Jim Nettles’ eyes got wide when I told him I knew nothing about fantasy football.
It was for other guys, not for me. Too much work, too much preparation, too many statistics, too many-too many’s for me to have any interest.
Fantasy football was for dweebs and dorks, not for real men. It was for those not macho enough to call a bookie or walk into a casino sportsbook and slam down a ten-dollar bill on the counter and make a real bet. If I want to wager I’ll do it like a swashbuckler, not like one of those game playing stat rats.
So, when Nettles asked me back in August if I had any interest in joining his fantasy football league, I dismissed it with a laugh. What I didn’t tell him was other than having no interest, I didn’t understand it. I had no idea how it worked. I also really disliked guys who talked about their fantasy teams incessantly. Worse were those who wrote blogs about it.
He asked me again a week later, three weeks before the NFL season was scheduled to start. He told me the league consisted of ten teams, but they only had nine and were looking for someone else. In other words, they needed a patsy. Someone who posed no threat to win. I fit the profile. I told my Las Vegas neighbor and golf partner if he still didn’t have a tenth in a couple of weeks, ask me again.
They couldn’t find one, so he asked again. I didn’t want to do it. I went home and told Andi. She said, “Go ahead, you’ll love it.” “No, I won’t.” I ducked Jim for a couple more days before he sent the artillery out for me — Fast Eddie Wollock and Mike Rubin. Two retired ABC-TV Sports sales execs who didn’t believe in taking ‘no’ for an answer. To anything.
I committed. The league, Hunters Farm Fantasy Football quarterbacked by Keith Malooley out of Chicago, has been around for 15 years. Nettles, Wollock and Rubin— all ex-Chicagoans, now live in our Vegas golf community and have teams in the league. . The buy-in was $400 but it was offset when Nettles told me that on draft night we’ll have a Ketel One vodka and pizza party at his house. That all sounded fine until I found out I was the one sponsoring the pizza.
Four days before the fantasy draft and I didn’t have a clue. Really. I am not a stats guy, never have been. I watch games, fewer now than ever, for fun and maybe wager a quid or two on the outcome. I am as unfamiliar with players as I’ve ever been, which doesn’t make for a real strong fantasy football resume.
It was time to resort to my two key business principles that carried me through a 45-year career. Number one was always hire people who knew more about what they were doing than I did. Second was if things turn out right, it’s because of me; if they don’t, it’s because of you.
I needed a partner. The clock was ticking. I needed someone who knew how this fantasy thing worked. The first place I thought of was our golf shop and the teaching staff whom I’ve heard talking fantasy football. Incessantly.
“Hey, Kevin,” I said to Kevin Lim, one of our club pros, “how much do you know about fantasy football?” “A bit. I play in some leagues,” he fired back, “but the guy you really want to ask is Kyle.”
Kyle Dawson is Lim’s colleague and was out on the practice green teaching a 10-year-old girl how to putt. I took lessons from Dawson a year ago and hoped this kid had better results than me. But if the guy knew anything about fantasy football, all would be forgiven.
I called him away from his lesson. The kid didn’t have a problem with it but her mother was a bit chaffed. Chill mom, this ain’t no Annika Sorenstam you’re raising. I told Dawson I needed a fantasy partner; a general manager to run the team. I would fund it, criticize the moves that didn’t work and if there was any net profit when it was over, we’d split it. I knew the Chicago boys were simply looking at me as a no-return investor, but they didn’t count on me bringing in a ringer. Or so I hoped.
I also told Kyle the way it was: “If we do well, it’s because of me; if we don’t, it’s because you screwed up. There is also a slim chance of you making it through the season without being canned.” In a rush to get back to his lesson, he laughed and accepted. I wasn’t kidding.
Draft night came and went. The pizza was good, the Ketel better. I had no idea what a fantasy draft was or how many players we had to select. When it was over we had three guys on our team I never heard of: J.K. Dobbins, Devin Singletary and DeVante Parker. Dawson, 37, told me to relax; he knew what he was doing. He’s been a fantasy geek for 20 years. I was familiar with our quarterback, a relic named Tom Brady. The first inkling I had that Dawson might be okay was he didn’t select any Jets. That’s always a good sign. The bad news for us was neither did anyone else in the league.
Two five team divisions and 13 weeks of play. Our team was Ace, so named by Dawson for the only one of us that ever carded a hole-in-one. And this guy is a golf pro?
We lost the first week. It’s no wonder. He never consulted me on a line-up. I stopped into the golf shop and simply said, “Your ice is very thin.” Kyle laughed. I didn’t.
We then won the next three weeks. He still didn’t ask for any advice, but the wins were clearly a direct reflection on me and my judgement in picking my partner.
A 119-118 loss followed in week five. I couldn’t channel my inner George Steinbrenner and fire the guy. Not yet. That turned out to be a keen decision by me as we rallied the next week to win by the thinnest margin possible: 113.1-113. Then things went back and forth, with a record of 7-5 after week 12. I didn’t really follow it too closely, instead just looked at the results on Sunday evenings. I couldn’t be bothered. Team Ace was a very small portion of my retirement portfolio.
Heading out to play golf a few days later, Dawson grabbed me and asked, “Did you know this is the last week of the regular fantasy season?” I did not. He told me we were in first place in our division and a win wraps up the division; we get some bonus money, but more importantly a first-round bye in the playoffs. Six of the 10 teams get in with the top two getting byes. All I could think is why are you wasting your time with golf lessons when clearly there were bigger things for us?
