Monday, September 6, 2010

Lamenting a lost league

This will be the first season in at least 8 or 9 years that my dad and I won't be sharing a fantasy football team.

The tradition started back when I was in college. Dad got invited to join a league run by some of his younger colleagues at his office back in New Jersey, where he's a supervisor. Dad's always been a big football fan - a standout prep player in his day and a lifelong Giants fan, he taught me most of what I know about the game, and even a little on how to bet on it - but he wanted my help with picking the team. So we came to an agreement: He'd front the league entry fee, and I'd handle the draft and weekly lineup, acting as a kind of GM. And thus, Ace in the Hole was born.

Now, this was no run-of-the mill fantasy league. First off, the yearly league entry fee has always been at least $100, plus anywhere from $2 to $5 for every transaction. And instead of just a 10-team league, it was actually set up with TWO divisions of 10 teams apiece, with the two division champs ultimately meeting in the fantasy super bowl. The divisions (in reference to Dad, we were placed in the "Old People" division, as opposed to "Young People") each held separate drafts, so the same players could be owned in both. You'd play all the teams in your division during the season, but you'd also face some cross-divisional opponents as well, which always led to some interesting dilemmas. For instance, you might own Priest Holmes but end up facing another team that had Holmes in its starting lineup. Would you start Holmes as well in the hopes of canceling each other out? Or would you risk starting some other running back in his place in the hopes of outscoring the "other" Holmes?

The drafts were always a good time. They were usually held on a Friday night in late August at somebody's house, with the "Young People" set up in folding chairs in the backyard and the "Old People" huddled around a converted poker table inside enjoying the AC. The beer flowed freely from a keg, and some of Central Jersey's finest cuisine, from tomato pie to hoagies to wings, was on the menu.

In our first couple years of competing I was able to attend with Dad, with draft day coming before I went back to college to start the semester. But in subsequent years, when the real world called and I held newspaper jobs that kept me in the office on Friday nights, I had to draft long distance, with Dad attending in person to make the picks and me strategizing with him via cell phone. I spent many a Friday night with one eye on my work on the computer screen (my editors will love reading this) and another on our cheat sheet, with my right earlobe and my cell phone minutes burning up. A couple years ago I even picked the whole team on the phone while on a 7-hour road trip from Columbus, Ga., to Bradenton, much to the delight of the other four people trapped in the minivan with me.

There are a lot of other fond, and not-so-fond, memories that stick out from Ace in the Hole's existence. Like the time we only needed one stinking catch from Shannon Sharpe on a Monday Night Football game to clinch a fantasy playoff spot and didn't get it (we still haven't forgiven him). Or the time Daunte Culpepper's awesome 39-TD season in 2004 led us to the postseason; we had him again in 2005 and his injury-plagued debacle that year destroyed us.

I'll always remember the guys who played well for us (Tiki Barber, Mike Alstott) and the guys who didn't (LaMont Jordan, Matt Forte). And I won't forget the Sunday afternoons when Dad and I would call each other to rejoice over those guys or curse them out. We're both men of few words, so Ace in the Hole always gave us something easy to talk about and helped us stay in touch, especially these past few years with me living in Florida and him back in the Garden State.

Dad decided to pull the plug on Ace in the Hole this year. He wasn't really thrilled about fronting the entry fee, economic times being as they are. Maybe it would have helped if we made the playoffs more than the few times we did over the years and at least won our money back. But also, the sad truth is most of the guys he worked with and made up our league over the years got laid off when Dad's company went through some massive downsizing and outsourcing recently. Much of the enjoyment he got from being in the league came from ragging on those guys during the week around the office, telling them his kid was going to build a championship team that would kick their butts. Now most of those guys aren't around anymore, and a lot of them dropped out of the league too.

I'll still play in other leagues of course, but I don't think it can ever be the same. If you're in one this great, enjoy it. If you share a team with your dad or your son, cherish it while it lasts.

I know I do.

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