Fantasy craze produces awkward moments for players
America's obsession with fantasy football often produces awkward moments for real players, Greg Garber writes.
He swivels in the power chair, furiously working his iMac mouse and keyboard, wrapped in a cocoon of mahogany and football memorabilia.
Click! Click! Click!
Here in the comfort and safety of his stately home office, set in an upscale development outside Indianapolis, Cato June is not merely a linebacker for the Colts. He is the powerful owner, shrewd general manager and X/O-savvy head coach of an NFL fantasy football team called Juneimus D Great -- a name modestly modeled on the emperors of Rome.
An estimated 15 million to 20 million Americans play fantasy football. June is proud to be one of them. Admittedly, it makes for some awkward moments. You see, his fantasy quarterback is the Patriots' Tom Brady.
"Playing New England, I can't be happy with him throwing a TD pass, but in the back of my mind, I'm like, 'Yeah, I just got six points in my fantasy league,'" June says, laughing.
In fact, when the Colts played the Patriots on Nov. 5, June's moral compass moved him to sit Brady in his fantasy league. In the real game, however, he was rewarded with two interceptions of the former Super Bowl MVP. June isn't sure which accomplishment was better.
"I picked up [the Jaguars' David] Garrard," June says. "He happened to give me three or four touchdowns that week. I think it was a great GM move by myself."
Fantasy football has exploded into a billion-dollar business. You can find tips everywhere, including the various platforms of the Worldwide Leader in Sports. The premise is simple: Fans build teams by drafting NFL players, who acquire points for recording a variety of statistics. Games are played head to head and, like the NFL, the good teams advance to the playoffs. Depending on the league, the stakes can be quite low -- or dizzyingly high.
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"In a game solely designed around the team concept, it's nice to have some individual recognition every now and then," Giants running back Tiki Barber said. "Fantasy football does that.
"It's already the most popular sport, but it's a way for people to delve into the sport and get to know the individual players, which they probably wouldn't have an opportunity to do otherwise."
As Eagles kicker David Akers discovered a few years ago.
"When it first started, I was a little naive on this stuff," Akers said, laughing. "A guy came up to me and said, 'You're my fantasy kicker,' and I'm like, 'Dude, what are you talking about? Maybe I shouldn't be hanging out with you.'"
For most of us, fantasy football is a way to get closer to the real thing. For June, it's something that helps get him farther away.
"It's to get away from reality," June says. "You go into your fantasy world and you put your GM hat on. You take your football cleats off and you try to simulate what it would be like to have your own team.
"It's kind of like the same thing as when you're out there on the field; you really don't know what to expect. You're hoping and wishing that your players play up to a certain potential so that your team can be successful."
|Advice from the "experts"|
With no disrespect to ESPN.com's esteemed Eric Karabell (and the cottage industry that fantasy football has become), here are a few pieces of advice from some true insiders, NFL players who play on both fields -- fantasy and reality:
"I think good running backs are a big part of fantasy points," said Redskins tight end Chris Cooley. "They're a position that's hard to get consistent points from week to week. That helped me a lot."
Colts linebacker Cato June's advice is simple: be clear-headed and unsentimental. In a word, ruthless.
"Yards mean nothing," June said. "Catches mean nothing. It's all about touchdowns, guys who get in the end zone. That's who you want.
"There's no loyalty in the fantasy world. I'm sorry, this is your favorite team, this is your favorite player? There is no loyalty if you want to win."
June, it should be noted, doesn't always take his own advice. He regularly plays Colts receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dallas Clark. Of course, with Peyton Manning throwing to them, they are regulars in the end zone.
The same is not true of former teammate Edgerrin James, who has struggled running the ball in Arizona.
"Edge is my main man," June said. "I was hoping he'd have a better turnout this year."
-- Greg Garber
Even Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, who has two Super Bowl rings, is not immune to those who seek it.
"I had my nephew here as my ball boy," Shanahan said during training camp. "He said he had already picked [rookie running back] Mike Bell in his fantasy league -- and that was before he was [named] a starter, so he had a little inside information there."
Shanahan's son Kyle is wide receivers coach of the Houston Texans.
"We talk personnel all the time," Mike said. "He's got friends, and when they're over at the house, they're always trying to pick his brain about the personnel. They want to get a jump in that fantasy league. [People] never really say they're really asking me a question about fantasy football, but I think you kind of learn that's why they're asking me the question."
Titans head coach Jeff Fisher hosts a popular weekly radio show.
"People will ask, 'How's so-and-so doing?' They'll even ask questions about players around the league," Fisher said. "They come out of left field, but you know what the basis for the question is. It's a fantasy football question."
Many of the football folks interviewed for this story described similar experiences.
"I have some old friends who are trainers and some buddies," Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said. "I give them a tip every once in awhile. I think the best one was when Reuben Droughns started for us and no one knew he was going to start.
"He started him, and everyone was mad because he got the inside scoop. Reuben went off for 170 yards, something like that."
Said Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, "The only way it affects my life is if I'm eating dinner and some guy comes up and he either says I did good or bad for him that week.
"Other than that, I don't think about fantasy football. I'm out here trying to win the real football game."
Even that kind of track record isn't enough to keep the most aggressive fans of fantasy happy.
"Besides, 'Hey, Peyton, can I have your autograph?' it's 'Hey, we need more fantasy touchdowns out of you,'" Manning said.
After he scored rare rushing touchdowns in back-to-back games against the Jaguars and Jets, Manning joked, "I'm just trying to keep the fantasy people happy."
