Beating Yourself Takes New Meaning
Reality of Fantasy Football Touches Lives of NFL Players in Some Way

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

The greatest game of tight end Chris Cooley's career came at his expense.

Cooley collected three touchdown passes last December as the Washington Redskins pounded arch-rival Dallas, 35-7, at FedEx Field to fuel their first successful playoff march since 1999. It was the highlight of his second NFL season and cause for serious celebration, but a few days later Cooley realized one of his fantasy football teams was knocked out of the playoffs because of that performance.

"I had four teams last year," Cooley said, "and I made the playoffs with one and honestly lost because I beat myself against Dallas. The guy on the other team had me, and I scored three touchdowns against Dallas, and I lost to myself on fantasy points."

The defeat was an easy blow for Cooley, 24, to overcome under the circumstances and is another indication of the growing popularity of fantasy football. No other Redskin admitted to playing fantasy football, and Cooley said he was unaware of any his teammates doing so, but every player approached had at least some story of how fantasy sports have touched their lives. Whether it be calls for injury reports or draft tips, participation in non-football fantasy leagues or stories of fantasy glory from their amateur days, most Redskins have been drawn into fantasy nation in at least an ancillary manner.

"Maybe it's like an NFL secret that you play fantasy football," Cooley said. "I don't think a lot of guys are too into it, but I try to keep playing because my friends do it and stuff. But it's hard for me every Sunday to really care about what happens to my fantasy team. I kind of goof around. I just like to do it with my friends."

The NFL has no regulations barring active players from participating in fantasy football, league officials said, and if anything, the sport's overseers are supporting the leisure activity like never before. Although it is widely accepted that money -- and sometimes substantial sums -- are involved in most leagues, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said players are not warned about playing and that the league draws a strict delineation between fantasy sports and betting on games.

"As far as our players' participation is concerned, it's highly unlikely a player who participates in fantasy football would alter his performance on the field," McCarthy said. "We're certainly aware that some fans play for money -- and on NFL.com there are prizes available like a trip to the Super Bowl -- but fantasy football is a game of skill, and gambling is not."

McCarthy said 10 million Americans take part in fantasy football each NFL weekend, and the appeal is widespread among all demographic groups. Actors Jennifer Garner and Jim Belushi are in leagues. NFL stars like Ed Reed and Priest Holmes took part in a nonprofit league a few years ago, and former Redskin Shawn Barber is a fantasy football advocate, while Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is a devotee and future Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn has been a league commissioner.

The NFL filmed a recent set of television spots with wide receiver Braylon Edwards, place kicker Neil Rackers and quarterback Chris Simms doing various tricks with the football and urging fans to select them in their fantasy drafts. The NFL Network sponsors a celebrity league, and last year the league entered into a reported five-year, $600 million deal with Sprint that was driven at least in part because of fantasy sports, allowing subscribers to draft and monitor their teams with their cellphones.

McCarthy believes the league's continued soaring popularity, television ratings and merchandising sales are not unrelated to pervasive culture of fantasy football. The number of fantasy football magazines is staggering, and mainstream television and print media -- The Washington Post included -- are devoting precious space to the hobby regularly.

"The proliferation of media and ancillary industries associated with it surprises the league, but not necessarily the popularity of fantasy football itself," McCarthy said.

So even for the majority of Redskins who have never drafted a player in their lives, there is no escaping the reach of fantasy football. Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who has no idea how the fantasy game operates, gets deluged with questions from fans about which of his players to draft, and, as a NASCAR team owner, hears from race fans looking for insight on up-and-coming drivers.

"When I was with the race team, all the guys were something like 34 years old, and they actually had a league," Gibbs said. "I would come in and draw the first name for who got to pick first and all that. It's a huge deal. I've never been a part of it. I've never even watched it or what they do. But it's fascinating, evidently, because it's a big deal. It's very popular."

Defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn, an avid sports fan, has never picked a fantasy team of any kind but has a firm grasp on the nuances after years of calls from friends, family members and friends of friends, all looking for an inside scoop.

"People call me all the time, man, and I've got to come up with something to tell them," Wynn said. "Last year a lot of people said I really came through for them. I try to tell them something about our guys, like, 'Don't sleep on Cooley.' Hopefully, my words are credible, because this thing is huge, man. It's unbelievable."

Santana Moss, who greatly surpassed any previous production to set a franchise yardage record last season, said he still gets stopped in the street by people wise enough to draft him last year. "Most of the time what I hear is, 'Oh man, thank you,' " Moss said. "So I guess I'm doing something good for them."

Defensive lineman Ryan Boschetti was a fantasy-head in high school, preparing lengthy mock drafts and indulging in four- to five-hour draft sessions. He hasn't played since and has become a bit surprised by the evolution of the game, with some leagues drafting individual defensive players and adding odd scoring twists.

"I don't know what's going on with it anymore," Boschetti said. "When I used to play it was pretty simple."

Cooley, meantime, is gearing up for his fantasy football drafts. He expects to participate in at least one online league with friends from back home in Utah -- with his time short he might let a computer draft for him -- and there are plans for a live draft here in a few weeks for a league with family members.

This year, with new associate coach Al Saunders eager to get Cooley more involved in the downfield passing game, some fantasyniks are predicting a huge season for him. Cooley, though, might have his eye on other tight ends.

"I'm not going to sacrifice a good team just to have myself on it," he said.

Redskins Note: Tight end Calen Powell (hip flexor) and defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery (hamstring) joined the nine other Redskins players who did not make the trip to Cincinnati.

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