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Chapter Three: The Book of Fantasy Football Genesis
There's some dispute over who created fantasy football, how, and when. Mainly because there's just no official record. Some claim that it started in the seventies, an imitator of rotisserie baseball. Some think it was spawned in the eighties at sports bars thanks to beer companies that would distribute "league rules" and "scoring" sheets to customers on their delivery rounds as a quasi-marketing tool. And most people assume it began in the nineties with the dawn of the Internet/information age, having never heard of FF prior to its cyber-explosion.
But the story with the most testimony and evidence to back it up begins more than forty years ago.
The Oakland Raiders had a bad year in 1962. The two-year-old American Football League franchise opened the season with a 28-17 loss to the New York Titans and enjoyed it so much that they just kept on losing, dropping thirteen straight games before finally bringing their record to a stellar 1-13 and -- mercifully -- ending their season with a 20-0 rout of my Boston Patriots. (Well, not my Patriots; I wouldn't be born for another five years, and the Patriots wouldn't become the New England Patriots for another nine.)
Anyway, as forgettable as that season was for the Raiders, one memorable event did occur halfway through the dismal campaign. On a bitter cold evening in early November, after making the then-arduous cross-country journey to the East Coast, three men -- Raiders limited partner Bill Winkenbach, Oakland Tribune writer Scotty Stirling, and Raiders PR executive Bill Tunnell -- found themselves holed up in New York City's Manhattan Hotel (now the Milford Plaza) the night before their sorry squad would lose its rematch with the Titans. Looking to kill some time after the room service trays had been cleared, the talk turned to -- what else? -- sports.
Winkenbach began reminiscing about the "fantasy-esque" games involving golf (using total weekly scores) and baseball (drafting home run hitters and pitchers) he'd played in the 1950s, in which participants or team "owners" would receive points based on the performances of real-life players on "their" teams, allowing them to compete against friends in "leagues." And from there (perhaps after a few imagination-inspiring Harvey Wallbangers), it wasn't long before the three began to adapt this rough concept to their one true sports love -- professional football.
On hotel napkins, stray menus, fleshy parts of forearms, anything they could find, they began to scrawl out the rules for a brand-new game. Before the weekend trip was done, they had the basics in place. And when the three returned to the Bay Area, they let Oakland Tribune editor George Ross in on their brainstorm, and soon the four created the first fantasy football league, giving it a fairly clumsy, long-winded name: The Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League. Okay, try saying that ten times fast. (Hell, try just saying prognosticators ten times fast.) Anyway, they soon shortened it to just GOPPPL, rhyming with topple (as opposed to scrapple or former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple).
In fact, they didn't even call the game itself fantasy football -- it, too, was called GOPPPL.
Whatever the name, the original eight-team league, consisting of friends within the Raiders organization and the Tribune, set off on its frail little legs hoping to survive in the wilderness. GOPPPL soon spread from the Tribune, through the Raiders ranks, and then to a local Oakland bar called the King's X, where, subsequently, thanks to the owner and original GOPPPL league member, Andy Mousalimas, several other leagues formed, making the King's X the first unofficial headquarters of fantasy football. (If there isn't a historical-landmark plaque on the bar, there sure as hell should be.) Soon, mostly through word of mouth -- remember, these were the days not only before Internet chat rooms, but before fax machines, voice mail, and even push-button phones -- word about this new football-related game spread, just like that old commercial for Wella Balsam shampoo: "You tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on..."
GOPPPL, later known as the fantasy football we all love (and let's be honest, sometimes hate), was on its way to becoming a full-fledged hobby. A small hobby, yes, but a hobby nonetheless. And a growing obsession. It's well documented that for the first couple of weeks of the Raider season, Winkenbach, Stirling, Tunnell, Ross, and the others were more concerned not with how their beloved Raiders were doing, but with how their GOPPPL teams were doing. Sound familiar? And to think, the frustrated spouses and bosses of future fantasy-football-obsessed nuts had no idea what was about to hit them.
When fantasy football -- err, GOPPPL -- was in its infancy, the NFL "establishment," whether out of snobbery or fear, had an unofficial policy of ignoring the upstart AFL. The bad blood eventually forced the AFL to file monopoly and conspiracy charges in areas of expansion, television, and player signings against the NFL, and the two leagues constantly battled to the death to sign top draft picks, especially underclassmen, which had been unheard of before but was now becoming a necessity as the leagues tried to "outdraft and outtalent" each other. However, because GOPPPL was formed in an AFL town (Oakland), the original eight fantasy owners -- according to the Kadlec/Harris article, the league consisted of Winkenbach, Stirling, Tunnell, Ross, Raiders radio announcer Bob Blum, ticket manager George Glace, and season-ticket sellers Phil Carmona and Ralph Casebolt -- gladly included the talented AFL stars right alongside more established NFL studs such as Cleveland Browns RB Jim Brown, Packers RB Jim Taylor, and the Giants QB Y. A. Tittle. These early AFL studs included Buffalo RB Cookie Gilchrist, San Diego QB Tobin Rote, Buffalo QB and future congressman Jack Kemp, and, of course, the very first number one overall fantasy football selection, multipositional Houston Oiler QB/K George Blanda.
