I remember the day so vividly. The afternoon my middle school football coach told me I didn’t make the team. The moment my NFL dreams died and the moment I realized nobody gets cut from the middle school football team unless they’re really bad. Looking back, though, that disappointment didn’t cause me to lose my passion for the game, and I’m glad it didn’t because later on in high school there was a football league that actually wanted an unathletic, slow, weak, and energetic member to join them.
I had finally found a place where I belonged.
And that place? It was in the exciting and competitive world of fantasy football. I joined my first league after my Young Life leader, who had a big influence on my life and had been playing fantasy for a while, invited me to give it a try.
I was a huge NFL fan to begin with, and I kept up with players and teams because I watched games all the time. When I started playing fantasy, my knowledge was finally put to good use. Instead of just sharing my thoughts and opinions about the NFL at the lunch table and only discussing what players will do well in the upcoming season, or what players were going to break out later in the year, I was now able to use that information in my head to compete against other sports fans.
The league I was in with my Young Life leader, and some of his friends, was just for fun. It was all new to me so I had to learn how to draft, trade, sign players and figure out how to put together a winning team. It was a good time, and I had an up and down season that still landed me in the playoffs. It’s always big when a rookie makes the playoffs in real football or fantasy football, and I was excited to make that happen. However, I wasn’t satisfied. My competitive nature that I tried to use on the football field (even though I was missing the talent) was now helping me in the fantasy realm. I went on to upset the entire league and win the championship. This was when fantasy football turned from a cool idea from my Young Life leader to an intense hobby that now is a major aspect of my social and sporting life.
I realized that being in one league, especially in a league where I didn’t know everyone, wasn’t going to be enough. I needed to start my own league (and become the commissioner) with my high school buddies. Little did I know that the league I started eight years ago would become the most competitive, entertaining, and worthwhile pastime I could ever be involved with.
This tight-knit league represents so much more than just the fantasy matchups each week. It’s a group of 11 of my closest high school friends and my two brothers that continues a strong bond with each other because we engage in a year ‘round experience. We have fun at the live draft in someone’s basement, proposing lopsided trades, signing players to our roster before anyone else does, going against each other during rivalry week, choosing what ridiculous pop songs represent each league member, ordering the winner’s ring while laughing at the last place team wearing the bracelet of charms, deciding what players are going to be kept for the next season, and bragging about how good our team is, was, or will be.
But the key to our successful and worthwhile league is we all stay constantly connected because there is always something to talk about. It gives me an excuse to call my buddy and ask if he wants to trade his quarterback for my extra running back, and then I can ask how his wife is doing or how his job is going. It’s an icebreaker that’s always there, and we know how guys, especially, need that. There is more to just playing a make-believe game and setting your lineup each week, it’s a way to have fun with the people you care about, even when you aren’t physically with them.
You might think we are crazy because we chip in a little money to buy the league winner a championship ring each year or that we’ve had a member fly in for the live draft or that the past winners get together in the offseason “winners meeting” to discuss the upcoming season and any changes that need to be made to the league. But it’s all worth it if it leads to 14 grown men caring for each other, even if it’s disguised as fun banter leading up to our weekly matchups, sending teasing text messages, leaving “rubbing it in” voicemails or coming up with clever trash talk after the win. A level of compassion and concern for each other is still there, despite the intense competition and desire to embarrass our fellow rivals.
Deep down, we all desire to belong and be accepted. I understand that belonging to Christ is far and away the most important way this desire is lived out, but I also recognize that having an alliance with other men that facilitates discussion regarding football, faith, family and of course fantasy, can have tremendous value as we deal with or sometimes even escape the realities of life here on earth.
This column was published in the July 2012 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. Print and digital subscribers, log in and view the issue here. Every week Bryce Johnson is joined on Sports Spectrum’s official podcast, SPORTS YAPP, by inspiring guests to discuss sports, faith and life. Follow Bryce on Twitter-@sportsyapp.