that job as the masseuse for the Lingerie Football League," I told them.

That is my fantasy football. Or, rather, that is my football-related fantasy. Turns out, I can waste a whole day wrapped up in football fantasies. I go bass fishing with Buddy Ryan. I fly up to heaven to watch Andre Waters give Johnny Unitas some of the business after the whistle in the God Bowl. Sometimes, the Eagles actually win.

But not everyone shares my idea of what makes for good fantasy football, something that would become very clear to me as I sought to figure out for myself why so many people are obsessed with the more common definition of the term. Answering that mystery is how I ended up driving in the rain to Atlantic City on a Saturday in mid-August - so I could attend the inaugural Fantasy Football Fest, the first major convention dedicated to a hobby that's become a certified national craze.

There's a good reason I had been daydreaming about Jim Kelly: It was because not long after I arrived at the Atlantic City Convention Center for the Fantasy Football Fest, Jim Kelly was standing right in front of me.

When I finally managed to talk to him, though, I found out that he's from western Pennsylvania, not the Deep South, like I thought. He doesn't have an accent, at all, and he's at least 4 inches taller than I thought, too. I'm not totally sure, but I might have told him all that. I do know I sounded like an idiot.

But I really did have something in common with Kelly, something that truly made us both strangers in a strange land that morning. Neither of us had ever played fantasy football. "I don't play personally, but I think it's cool," he told me. "I didn't really get big 'til after I was out of the league, but I think it gets more people involved in football, so that's a good thing."

The concept of fantasy football is easy enough: You join a league, pick a team of individual offensive players and one team defense, and win or lose based on how they perform each week. Depending on the league you're in, if you win it all you might get a few hundred bucks or a gift card for a free oil change. It's casual, like a March Madness office bracket, but also requires you to know a little Football 101. In other words, you can pick Murray State to go the Final Four, but you can't pick the Giants' defense to be your running back.

There's nothing like a convention, though - whether it's for comic books, pool-and-spa products, or fantasy football - to make you realize just how much America can really nerd out, obsesses over, and sometimes complicate even the smallest thing. There will be a reality show about fantasy football, for sure, and it will have a dumb name, like "Fantasy Freaks." There's already a sitcom (a good one) called "The League."

It is all part of a billion dollar industry - one that has its own culture, separate and apart from the actual game of football most people watch on Sunday. This hit home when I first saw Kelly, for he was heading over to his 11 a.m. autograph session alone, in relative anonymity.

And yet, while Kelly remained untouched by the masses, I saw at least two people ask a tall, lanky guy from South Jersey to pose for a picture. The guy is not a professional athlete, though. His name is John "The Fantasy Guru" Hansen, and he is a star here. Even he admits: "It is all a little surreal."

Yes, very surreal, considering that Hansen first joined a fantasy league at a bar, decades ago, in nearby Galloway Township. Thanks to some supernatural fantasy knack and plain old ambition, Hansen now operates fantasyguru.com, a site where you pay for his and his staff's advice about who to draft and who to play in any given week. He also hosts a show on SiriusXm Radio, appears on ESPN, and has even had a cameo on "The League," the FX comedy dedicated to fantasy football.

Hansen makes a living off of fantasy football, and considering he lives in Haddonfield, the living must be pretty good. "Last year was my best year, the year before that was my best year and this will be my best year," he said with the kind of confidence and swagger I had once associated with Jim Kelly.

At the Fantasy Football Fest, many of the experts like Hansen sat on panels with current and former pro players, addressing serious issues such as the "running-back conundrum," which was actually the name of one seminar Saturday afternoon. It was heavily attended, and everyone there seemed to want the same thing: inside information, a steal, some 9th-round draft pick from Bozo State University who's going to come in after Game 2 and run wild.

Not too far from the running-back panel, a group of men sat in a U-shaped formation of tables, silently poring over notes and peering into laptops while a man stood in the center adjusting a dry-erase board. It had the look and feel of a NASA control room, except maybe for the matching jerseys and hats that most of them were wearing.

