Last season I sent a text to a former teammate who is still in the NFL. "How does the Minnesota secondary look on film?" I asked. "Why?" he wondered. "Fantasy football!" I replied. He exploded in texted laughter and called me a dork, wondering how I could possibly be playing fantasy football. His reaction caught me by surprise. Was it really that out of character? Had I become one of them?
I played in the NFL from 2003 through '08 and was never on anyone's big board. A backup tight end and special-teamer for the Broncos, I had no noteworthy statistics. My name wasn't spoken by analysts. It appeared in no headlines. For me and most of my teammates, statistics were irrelevant. There is only one ball on a football field. Fantasy football tracks the movement of that ball and the one man who holds it. He is the shooting star. Everyone else is the night sky.
I haven't been in an NFL training camp since 2009, when I was cut by the Browns. The tension, the sweaty palms, the imminent bloodbath; they're now in the rearview mirror, a past life growing smaller and smaller by the second. This summer, instead of training, I was lying on the sand in Venice Beach, pondering my only football question: Will Robert Griffin III be healthy for Week 1? Because I drafted him in the 11th round last year, and he's my keeper for this year. That meant I got to take him in the ninth round. But if he wasn't going to be healthy for the opener, I'd need to pick another quarterback. Our draft was a few weeks ago, and it looks like RG3 will be ready after all, but I still took Michael Vick, just in case. He's going to have a great year, I think.
The friends I play fantasy football with are childhood and college friends, most of whom didn't play football past high school. We grew up together as football fans, as 49ers fans, as fans of the NFL's mythology. We dreamed of NFL glory and superstardom. For many years this was my only truth. It pushed me to work hard and believe in destiny. I can be Joe Montana. I can be Jerry Rice. I can be a superstar! And if I'm not—well, never mind that. I will be!
But I wasn't. The fantasy died when the ink dried on my first contract. This is the NFL, boy. Now keep up or get out. I spent six years playing reality football. Reality football is different from what I worshipped as a child—and from the idealized vision of the game that so many fantasy football players hold. But it wasn't until the dust settled on my football life that I was able to see it.
Fantasy football isn't just the game I play online with my old buddies. It's the NFL's well-crafted pageantry. It's show business. Lights and cameras. Press conferences and advertising. Sex and money. The fantasy sells better, it's true. I can't blame them for putting it in the window. But let's have a look in the basement at what's really inside.
Fantasy Football: A player's statistics are all that matter.
Reality Football: No one knows anyone's stats, not even their own.
Fantasy Football: NFL players are millionaires.
Reality Football: Many aren't and never will be.
Fantasy Football: The NFL is all about Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers. Everyone else is a scrub.
Reality Football: Everyone in the NFL is great at football. It's not uncommon for a future Hall of Famer to get smoked in practice by a rookie free agent who won't make the team.
Fantasy Football: It's a quarterback's league. Without a "franchise quarterback," you have no chance. (This is what happens when you stock the booth with former quarterbacks and quarterback coaches.)
Reality Football: The action of the quarterback is determined by the 21 moving bodies around him and the coaches on the sideline. The quarterback is one man with one job. Either he does it well or he does not. After the game he stands naked in line for the shower like everyone else.
Fantasy Football: Roger Goodell is making the game safer. He is removing dangerous head shots from the game through fines and penalties, and has settled on a large fund to help retired players, contributed money to researching head trauma and established the Heads-Up tackling initiative, which teaches kids not to hit with their helmets.
Reality Football: You can't hit without your head. And no matter how many times you say the word "safe," football is not safe. It never has been and never will be. That's the whole point.
Fantasy Footba ... Ah, that's enough. I could go on, but what's the purpose? There are games on TV. Now, come on, RG3, make me proud.
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Average cost for two tickets, parking and two beers at AT&T Stadium, the most expensive venue in the NFL according to Team Marketing Report. The NFL average is $209; the Browns were the least expensive, at $143.
Points scored by the Tulsa Shock's Riquna Williams, a WNBA single-game record. Williams hit eight threes and went 17 for 28 in a 98--65 win over the Silver Stars.
Total runs scored by the Yankees (eight, eight and nine) in three straight losses to the Red Sox last Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It's the first time the Bombers have scored eight or more in three consecutive games without a victory.
Final vote of the International Olympic Committee in awarding the 2020 Games to Tokyo over Istanbul after Madrid was eliminated in an earlier ballot. Japan last held the Summer Games in '64 in Tokyo.
Rushing yards amassed by BYU through three quarters, breaking the school record of 465 in a game set in 1958. The Cougars finished with 550 yards on the ground, 681 total yards and the scalp of Longhorns DC Manny Diaz, who was fired after the 40--21 drubbing.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HELMET)
SHANE BEVEL/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WILLIAMS)
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HOME PLATE)
MELISSA MAJCHRZAK/GETTY IMAGES (MASCOT)