Faith in Al Davis? Youth fantasy draft a refreshing perspective
More than a dozen seven, eight and nine-year-olds competed in a fantasy draft
Among their top picks were Kurt Warner, Justin Fargas and 'Tom Brandy'
Their refreshing perspective afterwards is a lesson for adults
Last Thursday afternoon, in what some may view as a sign of the apocalypse and others may deem encouraging news for the future of America's youth, more than a dozen 7, 8 and 9-year olds gathered in a living room in Aptos, Cailf., for the inaugural Aptos Amateur Fantasy Football League draft. Just like their adult counterparts, the boys wore baseball hats (and one coonskin cap), carried notebooks full of scribbled rankings (some even legible) and appeared to subsist entirely on Rice Krispie treats and beer (okay, so it was root beer). To watch them was to see a distorted reflection of the 20 million of us -- mostly adults, tending toward the obsessive -- who play fantasy sports, and, perhaps even to gain a little perspective.
2:45 p.m.: Jesse Cox and his twin 7-year-old sons, Ben and Tommy, co-managers of a team, arrive. The night before, when Jesse told his boys they were going to a draft, they had both cheered.
"We get to go on a raft!" one said.
"No, a draft," Jesse replied.
The smiles turned to frowns. "But we want to go rafting!"
3:00: The Jeffery's modest living room is now teeming with small, fidgety boys. They are doubled-up in easy chairs and wedged into the couch like spare change, clutching master draft lists. The day's emcee is Kevin Jeffery, an amiable lawyer and Stanford grad who's been playing fantasy football since 1987. It was his 9-year-old son, Cooper, who, after years watching his dad draft, begged to have his own league with his friends.
3:03: Team names are written on a giant poster board and they tend to follow the equation of cool adjective + cool animal = totally badass name. So there are Rabid Raccoons and Fearless Ferrets and Flying Monkeys and Leaping Lizards. The only team of girls, however, takes a different tack, as 11-year-old Kate Jeffery and her friend Sydney Rastatter (who is decked out in a pink Donovan McNabb jersey) go with YouGotBeatByaGirl.
3:12: Judging by the first round, the girls may be right. They steal Adrian Peterson with the third overall pick -- and will later get Darren McFadden in the eighth round (!) - after Kurt Warner goes first and 7-year-old Trey Lee stands up, clears his throat and announces that with the second overall pick he will be choosing "TOM BRANDY." Later, teams will draft Kelley Winslow and Marc Blunger.
3:36: Blake Wheeler, who is 9 years old and wearing a JaMarcus Russell jersey and black-and-gray armbands, drafts Oakland reserve running back Justin Fargas with the 39th overall pick, something even Justin Fargas might would not do. Blake, who has big brown eyes and spindly legs, can not only recite the scores of the Raiders' preseason games but also says he is "certain" this is their year. And really, who wants to be the one to tell him he's better off believing in Santa Clause than Al Davis?
3:41: After nearly an hour of remarkably attentive drafting, the first monster burp is unleashed (from the girls, to much applause) followed not long after by the first airborne projectile (remember those Rice Krispie treats?). You can only keep the 9-year-old in a 9-year-old down for so long.
3:45: Jackson Carver boldly picks Eagles wideout DeSean Jackson, hewing to his informal strategy of accumulating players under 5-foot-11. His father Jason, sitting across the room and decked out in his Little League coaching gear, nods his approval. It's a big step up for Jackson; last fall, he helped with his dad's draft but, as Jason explains, "he thought that you picked the players and then they formed a real team, which then went and played the other teams and you could watch." Which, come to think of it, is a brilliant idea.
3:46: "KAN-YAY!" shouts Cooper, pointing to the TV, which is tuned to the NFL pregame show. There is a mad rush to the tube. It takes three minutes to get everyone's attention back on the draft, then another three to determine that it is not in fact Kanye West but rather the Black Eyed Peas.
4:05: Trey hunkers down on the floor, a pencil behind his ear, and stares at his draft list; he looks more serious than an actual football GM during the NFL draft. Which isn't that surprising. Though not old enough to understand all the rules, Trey has the emotional investment part down. Each morning, his father tells me, Trey stares at the sports page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, memorizing names and numbers. And last year, after adopting the Steelers as "his team" -- because his Little League squad was the Pittsburgh Pirates, of course - he became so upset when the Cardinals took the lead during the final minutes of the Super Bowl that he began crying. You know, just like thousands of grown-up Pittsburgh fans.
4:08: In the sixth round, Cooper tries to take Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who was chosen only, oh, six rounds prior. It's decided that repeat picks equal 10 pushups. There will be many, many pushups before the afternoon is up.
4:15: Break time. The boys stream outside for ten minutes of frantic basketball, skate-boarding, football-throwing and hot dog inhalation. The dads excitedly discuss who got which steal of a draft pick.
4:33: Darren Sproles goes in the seventh round. Tow-headed Max Pepperdine, who spent a week preparing a notebook in advance of the draft, pounds the chair. "Dang it! He was my next pick."
5:02: It's the 10th round and two drafters are lost to afternoon baseball games and one to a soccer scrimmage. Those who remain are already trying to upgrade their rosters. In one corner, Mekhi Burkett, 10 years old and wearing a too-big Red Sox hat, approaches 13-year-old Sarah Jeffery, who has taken over for her sister. "I'll trade you my kicker for Adrian Peterson," he says coolly. She looks at him the way women have long looked at younger, foolish men. "Yeah," she replies, "That would be a real good deal for you."
5:20: The draft ends. "You know," says J.P., a 9-year-old in a Jaguars jersey and one of four players who drafted without parental assistance, "if my dad were here" -- he pauses to examine his team, which includes a third-round pick of kicker David Akers and a fifth-round choice of quarterback Trent Edwards, then nods assuredly -- "I might have picked the same team."
And that, if anything, sums up how these boys see the draft: full of wild possibility. Maybe David Akers will set all manner of kicking records this year, just like the Raiders could win the Super Bowl and, you never know, maybe Trey could one day draft his dad in a fantasy league, as he tried to do in the fifth round ("Yeah, you better not choose me -- I'm not in the league," Mike Lee said gently).
After all, what's so wrong with wild possibility? When the NFL season opener kicks off 10 minutes later, all the dads dutifully take up their positions around the TV in the living room, slumped into easy chairs, beers in hand, eyes glued to the tube. The boys, however, are nowhere in sight. Out in the front yard, close to a dozen of them are on the asphalt of the cul-de-sac, matched up five-on-five and playing touch football in the warm afternoon sun. They run, they yell, they lateral when they shouldn't. The sun dips toward the horizon. Inside, the game began. Outside, life continues.
Chris Ballard is a Senior Writer for SI and SI.com. His "On Sports" column appears every Thursday on SI.com and he writes the "Point After" column for the magazine every third week. His latest book, The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA, will be in bookstores on Nov. 3.