In fact, that first round of the inaugural draft, held in August of 1963 at Wickenbach's home, went: the unstoppable Brown at #2; the strong-armed Rote at #3; the AFL's first 1,000 rusher, Gilchrist, at #4; Kemp at #5; 1962 MVP Tittle at #6; Chiefs versatile RB Curtis McClinton at #7; and 1,000 rusher Taylor at # 8. Also, two additional points of interest: (a) a multipositional player such as Blanda could be drafted by one team as a quarterback and another team as a kicker; and (b) even back then there were two-owner teams, with Mousalimas joining forces to "coach" Stirling's team, and a young whiz kid named Ron Wolf, a former Colts water boy who had just been hired by Al Davis to work in the Oakland front office -- yes, the very same Ron Wolf who would later become GM of the midnineties Super Bowl Packers -- joining up with Ross. In the Pro Forecast article, Mousalimas described the mood at that first draft as "euphoric," something present-day players can certainly relate to, and went on to highlight some of the basics. Like most drafts today, it was a "snake" or "serpentine" draft, where teams drafted one through eight, followed by "the turn," where Team 8 would get two straight picks (eight and nine), and then all the way back to Team 1 (which would get picks sixteen and seventeen at the next "turn," and so on). Owners drafted twenty players from each league -- four offensive ends, four halfbacks, two fullbacks, two quarterbacks, two kickoff or punt return men, two field goal kickers, two defensive backs or linebackers, and two defensive lineman. No more than eight "imports" were allowed from NFL teams (again, Oakland was an AFL town, baby).
A commisisoner (Winkenbach, naturally) was appointed to preside at all meetings and settle all disputes, as was a secretary, who kept the league scoring and collected dues. Competition was cutthroat -- "Friendships were destroyed, there were some divorces," Stirling says -- and as word spread, people wanted in. Problem was, it wasn't like just any schmo off the street could join GOPPPL. Early league rules state that one had to (a) be affiliated with an AFL team in some capacity, (b) be involved in pro football as a journalist, or (c) have bought or sold ten season tickets for the Raiders 1963 season. Mousalimas is widely acknowledged to have been responsible for introducing performance scoring into the mix in the early seventies -- points for yardage, receptions, etc. -- as an answer to the TD-only boredom that players like Raider RB Pete Banaszak brought on. (Banaszak was one of the first in a long, annoying line of these touchdown "vultures," the forefather of the Leroy Hoards and Stacey Macks, who come into games for the express purpose of poaching easy goal-line carries and causing a collective rise in the blood pressure of FF players worldwide).
You'll be happy to know that GOPPPL suffered the same intraleague issues, conflicts, and smack talk of today's leagues, only with an added twist: due to the absence of technical-genius-turned-vice-president Al Gore and "his" invention -- a little ol' thang known as the Internet -- it was a helluvalot harder to manage a league. I mean, imagine being a commissioner in 1962 trying to collect dues, run the waiver wire, set lineups, and prevent collusion? Utterly nightmarish. But to encourage all owners to be "hands-on," the GOPPPL rules stated, Lack of skill or study will also afford the heaviest loser the yearly trophy symbolic of the loser's ineptness in this grueling contest. Winkenbach even had a trophy made especially for the last-place finisher -- a wooden football face wearing a dunce cap -- that would be presented to that poor sap at the year-end banquet, an inauspicious award that, by rule, the loser had to keep on display on his mantel in plain view for the entirety of the following season "or there was trouble," Stirling recalled in the Pro Forecast article.
Little by little, the game caught on, but the founders, having failed to copyright or patent it, never saw a dime in royalties. "Wink [Winkenbach] asked me once to put together a board game or something like that which followed our rules in GOPPPL, but I never had the time," Ross says. "It probably would have made a few bucks if we could have copyrighted or patented it." And according to Stirling, the last time he spoke to Winkenbach, FF's true founder was more blunt about it: "I ran into Bill and he told me, 'I told you we should have copyrighted the damn thing!'" Yet they were (and are) still amazed by the game's growth. "We had no idea it would explode into the kind of mania that exists today," Stirling says. "Pro football isn't a game. It's a cult. And this stuff [fantasy football] is close to a cult."
