I’m a huge fantasy football nerd. I’m practically psychotic about my fantasy football league. I wasn’t always this way, but I think I know how it happened.
During my childhood, when the topic of David Zeitlin’s future would arise, my mother often recited her version of success, and they were words that this mama’s boy unwittingly took to heart. Her idea of success was that each successive generation should achieve more than the last. For me, that was going to be a pretty tall order. My family tree consisted of great grandfathers who were poor immigrants, hard-working grandfathers who were never wealthy but who provided for their families, and finally a driven, educated father who crafted a busy law practice from scratch. As the only son in my family, I knew at an early age that my assignment was to keep the graph moving along in the same direction.
It was under those auspices that I arrived, feeling duty-bound by my mother’s precept, at Penn Law School in 1995. Tragically, when I went through the process of applying to law schools, I never stopped to consider whether I was choosing the right career. All I knew was that I was supposed to be a bigger, better version of my father. Not long after my arrival in Philadelphia, I discovered my misstep.
It was the first time in my life that I was truly unhappy. Unlike my prior problems, experiencing my first law school lectures caused more than a fleeting sense of disappointment. They brought permanent discord to my life. It was official: I hated law school. Still, I refused to reject my assignment. I stuck things out. Rather than quit, I spent three years coping by adopting a studied somnolence, ignoring the plain fact that I did not belong there. I simply sleepwalked through the entire experience. I could not have cared less about Mrs. Palsgraf, and in retrospect, it isn’t a surprise that hers is among the very few names I remember from my casebooks.
As my time in law school wore on, things never improved. I went to class less and less often. When I did, I was both bored and confused. The brown-nosing students who insisted on being heard in every lecture were universally reviled, but I was less disgusted than bewildered by them. Socially, I adopted an aloof “cool guy” persona that was a caricature of my true feelings. Seeking a respite from the misery, I kept myself somewhat active socially, but only within a smallish community of other students who were not nutjobs. In light of the fact that my parents bankrolled my time at Penn (a fact that also undoubtedly contributed to my lasting through three years), and in light of the fact that I graduated and then took a high-paying job, I don’t expect much sympathy, but I was a fish out of water in law school.
It was in this atmosphere that the fantasy football league State of Yo was born. I was already a huge pro football fan [see this blog entry] and at that time, fantasy football was a nascent hobby that was just taking hold. Football fans everywhere were just discovering how great fantasy football was; how well NFL football lent itself to fantasy sports play. I was no exception–I had limited experience playing myself. So during the first week of the first semester of my third year at Penn, a group of students decided to form a fantasy football league. I don’t recall exactly how or why–it probably was both because I was the common link between the law school participants and the college friend I recruited (hi Sherm!) and because I was searching for something–anything–to stimulate my slumbering mind, but I was appointed commissioner.
The league rules were mostly copied from another league I had played in the prior year, with a baseball-style auction draft slapped on for good measure. At the inaugural draft, the auctioneer, my good college friend and then-Philly resident Kaushik Datta, repeatedly uttered the name of an obscure Black Sheep song that we both loved, and the league had its name. State of Yo.
In the inaugural season of State of Yo (also affectionately known as “SoY”)–which incidentally culminated with the crowning of a very unlikely champion who would never be heard from again–the group discovered what an enjoyable diversion fantasy football is. For me, it was more than merely enjoyable; it was exactly what the doctor ordered. As silly as it sounds, the league woke me up again. Here was something I could sink my teeth into. Yes, law school required analytical thinking, but it required (and taught) a rigid form of analysis–the memorization and application of certain principles. But the freewheeling speculative analysis required in fantasy football was more up my alley. Most points won. Stats created points. And a myriad of factors: talent, opportunity, matchup, weather, and so many other things created stats. Even though I was a work in progress (I had a strange predilection for third down backs in my very early days), I loved the game. I immediately knew that I could not have enough fantasy football.
Within SoY’s first few weeks, friendly rivalries spontaneously formed, friendships were created and solidified, and best of all, the leaguemates now had something to discuss beside our courses and gossip while cutting class. Almost out of necessity, SoY took my world by storm. I thought of little else.
After the rousing first year, there was little doubt that SoY was more than a passing fad. It required significant planning and an infusion of new players, but after graduation from law school, SoY moved to New York along with me and my reluctant career.
Nothing about my life improved during this next phase. I found work as an associate in New York even less palatable than law school. If I treated Mrs. Palsgraf with indifference, I had outright disdain for my firm’s clients, my bosses, and the steady stream of insipid tasks they burdened me with. It took very little time for me to grow deeply dissatisfied with my job, which boiled down to a lot of document shuffling and footnote writing. The confusion and dissatisfaction of law school blossomed into full-blown depression. Again, I was making a lot of money at this time and had no student loans to pay down, so you are free to regard this as puerile whining. But I was deeply depressed, self-medicating on weekends, and had no idea how to fix myself.
It was no surprise that SoY flourished and became a massive obsession under these conditions. My efforts to fulfill my mother’s mandate for generational progress had led me to a life of drudgery and discontent, but I found solace and an outlet for my unquenched competitive spirit in fantasy football. This was long before I had ever played a serious hand of poker. So, as sad as this might sound, with so little else to stimulate me, I found meaning in SoY. Fortunately, many of my leaguemates were just as eager about things as I was. We filled our days emailing trash talk and good-natured taunts to each other. Then on the weekends we got together to talk some more about the same things. We were all desk jockeys using the league as a means to entertain one another.