We, okay Kyle, made quick work of our opposition in the regular season finale winning 208-116. We not only won our division, but also wound up top seed in the league for the playoffs. We also banked a few more dollars for being the top scoring team in the league that week. This was starting to work out nicely. I gave Kyle the dreaded vote of confidence. I gave myself a hearty pat on the back for selecting this guy.
We relaxed in a Barcalounger with our bye in the first round of the playoffs only to face Jim Nettles, who got me into this thing, in the second round, the semifinals. We beat Nettles, a past three-time league winner, back in week three, 138-133. CBS has a program called SportsLine, that tracks the league throughout the week and in real time on game days; they made us a slight two-point favorite in the playoff forecast. Not that enough wasn’t already on the line, a spot in the league’s Super Bowl, but Nettles and I raised the stakes, err steaks, wagering a little side action — dinner for four. Loser buys. No limit on the Ketel. Now this fantasy thing really had my interest. I didn’t know what was more important— winning the game or not losing the dinner bet. Yeah, I did, but wasn’t saying.
Two Sundays ago, I sat in my den with RedZone on television and stared at my SportsLine real-time game tally. NFL’s RedZone is made for this. Updates on every game, every scoring opportunity. It’s fantasy meth for fantasy players. The match-up against Nettles began as a disappointment until our scoring numbers starting flashing on the SportsLine scoreboard like the national debt. Brady, 43, played like he was only forty-two and had a huge second half against Atlanta. When the afternoon games ended we had a 170-152 lead. Not by any means a done deal as Nettles had one player left in the Sunday night game. We had none. What we had going for us is Nettles, a Michigan alum, is used to not winning the big game.
I never heard of Chase Claypool. He was Nettles’ guy in the night game. Because I don’t follow the game or players intimately anymore that’s not unusual. Claypool, a receiver for the Steelers, was a concern. He led the team in touchdowns with ten. He’s a rookie from Notre Dame, another reason not to like him. And he is Canadian — who ever heard of a good Canadian football player? Curling, yes. Football, no. I knew he had to tally less than 18 points for us to win, but 14 weeks into this I honestly had no idea how a receiver gets points. Now I do. For the first time all season I looked. Six points for a touchdown; one point for each reception, and one point for each ten yards of receiving yardage. SportsLine, which also handicaps in-game, now gave us a 62% chance of winning. Not enough for me.
Everywhere Claypool went in the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game, so did my eyes. After my dog-induced eye injury I have one good one and one not-so-good. Didn’t matter. I turned the intensity up in both eyes. Claypool became identifiable to me by a towel he wore tucked into the back of his uniform pants like a butcher cutting filets. It was a totally different way to watch a game. I was relaxed when Pittsburgh was on defense. I paced when the Steelers had the ball. Whenever quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked away from Claypool, that was good. Looking in his direction, not so much. Claypool finished with eight points. We won 170-160. Nettles, a bitter man, texted “You should have fired Kyle after the first week.” We advanced to the fantasy Super Bowl. I won dinner. I think I like Chase Claypool.
Now this fantasy thing was starting to get to me. I started texting Dawson daily. Who’s in our lineup? Who are we going to sit? Do you think we have a chance? Our championship game opponent, Michaels Favorites, wiped the floor with us in week 11 with a 151-116 trouncing. That was also the last time we lost a game. With 167, 208 and 170 points over the next three weeks we led the league in scoring over that period. We were hot. Lest you forget, it was my decision to hire Dawson.
SportsLine made us a 22-point favorite in the championship game. It was the largest Super Bowl spread since the 49ers were 18.5 favorites over the Chargers in 1995. San Francisco cruised to a win. That was our plan, too.
I got up last Sunday morning and found something called Fantasy Football Now on ESPN2. I never heard of it but was glued to it. I said to Andi, “I can’t believe I’m watching this.” She quipped, “I can.”
Championship Sunday was actually anti-climactic. Brady, on fire, tore through Detroit’s defense the day before racking up 39 fantasy points, well above his forecast of 28. SportsLine moved our win percentage to 78% before Sunday’s games even kicked off. Big afternoons for our David Montgomery, David Johnson, Allen Robinson, Giovani Bernard and our season MVP, Darren Waller, moved our lead to a commanding 173-84 when the afternoon games ended. Michaels Favorites still had two players remaining in the Sunday night game but it was all over. SportsLine upped us to a 99% winner, even a better percentage than Atlanta had over New England in the 2017 Super Bowl with a 25-point lead in the second half. The difference was we wrapped our arms around the trophy and didn’t fritter away our lead like Atlanta did. We claimed the league crown with a 173-105 win, an easy cover. The largest Super Bowl winning margin since 1990 when San Fran crushed Denver, 55-10. This fantasy football stuff, when you win, is okay.
It couldn’t have been easy for the rest of the veteran league owners to have a first timer come in and claim the gold especially when we were supposed to be nothing more than fodder. Kyle and I texted congratulations back and forth. A bit cocky, he said, “I think it’s time we talk about my contract extension.” He was right. I immediately tore up our week-to-week arrangement and put him on a two-week deal for next season. But will there be a next season for us?
Now a confirmed fantasy nerd with a trophy and a winner’s check, I asked Nettles how to sign up for next year?
“Only you’re invited,” he snapped quickly. “We don’t want Kyle back.”
It’s nice to go from chump to champ. I’ll remind Jim Nettles about that at the dinner he’s buying.