A Life of Fantasy (Football)
Life is full of surprises, isn’t it? They come in many shapes and sizes and have the capacity to deliver all different types of news. My favorite surprises, though, come in the form of friendships. More than once in my relatively short history I’ve been able to look back and trace large parts of my life back to a single person. It’s pretty impressive how transformative a friend can be in our lives, especially considering the hundreds or thousands of people we come to know by name out of the eight billion of us on the planet. Nevertheless, I’d venture to guess that you have a person or two in your life with whom you can follow the breadcrumbs of your memories back to a moment where they changed the game for you. While making the drive back to Brooklyn from the Waterloo, NY area this past Sunday, it dawned on me how a friend-of-a-teammate-my-dad-played-softball-with-in-NC ended up becoming one of my favorite people and turning me onto my most precious addiction in the world: fantasy football.
While my friend, Chris, has expanded my horizons in more ways than just fantasy football, our annual trips to upstate NY have become a tradition that I look forward to in the way that children anticipate the coming of Christmas. Cheers of “Merry Draftmas,” ring through the country air the week before Draft Day and the crescendo of smack talk reaches it maximum volume by the time Saturday comes around. It is, indeed, the most wonderful time of year. We’ve made it through the endless summer slog of baseball games that blend together and the early signs that fall is coming soon begin to show themselves. The waning days of August that slide gently into Labor Day weekend bring the faint sound of drum corps in the distance and point to the joyous coming of America’s beloved football season. Having waited patiently and been so well behaved all year long, we are finally within one week of the kick off of the first NFL game of the season.
Typically speaking, our Draft Weekend gets kicked off on Friday night where I take the PATH train from Manhattan over to Hoboken, NJ, and meet up with Chris. We proceed to partake in in-depth discussions regarding off-season trades, injuries in the preseason games and rookies we think will be able to make an immediate impact. It’s usually only about 10 minutes into this conversation that I begin to realize I have not been paying attention at all during the offseason. Chris usually has color-coded spreadsheets printed in 8pt fonts with mad scientist notes scribbled all over them. Year after year, his research puts mine to shame. Despite the jovial excitement that has carried me throughout the week, I am beginning to feel the worst throws of “pre-draft dread,” in the pit of my stomach, where I am certain that I will make a string of draft picks that solicit the snickers of my fellow league-mates on the big day. Nevertheless, the same “fight or flight,” response from the college night-before-a-big-exam days always seems to kick in, opening up my badly battered short-term memory for a flood of stats, projections and expert opinions. Not being able to fight years of deeply ingrained muscle memory of the aforementioned college days, once we get through the initial draft discussion we partake in multiple games of beer pong to round out the evening. This is an important part of the Draft Day prep because nearly immediately following the draft we change gears and kick off a league-wide, double-elimination beer pong tournament. More on this later.
Draft Day Saturday begins pretty much the same year after year. Groggy, hungover and supremely excited. I leap out of bed only to quickly regret it, wincing and holding my temples in pain. The first hour of the day is a non-stop tug of war between my childlike exuberance and the impossible-to-ignore reality that I don’t recover from nights of one-on-one beer pong quite like I used to. After consuming the requisite cup of coffee and serving of bacon and eggs, we schlep ourselves outside and into Chris’s pick-up truck to begin the five-hour drive from Hoboken to Waterloo. The drive up is usually just as much as fun as the draft itself. The cab of his truck quickly turns into the “situation room,” and the tone gets serious. We put fantasy football talk radio on in the background as we get onto the highway and it’s not long before I have a smattering of magazines sprawled out in my lap and on the dashboard. While Chris drives, I read from the magazines as if I were reading from Moses’s tablets on Mt. Sinai. We go through all 32 teams, discussing their entire depth chart, offensive schematics and tendencies and who is the most likely to “break” (get injured). Just as my mouth is getting completely parched from reading a magazine aloud from cover-to-cover, we pull up to the house hosting the draft party.