Broncos wide receiver Javon Walker has also felt pressure from fantasy fanatics.
"'We need some touchdowns this week,'" Walker said. "Whenever they tell me that, I am like, 'Shoot, I need some touchdowns, too. If it can come as easy as you say it, then so be it.' "
Said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, "Guys come up and say, 'I need you to throw about four touchdowns this week -- I've got you in fantasy.'"
"You get letters," said Ravens place-kicker Matt Stover, who has been kicking since 1991. "They say, 'Hey, man, you've got to kick well this week, and I will win the Super Bowl.'
"You are really more connected with the fans. They follow you more. I think it is an ingenious idea, because it wasn't really in existence when I got in the league."
"LT, I need 150 yards, I need three touchdowns this week," Tomlinson said. "It's difficult to go out and get 150 yards and three touchdowns every week.
"Please ... like I have control over it."
Maybe it just seems that way.
Through 12 games, Tomlinson has scored 26 touchdowns; he needs three in his last four regular-season games to break Shaun Alexander's record of 28, set last season. Including his two passing TDs, Tomlinson is on pace to produce the greatest fantasy season ever for a running back and perhaps the best fantasy season ever, challenging the monumental previous efforts of Jerry Rice and Marshall Faulk.
All this is from the guy who was only the No. 3 pick in most fantasy drafts, behind Alexander and the Chiefs' Larry Johnson.
"If you are the No. 1 draft pick in fantasy football, or if you're No. 2 or 3, you take pride and want to uphold that honor that someone has drafted you that high," Tomlinson said, breaking into a smile.
"But at the same time, it's not something you go into a game saying, 'OK, I've got to really make sure my fantasy owners are happy after this game.' You know what I mean?"
Chris Cooley was a fairly typical kid growing up in Utah. He was all-state at Logan High School, playing tight end and defensive end. He also played fantasy football.
He continued to play fantasy football at Utah State and today, at 24 and tight end for the Washington Redskins, he still plays fantasy, although he might be playing a little out of his league.
"Right now, I have a league with my girlfriend's family," Cooley said. "You can trash-talk with the people you know. I've been scoring the most points every week, and I end up playing my girlfriend and we post back and forth on the Internet."
For a tight end, Cooley has scored his share of touchdowns in three NFL seasons. He had 13 in his first two seasons, and in Week 12 his 66-yard catch late in the fourth quarter gave the Redskins a 17-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers. It was his fifth score of the season.
Cooley began the season with a team heavily stocked with Philadelphia Eagles -- quarterback Donovan McNabb, wide receiver Donte Stallworth and the Eagles' defense. Cooley does not, as a rule, play himself on his own team.
Last season, this hurt him badly. Cooley's greatest day as a professional knocked his fantasy team out of the playoffs.
"I scored three touchdowns against the Cowboys," Cooley said, "and I ended up beating my own team because of myself. I was way more happy about the game. I could really care less.
"It's fun to play the fantasy, but I'd trade three touchdowns any day."
Most players interviewed for this story said they believe fantasy football is ultimately good for the game because it creates more fan interest. Several, however, see a downside.
Plummer was among them.
"It's kind of unnerving to me because you're like, 'We didn't win, but you're happy.' That's not right, because I'm not happy. I don't care if I throw five TDs if we lose. It's all about getting the win."
According to the players, fantasy point totals are becoming as important as final numbers on the scoreboard.
"The last three or four years, that's all they care about," Rams quarterback Marc Bulger said of fantasy football fans. "They come up to you: 'Ah, you lost, [but] you still threw for 300. Great job, I got you this week.'
"I'm more worried about sometimes dealing with people [about fantasy] than I am if we won or lost. Because if you throw for 200 yards, no touchdowns and win, people are more mad at you."
Said Barber, "All they care about is whether I get 150 yards and two touchdowns, whereas all I care about is whether or not we win. So there's an incongruity in the wants."
Peyton Manning described a typical conversation with a fan:
"Hey, great game last week."
"Yeah, but we lost."
"But you threw five touchdowns, and that's all I need from you."
Cato June didn't draft high enough to make Manning his fantasy quarterback.
June is a fine player on a terrific team, but the fantasy season is not going particularly well. June's team, Juneimus D Great, is idling along around .500. Skill, to put it bluntly, has been lacking.
June's brother Omari -- who is not an NFL linebacker -- is ruling this league of family and friends with his team, O June. According to Cato, there is only one reason for this disturbing development.
"Mr. LaDainian Tomlinson," June said, shaking his head. "It's unfair. It's not fair that LaDainian Tomlinson can single-handedly beat teams by himself. I think he needs to get half of the points, because he's been killing everybody."
June has been getting modest production from Bengals kicker Shayne Graham and Vikings running back Chester Taylor, but Vikings wide receiver Marcus Robinson and Redskins multipurpose player Antwaan Randle El haven't worked out.
Brady, on the other hand, has been more than adequate.
"It's a love-hate thing for Tom Brady," said June, who played at Michigan, as did Brady. "He plays for the Patriots, and we have our thing with them. But at the same time, he's from Michigan. He gives me fantasy points, so I can't be mad at him."
June, like all fantasy fans, is feeling a win this coming Sunday.
"I'm going to come back," he said. "I can see it. It's all possible. That's why it's fantasy. That's why you play.
"If you knew you were going to win, it wouldn't be any fun playing."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.