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The image still haunts me.
I can't escape the flashback, especially as fall approaches. I still can see New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington dropping back, slipping on that slick Giants Stadium turf, regaining his balance and hurling a fluttering pass that lands in a mound of fresh snow a few feet from the end zone seats. No receiver in sight, no Pittsburgh defensive back in pursuit, just a couple security guards snickering as officials retrieved the football in a game that would've broken the heart of any fantasy football owner.
I am just such an owner. And watching Pennington throw for 144 yards and no touchdowns against a weak Pittsburgh secondary with the Sports Illustrated Fantasy Association championship on the line only reminded me of how humbling the fantasy world can be. I had everything going for me in that contest -- a roster that featured Pennington, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jamal Lewis and Marvin Harrison -- and it all unraveled like the lining of a cheap dinner jacket. I lost by seven points, earning me a second-place finish in SIFA for the second straight year. That's not going to happen again.
If you're a fantasy addict like me -- and the latest numbers show that there are at least 10-15 million owners who fall into that category -- you understand. You're about to head into your fantasy drafts in which you'll construct teams to get you to that point I just described. And if you've played long enough, you know this is a time to take seriously.
I used to chuckle at the guys who would enter drafts with thick stacks of fantasy magazines and expert cheat sheets. That was before I drafted a backfield of Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson on the premise that at least one of those players would gain 1,000 yards in the Broncos' offense. Today, like most smart fantasy veterans, I don't touch running backs who split carries.
I have plenty of other rules but the most important involves preparation. Our SIFA draft is next Tuesday, and I'll have so many legal pads, highlighters and variously colored ballpoint pens that it will seem like I just raided my local Office Max. I'll also have my own well-researched crib notes because SIFA is a 10-team league, which means there isn't enough depth to make quality trades. The draft becomes everything, especially after you've spent an entire season, as I did last year, with Donald Driver as your second receiver.
This is what happens in Fantasy Football. It sucks you in a little more each year. It teases your competitive spirit, reminding me of a great line Paul Newman uttered in The Color of Money, that money won is twice as sweet as money earned. It also makes you know the names of people you have no business knowing, men like Artose Pinner, Triandos Luke and LaBrandon Toefield. Why? Because you watch a grinning rival walking off with the jackpot at the end of the season and you think one thought: That should've been me.
I know this feeling well because I've watched SI.com columnist Pete McEntegart beat me in the title game two years in a row, all because he had Priest Holmes and I didn't. In fact, on that same day that I watched Pennington flounder around in that winter wonderland, I had the equally painful experience of watching Holmes run wild against the Lions' abysmal defense. Holmes had two of his three touchdowns by halftime, and Dick Vermeil left him in for most of a 45-17 rout. Vermeil didn't give the ball to Larry Johnson until late. He didn't throw it to Eddie Kennison often. He just kept handing the rock to Priest. There are laws preventing me from revealing all the ill will I wished on Vermeil that day.
But I realize I can't blame him now. I also can't rely too heavily on whatever precious insider information I gain as an NFL writer. For every high that comes from that advantage -- such as drafting Rich Gannon, Ricky Williams and Peerless Price in 2002, when all three had career years -- there are lows like I had in 1999, when I was so enthralled by the potential of Peyton Manning and Stephen Davis that I traded a no-name quarterback on a hot streak (Kurt Warner) and a formerly injury-prone running back (Marshall Faulk) early in the season. I realize that makes about as much sense as Al Sharpton's presence at last night's MTV Video Music Awards but I simply didn't believe the Rams were for real at the time.
That partly explains why, for most of the past three years, I've relied heavily on the valuable insights of my former partner, a recent law school graduate named Nicole. She knew the players, the numbers and the matchups as well as anybody. Unfortunately, she moved to Chicago, leaving all the pressure on me. (My girlfriend is quick to remind of that, by the way. She doesn't get my devotion to EA Sports' College Football 2005, but she understands cold cash.)
That's fine. I've had my ups and downs. I've learned from my mistakes. Plus, I'm armed with one more resource for this season. Along with monitoring game stats for sleepers and injury reports for bums, I can guarantee you that not another Sunday will pass without my checking a weather report again.
I also can't leave without sharing my appreciation for these three people:
Allen Iverson: Bashing the U.S. men's basketball team has been a popular trend this summer, but Iverson hasn't gotten enough credit for his efforts. He lobbied to be on this team when it wasn't clear that he would have the opportunity. He stayed on it while most of his fellow superstars bailed for various reasons. He also played hurt, didn't make excuses and preached about how special this opportunity was for anybody asked to participate. Instead of griping about this team's bronze medal and the state of American hoops, people should respect the way he represented this country in Greece.
David Simon: This former Baltimore Sun reporter is the creative force behind HBO's The Wire, a show I can't believe I've blown off over the past two years. I've finally caught reruns of the second season, and I'm hooked. Last year's episodes were consistently better than those of The Sopranos, and this happens to be the same man who produced the idea for one of the best television cop series ever, Homicide. The dude can write.
Some anonymous MTV Producer: I'm talking about the person who came up with the idea to have Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder and Lenny Kravitz perform together in last night's VMAs. Best move of the night, by far.