Dear Mr. Fantasy

Troy, New York, is a crossroads town. Located at the intersection of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, Troy was the first stop on the Erie Canal and became a manufacturing powerhouse in the 18th century. The detachable shirt collar trade there drew workers from Canada, New York City, Western New York, and Western Massachusetts. Though the factories shut down when permanent collars became the standard in the 1960s, what’s left is a regional mish-mosh in which, sports-wise, you pretty much root for a team from somewhere else. The Celtics and the Knicks, the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Canadiens and the Sabres, all have their fans in Troy.

Like most industrial towns that have lost their industry, though, Troy loves its football above all else: Buffalo Bills’ and New York Giants’ flags can be found on every block around town, with sporadic Jets’ and Patriots’ flags thrown in for good measure. My dad liked anyone who was winning, which traditionally meant the Giants. Which, given my relationship to my dad, meant I liked the Jets. Growing up, I had a poster of Al Toon on my wall; in 1986 I spent my entire allowance on Kenny O’Brien gear on a trip to the City; in ’94, after Dan Marino—who was picked three players after O’Brien in the ’83 draft—pretended to spike the ball with 22 seconds left in the fourth quarter, only to find Mark Ingram alone in the end zone for a TD and the 28-24 victory, I was so bereft I missed my bus back to college. Year after year, hope would rise in my chest, peaking after the Jets had a few fine starts and needed only a couple of wins to qualify for the playoffs, only to see them fail—dismally, embarrassingly, often concussively—at the last moment. Sundays were, to put it simply, not generally fun.

My father didn’t get it. Not just because his Giants were winning, were exciting, were, because of their history, more legit in any non-playoff year than my Jets at their best. More, as he reminded me over and over at each disappointment—devastatingly close-but-not-quite is the template for all of the teams that I love: the Knicks, Newcastle United, and the Yankees (who, don’t forget, failed to make the playoffs even once during the 14-year period that would be considered my formative fan years)—what he didn’t understand was how I could let the Jets’ results effect my mood for even the time that they were on. I was attaching some part of my psychic well-being to 50 guys who, he said, didn’t give a thought to me, ever. They weren’t rooting for me when I took my Physics Exam, didn’t suffer if I failed, or jump out of their seats if, after stumbling through the multiple choice section, I aced the applied problems for a passing score. They didn’t, to put it in the blunt way my father did time and again, care if I lived or died; they simply didn’t know that I existed, so why should I really care?

He was right of course, in his way. Slowly I would realize that sports fans are at their purest when they are fans of sport, exclusively: of the beauty of the game, of its strategies, of things well executed, of things that transcend humanness. That is, that’s one side of purity—the other, though it existed under my personal radar for my first three decades, is one in which your team is actually your team, and the results can indeed have a positive effect on your life. That’s right, I have become one of those geeks who play Fantasy Football. Two years ago, when my office started up its first league, I was quick to join in. My Sundays haven’t been the same since.

That first league started with an office-wide lack of understanding the ins and out of rotisserie football, where individual performances matter and team success doesn’t. Not knowing a thing myself, I enlisted the help of my brother-in-law, an old school fantasy player. I borrowed his draft day ranking sheet, and, in my uneducated league, cleaned up. Unlike everyone else in my league, I did not select a single player from the team I usually root for on Sundays. Not one measly Jet. I was tempted—Curtis Martin might have a good year, Chad Pennington might stay healthy—ultimately though, I knew I couldn’t count on any of those things.

And in fact it was liberating, separating myself from the team that I had adored but which had also been a burden, in a way, throughout my life. My fandom had been a weight, one that demanded devotion and hope but which ended, time and again, in disappointment. So I buried that fandom as deep down as I could, while the others in my league loaded up on people from their hometown teams, even if that hometown was Cleveland.

