Here’s how fantasy football unites us as sports fans

Depending on where in the United States you live, the weather still has a pretty good chance of being nice these next couple of weekends. The sun is out, the optimism of summer lingers and it is a great time to be right where you want to be.

Which is to say, stuck inside on your laptop, poring through lists of unheralded football player names and statistical quirks.

That’s right, the most wonderful waste of time in sports is returning with all the certainty of Belichickian grumpiness – with drafts, autodrafts, draft parties, mock drafts and still more drafts ready to become a part of millions of Americans’ lives again.

It’s estimated that more than 40 million people will be playing Fantasy Football this year, which comprises about 70% of the fantasy sports market in North America. For many fantasy players, it gives them a reason to care about football every week, regardless of how a real team that might merit their fandom is faring in the NFL standings.

Fantasy football is a gorgeous sin, isn’t it? It is a guilty pleasure that, all too often, is not in the slightest bit pleasurable. It is the thing you do when you should be concentrating on so many other things — trivialities like children, relationships and your job. And we love it.

Being good at it doesn’t make you a great general manager. If you are, say, an insurance broker who happens to be awesome at fantasy, you’re not locked in the wrong profession and missing your true calling in an NFL front office. You’re just an insurance broker who’s good at fantasy.

Many of the actual players whose week-to-week point totals are the fuel for such joy or misery have a passionate hatred for fantasy.

“I loathe fantasy,” former Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster, a man upon whose stealthy legs literally thousands of fictional title teams were built, told me six years ago. “It takes people away from watching the real game, and it gives them a false impression of what is valuable on a team.”

I don’t have the time for fantasy. Too much work, too much stress, too many school runs and sports practices. Playing fantasy this season would only create a further drag on my priorities and skew them in the wrong direction. Which is to say, of course, that I’m going to play. My league has a new trophy this season — it’s a no-brainer!

My wife is a physician, and when she was in medical school, I befriended many of her classmates. And so, seven years later, I am in a league where I am the only guy who isn’t a doctor.

I’ve never won it, but there were some glorious years in there, right around the time the overworked and sleep-deprived docs were studying for the board exams or preparing their residency submissions. Opportunism, in case you were wondering, feels great.

What a bunch of amateurs! They allowed themselves to get distracted! (Yes, I speak in italics when I get sarcastic). Those choices ultimately helped them forge outstanding careers while enriching, or possibly saving, people’s lives.

Fine, but hey, I made the fantasy final in 2013. In a crushing footnote, I still lost, somewhat gallingly, to a guy who has somehow managed to mix a medical career with a naval one, and also wrestled in college. “Underachiever,” said no one to him, ever.

There are some advantages to being the lone sportswriter in a group of people who love sports but don’t get to work in it. I remember throwing a curve ball into the final round of the draft one year by picking Ray Rice with my final selection. “Inside information,” cried those members of the group still awake into the 14th round. It was an ultimately nothing more than a baseless hunch that came to nothing, but I enjoyed letting everyone think I’d used my day job to cut myself a dubious moral edge.

The league has kept me up until the midnight hour to steal a match on the waiver wire and I still don’t, embarrassingly, even fully understand how the waiver wire works. It has never caused me to miss a story deadline but, sorry to former editors, it has spurred me to ask for extensions.

Some of my dearest friends are in the league. Two of them are godfathers to my baby daughter. Two more are close personal friends who have never let us down. I would trust any of the group with my health, and that of my family. And yet if I scrape past them by a fraction of a point due to some nonsense garbage time play, I will taunt and tease like an obnoxious schoolboy.

The commissioner is an orthopedic surgery resident who got pressed into the role in year one and has held it since, but he still gets yelled at if the points settings aren’t universally approved of and if there are only two wide receivers allowed. It is a tough crowd.

But it is a great one. It is not a club or a clique, it is just fantasy football. But it has been there through my darkest times of personal loss and the happiest ones of our long-awaited and unexpected pregnancy. My son was four when I first started playing, now he’s old enough to be thinking about getting his own team.

The group’s Facebook page is a treasure trove of inane nonsense and taunting GIFs, but always a happy landing spot. There are so many more responsible things I could be doing with my time, but I’m not giving it up. This is my year!

At this point, it’s almost like a way to keep track of time. I love how the competitiveness has remained undimmed and how the Sunday evening trash talk persists, despite the following morning being a time for white coats and utmost seriousness.

Fantasy has given me far more than it has taken away, and believe me, it has taken away a lot of time and plenty of entry fee dollars.

When you win as infrequently as me it can’t even really be called a fantasy and it’s definitely not real football. It is an infuriating, maddening, unfair, unbalanced, heartbreaking – and ultimately marvelous – place.