These guys, most complete strangers to one another, were in the midst of a fantasy draft. It was one of the things you could do at the Fest, and it quickly became clear that they had no time to indulge the curiosities of a wide-eyed reporter. My questions were all greeted with monosylabic answers: "yes" and "no." I got a particularly annoyed look when I asked, "So, who will you draft next?"

Since the average guys were too busy to talk, I found someone who was willing to chat: "The Goose," Tony Siragusa. The effusive former Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle was sitting nearby, sucking on a stogie, killing some time between the draft and the next expert panels. "This is all sort of like 'The Matrix,' right? You can get lost in all this stuff," he said.

I knew exactly what he meant. Fantasy Football always struck me as some sort of alternate universe, albeit it one that seemed like a lot of work, like a crying baby you have to sing to at 4 a.m. in your underwear.

I thought back to a morning in California a few years ago. Some friends and I had headed west to see the Eagles play the Chargers. The morning of the game, two of my friends rose out of bed like zombies and shuffled across a dimly lit hotel room in their boxer shorts, crushing pizza boxes and kicking empty beer bottles on some half-conscious mission.

A day's worth of cheap beers will do that, but my friends were looking for their cellphones, not the bathroom.

It was a good hour before we would normally think about getting up, but they had already turned on "SportsCenter" and were getting down to business. They mumbled things like "Ravens defense" and looked at paperwork - seriously, paperwork . I took two Excedrin, drank a bottle of water, and pulled a pillow over my head. Later, tailgating outside of Qualcomm Stadium before the Eagles-Chargers game, conversations would get interrupted by text messages, which would often be followed by my friends cursing at their phones. It didn't seem fun.

But maybe "The Goose" was waxing more philosophical? Perhaps he meant fantasy football was an escape from reality for tens of millions of people, a way to elude life's troubles, to get through the mundane details of the day, to feel in control of something, even if it's just a fantasy team, for one day a week?

This made sense. In Atlantic City, besides the panels and the drafts and the autograph sessions, there were dozens of booths, selling pretty much anything you could imagine having to do with Fantasy Football: trophies, draft guides, websites, jerseys.

There were also dozens of businesses trying to sell speciality variations of Fantasy Football. The most memorable offering, though, was that of a lawyer, who was at the convention bedecked in a judge's robe. He specialized in conflict resolution for fantasy leagues.

There were also plenty of less than fully clothed women. Players from the women's lingerie league were on hand, while exhibitors looking for an edge sprinkled scantily clad women around their exhibitions booths as an extra incentive to visit. It worked.

Taken all together, it made me realize how important the "fantasy" part of Fantasy Football was, which probably explains a lot about how it had become a $1 billion industry. It was no different from any other testosteroned-laced diversion, be it blackjack, golf, fishing, rock-climbing, motorcycles . . . it's all an escape. And Fantasy Football was less harmful than most; all you're losing is a little time and maybe a little bit of money. You might get a papercut.

I probably dropped about $1,000 to fly to San Diego to boo the Eagles and drink crappy beer. I'm sure a bill didn't get paid because of that weekend. Nowadays, I can't even watch football on television because of work, youth-soccer schedules and all of life's other banalities. San Diego seems like a lifetime ago. Who was I to begrudge anyone for carving out their own place from which to escape?

And yet, the Fantasy Football Fest turned out to be more subdued than I imagined. While there were "thousands" of attendees who came and went over the course of the weekend, according to organizers, it didn't have that claustrophobic, I-smell-body-odor-feel of an electronics convention or auto show.

Alas, this was only the first one, and you can bet it won't be the last as long as the word "billion" is still thrown around. "I think the concept resonated with the fan base. Now, we'll take a look and see if we can do it better," said Greg Topalian, senior VP of Reed Exhibitions, which organized the event.

No plans have been made for a 2013 festival, but it's hard to see a future in which Fantasy Football gets less popular, given the dominance of the NFL among professional sports. Maybe I'll even be in a fantasy league by then, nose-deep in draft guides and clinging to John Hansen's every word, hoping to solve my own running back conundrum.

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