It changed everything for me. If the Jets were on I might watch them, but when Chad Pennington was lost for the season during week three, it didn’t send me into hibernation for the rest of the year. Instead, I watched my quarterback Carson Palmer pass for over 3800 yards; I watched my tailback Shaun Alexander break the season record by rushing for 27 touchdowns; I became, indeed, a free agent. Any game with one of my players in it was of interest to me. The day that Pennington got hurt I wasn’t happy about it, but nothing could temper my glee when that very same weekend Alexander scored four touchdowns. Instead of my season being over, I was still playing for something on Christmas weekend: my league’s championship. The Jets may have endured one of their worst seasons since the Rich Kotite era, but, when I won the whole thing, I was rewarded with a six-month subscription to the Beer of the Month Club.

This year, though, things haven’t gone as smoothly. And in week two I faced a dilemma of a sort I hadn’t faced before. For those of you not up on the intricacies of rotisserie ball, it basically boils down to drafting a team of, say, 15 players, and then picking the best nine to play each week. Like a real team, if you have two QBs, you can only play one. Their real-world stats from that week are converted into points for your team—e.g., 50 passing yards equals one point; a passing TD equals six—and your team’s total is put up against whosever team in your league you’re playing that week. This year I have two quarterbacks, Kurt Warner of the Cardinals, and Tom Brady from the Patriots. Warner can be a statistical demon, but this week he was going up against a Seattle defense that only gave up six points the week before.

And there’s the rub: Brady, my other QB, was playing against the Jets, a team that doesn’t exactly have an intimidating defense. Warner has been struggling, and so Brady was the clear pick. But the problem seemed greater to me. In a non-Jet v. Patriot game, fine. But the Patriots…Jets fans hate the Pats perhaps as much as we hate the Dolphins. To make matters worse, I had an off chance of going to the game, but I wouldn’t know until after I had to pick my team. Did I really want to be sitting in the Meadowlands dressed in green and white, surrounded by 50,000 other people dressed that way, silently happy every time Brady completed a pass? Did I want to have to pretend to be booing every time he threw a touchdown? Worse, did I really want to root against the Jets in any way? I put Warner in.

The result: Warner got sacked five times (-5 points), fumbled the ball four times (-4 points), and threw an interception (-2 points). It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, down by nearly 20 points, that Warner completed his one touchdown pass. He ended the day with six points total, my worst QB output by at least ten points in 18 weeks of play.

And the Jets? After getting smeared 24-0 in the first 38 minutes by a once-again precise Tom Brady, they began mounting a comeback. I watched (from home—the tickets fell through) as their defense came alive, making stop after stop. With 9:54 left to play, they were only down by a touchdown, and the way things were going, that didn’t seem like much. Suddenly my heart rate was pumping, hope again blooming in my chest. I was standing, pacing my room in front of the TV, as into the game as I ever had been.

Except that the Patriots held the ball for the next eight minutes. When the Jets finally got the ball back, Chad Pennington threw a game-ending interception. I fell back, deflated, on the couch. I started chain smoking, with the distinct feeling of having lost twice.

My season isn’t over. After week three (and another loss by me) I’m in seventh place, but there are a lot of games yet to play. With a 2-1 record, neither are the Jets done. If their offense can get in gear earlier in games, if their defense can improve, if, if, if…. Because of the way I’ve been conditioned by my seasons of disappointment, I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to this Sunday with more excitement or just plain dread. I can’t help but feel that week two was a bell-weather for how things really are with me and the teams that I root for. It’ll be exciting, I’ll watch, I’ll read both the newspapers and the fantasy football websites, I’ll make trades, improve my defense, wear my Jets cap on Sundays—but mostly it will just mean a lot of money spent on antacid.

One thing I do know for sure though—the Jets play the Pats again week ten. Count on it: if any one offers me game tickets I’ll politely decline. I’ll be busy, pacing my living room, hoping the Jets win the most high-scoring game ever. And, regardless, I’ll be rooting for Tom Brady.

TMS Ed.: Since this story was written, the Jets lost to the Colts in a nail-biter. Peyton Manning’s touchdown in the closing seconds sent the Jets to a 2-2 record. We wonder if the author’s fantasy team fared better.

— Austin    Oct 2, 03:27 PM    #

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