It is now officially Christmas morning. We’re in the living room. We can see presents. If you’ve never seen 12 grown men minutes before a fantasy football draft, it is a site to behold. Half of the league has already been nervously chugging down bottles and cans of Labatt Blue Lite just to keep from exploding. Someone has taped the draft board to the side of the house and there’s a misfit collection of folding chairs, camp chairs and picnic tables scattered in the yard. It’s not long before we’ve made the rounds of handshakes and hellos and I’ve parked myself in a good spot with a pen in one hand and an ice-cold beer in the other. The time has finally come. All of the excitement and dread has led to this very moment. The crowd quiets down and the attention is then focused on the lucky gent with the first pick of the draft. He calls out a name, and the draft officially begins.
The first couple of rounds generally go really quickly, with each draft choice followed by a chorus of groans or heckling, depending on how the peanut gallery feels about the validity of the pick. By the middle rounds, things start to slow down a bit. It’s starting to get dark and the league is starting to get a little drunk. It’s not long before people are calling out names of players who were drafted several rounds ago – a transgression not taken lightly amongst a league of competitive and tipsy men. Feeling the juices of the Labatt brewing company starting to take hold on my judgment, I try to slip away to sneak in a couple of sliders and maybe some ribs. With my shirt and hands now covered in barbeque sauce and a weird and foul-smelling blend of ketchup and mustard, I am ready to engage in the back half of the draft and we begin fighting over the back-ups of the back-ups and mining for lottery tickets. As the final round comes to a close, which is more or less just a free-for-all for kickers, the draft is over almost as quickly as it started. It is now time to feast.
The spread is a virtual shrine to the gods of finger food and potlucks. There are ribs, cheeseburger sliders, meatball sliders, steaks, hot dogs, a couple of pizzas and all of the coleslaw and potato salad a drunken buffoon can shove down his throat. There are also two items that I have never seen outside of this community and they are my favorites: chicken spiedies (recipe below) and buffalo chicken dip. Yes, I know, who’s the fool eating chicken when there are ribs and sliders to be had, but this stuff is delicious! Eating a grilled chicken spiedie sandwich is the defining moment of any trip upstate. It is the epitome of “less is more.” And don’t get me started on the buffalo chicken dip. This is easily the most intense love-hate relationship I have with any food on the planet. I have a strong, Golem-like infatuation with anything smothered in buffalo sauce, but add cheese and ranch dressing to it and turn the whole thing into a dip and I completely fall apart as a person. The combination of flavors plays to every weakness I have with food, leaving me in an elated, blissed-out mood right up until the spices begin to wreak havoc on my stomach and give me some of the worst heartburn I have endured. Yet, year after year, I keep going back to my abusive lover. I simply cannot help myself.
Once the feasting has commenced, we all throw our names into a hat and randomly select teams for the annual beer pong tournament. Generally speaking, anyone unlucky enough to have me as their partner knows as soon as they hear my name called alongside theirs, they will be making a relatively quick exit from the tournament. By this point in the night, though, the stress-drinking of lite beer during the draft followed by a gorge-fest at the pot luck line, there really isn’t much room left in my over-crowded stomach so it’s easy to not take the losses and the earned notoriety as dead weight too hard. It undoubtedly helps that the recollection of this phase of the evening is always a little foggy as well. At some point in the night, someone’s girlfriend or wife arrives reluctantly to the testosterone-engorged compound of glory to collect their lesser half and lug Chris and me back to the trusty Microtel we always stay in. After a brief snoring contest where no one wins and everyone loses, we’re back on the road making the long trip back to the NYC metro area.
It is on the way back where the obsessive article reading begins. For the next four months, me and hordes of other Americans across the country will be competing to win the Super Bowl in the respective weeks and searching up and down every fantasy football advice column and TV segment for an edge over their opponents. While it seems to be becoming an issue for the most famous players with people hassling them about poor “fantasy performances,” I have a hard time believing it’s anything more damaging than what happens on the field. Nevertheless, football season is undeniably an American treat meant to be savored. I don’t know about you, but starting next Sunday, I will be glued to the Red Zone channel anxiously waiting for the most magical words I’ve come to know in my adulthood: “7 hours of commercial free football STARTS NOW!” Cheers to the return of (fantasy) football season!