- Scott Engel, ESPN Fantasy Games
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Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Shawn Barber has strong ties to his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. He still maintains important friendships with many of his old buddies from Hermitage High School. And he often beats many of them in fantasy football.
"Fantasy football is a great way to keep up with my friends during the football season," Barber said. "Most of my friends know I can't be bothered on several days during the week when I'm preparing for an upcoming game myself, but on off days it's a great way to stay in touch with my friends from back home."
While fantasy football players now seem to come from all professions and walks of life, Barber is the rare exception. He is an established NFL player that actually heavily participates in fantasy football. Barber now plays in two leagues, most of which are comprised of old high school friends. He has been playing fantasy football with his Hermitage friends since 2002, and he has won three league championships.
"It's a lot of fun and it's always a challenge," Barber said. "The other guys seem to think I add even more credibility to the leagues by being in them. They first thought I might be an easy target, because I wouldn't have the time to do things like add and drop free agents. But I totally commit to the game."
Barber says he wakes up early during the week to catch up on the latest player news and make necessary roster adjustments. After many practices, he'll then head over to the Eagles media department to use one of their computers for more necessary fantasy work later in the day.
Winning championships isn't easy for Barber when you consider he faces unusual obstacles from both his leagues and his profession. Not only is he not allowed to draft players from his own team in his leagues, he also faces the natural conflict of interest of lining up against key players from his own fantasy team on game days. What does Barber do when he's going to face one of his top fantasy players?
"If I'm playing against any guy, even if he's a stud, I automatically bench them," Barber said. "In the last couple of years I've had to sit Antonio Gates and Terrell Owens. But there's so much talent in the league, that I can always find a suitable replacement. Starting decisions come much easier when your own team has a bye week."
Barber said he avoids most NFC East players on draft days, especially the quarterbacks. "I won't draft Eli Manning, just like I didn't draft Jake Plummer when I played for the Chiefs," Barber said. "My draft is different than most other people when you consider the extra variables I have to work around. It's not just planning ahead for bye weeks."
But Barber has still managed to rise to the top of his leagues more than once. Barber plays in two 10-team leagues, having been involved in the VAFL for five seasons and a spinoff league which was formed last year when demand became high for new members. Barber won the VAFL championship in 2002, 2004 and 2005. He credits much of his past success to working the free agent lists carefully and making some bold additions and trades.
"I was lucky enough to have some risky moves work out for me," Barber said. "I've never had the best team coming out of the draft." During his 2005 championship run, Barber was able to acquire Larry Johnson before Priest Holmes went down. In 2004, he landed both Billy Volek and Drew Bennett of the Titans and rode the combination to his second championship. Being an NFL player does give him a certain unique edge when it comes to fantasy scouting, Barber said.
"The only advantage I might have is a certain eye for talent, because I watch so much game film on other players," Barber said. "I knew Larry Johnson was a great running back from having seen him previously." Barber made the nifty move of picking up Marques Colston as a free agent this past season. In the past, before playing fantasy football, Barber said he only paid attention to his own games. Now he watches as many games as possible every week.
"Fantasy football makes the whole NFL package better," Barber said. "It makes games that would seem otherwise meaningless have more importance. It's very good for the NFL because it draws more attention to individual players and makes them more marketable. It makes people study players and stats. Once I started playing fantasy football, every game became more important to me."
Barber said he has to stay highly informed, because the level of trash talk in his fantasy leagues is very intense. In fact, he says the trash talking in fantasy leagues is actually harsher than the barbs exchanged between players during NFL games.
"The trash talking is definitely more intense in my fantasy leagues," Barber said. "On the field, guys don't really know you well enough. In my league, your friends know who girl you used to date, and when they talk about your mother, they really know your mother."
Barber said he is indeed aware of fantasy leagues that incorporate individual defenders, in which he can actually be useful. "It adds another wrinkle, but I prefer using team defensive units," Barber said. Will Barber be part of the Eagles' defense in 2007? He's a free agent, and is certainly strongly considering returning to Philadelphia.
"I'll definitely weigh my options, and I know there is interest from other teams, but the Eagles know what I bring to the table and I'll take my time and I'm in no rush to leave here," Barber said. This past season, Barber played in his 100th NFL game, and he registered 13 tackles in a game against the Giants and 10 against the 49ers. He was also voted the winner of the Jack Edelstein Memorial Award, named after the well-liked former team statistician. The award is presented to the Eagles player who annually exhibits an uplifting manner and maintains a very positive presence. "It's a great honor when you are noticed for things off the field," Barber said.
Barber said he could see himself in the spotlight more after his playing days are over. He is the rare NFL player who has a full understanding of the fantasy game as well. Barber has already appeared on Comcast SportsNet as a fantasy analyst, and would certainly welcome the opportunity to do disperse more professional fantasy advice when his playing days are over.
"It's something I would definitely like to keep pursuing," Barber said. "Fantasy football will continue to spark a lot of interest in the NFL, and as it grows, television shows will become a larger part of the package. There is a big market for it and I would very much like to stay involved."