Um, did you say "close to" a cult, Mr. Stirling? Fantasy football is more than a hobby, more than an obsession -- it's more than a cult...it's become a phenomenon. A tsunami. A cult on creatine. And thanks mostly to the advent of the Internet, it continues to grow at astronomical rates, sweeping up all in its path. In August of this year, Lycos reported that fantasy football ranked fifth on its top fifty list of most-popular user searches (just a few spots behind the ubiquitous Britney Spears). And according to a recent survey for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, somewhere between 15 and 20 million people across the United States own at least one fantasy football team, and in 2003 they spent more than $4 billion on their hobby. That means right now, as you read, a group totaling somewhere near the combined populations of New York City, Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta are thinking fantasy football -- compiling cheat sheets for a draft, cursing a sleeper-turned-bust wide receiver, suffering postseason depression, or sending wives and kids off to live with relatives up near the arctic circle for six months.
And FF isn't a phenomenon restricted to U.S. borders. Thanks, once again, to the magic of the Internet, it's spread worldwide like a benelovent virus. One of the big international hot spots for fantasy football is on military bases. "We only get one American TV channel that plays two games a week, so not being able to see all the games sucks," says Gary, a Packer fan stationed at Aviano Air Force base in Pordenone, Italy, an hour north of Venice on the foot of the Dolomites mountains. "That's why most shops in my unit have [FF] leagues. It's big in the air force. It just keeps us all connected to American football wherever we are in the world." Students and other vagabonds backpacking through Europe stop at Internet cafes to change their lineups or make free agent pickups -- and then, maybe, if they have time, they'll e-mail their parents to let them know they're alive. When Celia and I lived in Florence in 2001, I can't tell you how many times I hopped onto a computer in Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Ireland, wherever, to check my Felon League and, instead of being taken to my own CBS SportsLine league home page, was immediately taken to the home page of some other dude who'd forgotten to log out. (Strangest place this happened? At the summit of Zugspitze, Germany's answer to Mt. Everest. They have a single computer kiosk for tourists to send e-postcards, but, based on the fact that CBS SportsLine's FF home page was bookmarked, it was clearly used and abused by gondola-riding FF players in need of a fix. C'mon, people, who actually checks their FF team instead of soaking in the majestic, snowcapped, four-corners view of Germany, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland?! Then again, that's a tad hypocritical of me, considering I was checking my team 9,720 feet above sea level, but we'll just let that slide.)
I've also come across an FF player in the distinctly non-football-playing country of Norway. "Last year I was the commish of a twelve-team league with owners from around the globe," says J. M. Henriksen, who's finishing up a degree in human resources management at the college of Stavanger in Sandnes, Norway, while also teaching American football to local high school kids. "Teams were named Holland, Germany, Norway, South Korea, New York, and so on, depending on where the owner was from. Until I started playing fantasy football, it was really frustrating not really having anyone to talk football with, considering everyone here only cares about soccer." That said, J.M., who lives near a NATO base and, luckily, gets to hear NFL games on the Armed Forces Network, hasn't seen FF spread outside the small community of Americans. "I seldom explain it to the locals, but when I do, I usually describe it as a more advanced form of fantasy soccer." But, he has seen firsthand how huge it's gotten within American expat communities all over Europe, having frequently chatted with FF players in Sweden, Austria, Germany, Spain, Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, and his own Norway. "It's fair to say fantasy football is huge overseas," he concludes.
While Winkenbach played his beloved creation until he passed away in 1993 at the age of eighty-one, to this day Ross and Stirling haven't played the game in decades. They both attribute their nonparticipation to the thing that most often confounds and frustrates FF players: lack of time thanks to other annoying responsibilities like work, family, and -- well, life. "It got to the point where I was forgetting to phone in lineups and losing games because of it," Ross said in the Pro Forecast article. "I was just too busy." Ross served as the sports editor of the Tribune for more than ten years and retired at the age of seventy-seven; and Stirling took interest in another sport entirely: basketball. He is presently director of scouting for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, where he now helps draft real players for a living (although, given the choice, I'd rather draft fake NFL players than real NBA goofballs). So while the two surviving founding fathers may no longer play, thankfully millions still do, intravenously pumping fantasy football into their bloodstreams not just during the NFL season, but year-round.
In other words, GOPPPL, a silly little game created by three bored (and possibly tipsy) men suffering from cabin fever on a snowy night in New York, has survived four decades, nine presidential administrations, three wars, the Pet Rock, bell-bottoms, disco, Rubik's Cube, leg warmers, hair metal, the Berlin Wall, grunge, dot-com stocks, and reality TV. And it's not only survived, it's thrived, its popularity snowballing as the years pass. There's hope for this world yet.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark St. Amant