During this time, SoY adopted numerous changes that made it magnitudes more complex and challenging. Some of these changes were made possible by the internet, which was then expanding at an ungodly rate (modern fantasy football and poker both owe a great deal to the internet), but most of the changes were engineered by a group of like minded, well educated nutjobs. Spearheading the changes and summarizing them in a long document forever after called the “League Constitution” (maybe law school was good for something after all) was probably the biggest nutjob of all, me. In my role as commissioner I often assumed an admittedly heavy-handed posture, acting like something more than a camp counselor but something less than a despot. I have always preferred to analogize my role to that of the CEO of a small corporation. The league rules were (and remain) a work in perpetual progress, and they were discussed in boardroom-like meetings where friendly bickering was the order of the day. Like political issues, each league rule had its own constituency of supporting owners as well as its detractors, and all the arguing over them made SoY a year-round affair. The result was a complicated (the Preamble to the SoY Constitution warns the reader that ours is “not a novice league”) but well balanced set of guidelines. In the end, the most significant early rule changes may have been the adoption of tradition-creating conventions such as the establishment of a championship cup (from which the league winner must chug a Zima) and the naming of the league’s two divisions in memorium of SoY’s first (now departed) champion.
By this time (1999 or 2000) we had settled on a group of owners who were mostly like me: diehards. The result was that the league, while forging and solidifying friendships, also created fierce rivalries. My leaguemates, many of whom I now count among my closest friends, lived, died, celebrated and mourned their teams fortunes along with me on our weekly roller coaster ride. Over the years, the sheer intensity of the league has both attracted owners (we have had a waiting list for many years) and driven owners away. The league, while creating numerous new friendships, has also been guilty of damaging a couple of relationships. If nothing else, one thing was clear, and it had less to do with the money at stake (very little) than the egos involved (rather large): SoY was stirring the desk jockeys’ passions.
It was under these conditions that, to my great satisfaction, I began to dominate SoY. By 2002, I had won the league title in four of the six years the league had been in existence, and I took great delight in touting myself, at every opportunity, as a natural prodigal fantasy football talent. Yes, I told everyone: I am the best there is at predicting the yardage and TD totals of NFL players on a weekly basis! Silly? Yes. But it was a hell of a lot better than trying to impress the partners at my law firm. Of course, my opinion of myself was almost as overblown as SoY itself, but there was a kernel of truth in there.
It took the discovery, a little while later, of my own proficiency at poker for me to realize why I was winning at fantasy football: it’s a game of playing percentages that are hard to quantify. I am good at doing this. Fantasy football and poker have much in common. Luck is a constant, maddening factor in both games. In poker, you play the percentages and then let fate take over as cards are turned. In fantasy football, you play the percentages and then leave things to fate on Sunday as you pray for your players’ knees to withstand another week of punishment and for them never to get tackled at the one yard line. In both games, if you play the percentages correctly often enough, you are rewarded in the long run.
SoY has just completed its eleventh year of operation. As the years have worn on, there has been a slight but palpable decrease in the intensity with which most of the owners play. This change was inevitable. What started out as a group of single students and/or young professional guys has changed over the course of time into a collection of middle aged family men. While SoY for many of my leaguemates may never have been the all-out saving grace it initially was for me, it was at the very least a welcome diversion. But life goes on. The mean number of SoY wives has grown from zero to a number approaching one, and the mean number of SoY children has likewise expanded from zero to a number somewhere between one and two. Understandably, this has rendered SoY a fun hobby rather than an obsession for most. However, the crazy early years served as a method of owner imprinting, so everyone still plays hard. SoY is aging very gracefully.
While I am lagging (perhaps now only slightly) behind my leaguemates in terms of wife collecting and babymaking, my life has also undergone substantial change since SoY’s initial epoch. Specifically, I have reached a station in life that brings me professional and personal satisfaction. It took me a long time, but I have discovered the things in life that make me happy, and I now spend the majority of my time and energy focusing on them. I finally have my own idea of what I’m supposed to be. This is obviously a significant improvement on my old arrangement, and I am quite content to be working a lot harder than I did as a lawyer. I don’t often take the time to ponder the changes I’ve undergone in the last few years, but when I do (and it’s frequently in this blog), I am overcome with relief and pride that my old life has been put in my rearview mirror. New David is way healthier than old David.
However, there is a solitary welcome holdover from old David’s life: my passion for and competitive drive in SoY. When it comes to the league–even though I have way less free time and even though my deskjockey days are over–nothing has changed at all on my end. SoY is no longer an escape for me, but it has become a piece of me. It just is. I still feel irrational joy when I win at SoY, and I still feel bitter disappointment when I lose at SoY. It’s the centerpiece of my fall and winter Sundays. One day each week, little else matters. This conversation has happened numerous times:
Janeen: “How was your Sunday?”
David: “Fucking awful.”
Janeen: “Why? The Jets won!”
David: “Yes, the Jets won, and I won around $1,000, and I won in my other leagues (I now play in two other fantasy football leagues which are essentially filler), but I’m getting killed again in SoY. I’m two and four. My team sucks. I doubt I’m gonna make the playoffs. It’s awful.”
I suppose that brings me to the main point of this essay: After a two year hiatus, I just won the Yo Bowl again, and it feels about the same as final tabling a $10,000 tournament. Which is to say that I’m beside myself with glee.
This championship was different from my prior wins. My team–the Sugar D’s, natch–didn’t put it all together until very late in the season, and I was a decided underdog against the league’s powerhouse in the finals. Still, in the days leading up to the big game, I boldly fired off a trash talking diatribe telling my opponents in no uncertain terms that while they may have rollicked through the regular season, they were now squaring off with the man, and there was no way in hell the man would be lying down for them. And I know that the NFL players that comprise my lineup have no idea that they’re part of the storied Sug D’s, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t each play their best games of the year, allowing me to easily dispatch the bad guys like a piece of unwanted trash.
Yo Bowl. Ship it.
(Yeah, I’m a huge nerd. So?)