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How Fantasy Football Has Made Me A Better Fan

"Don't tackle him," I screamed. "Don't you dare tackle him!" The him in question was Rod Smith. The would-be tacklers were the Seattle defenders. The date was November 26th, 2000. You can still make out the dimly stained patch on my couch where the top third of my beer landed when I leapt to my feet screeching, "Go Rod go!" as I watched Smith carry the ball into the end zone.

Here's the curious part: I hate the Denver Broncos. I'm a lifelong Raider fan. My blood runs black and silver, just like Fred Belitnikof's and Art Shell's. So what was there to make me happy about a Rod Smith touchdown? Was it that I had money on the game? Sure, that's part of it; I had a kind of micro-wager on Smith. But there's more to it than that. I had a personal investment in Rod Smith-an emotional tie to him that was a product of circumstances beyond my control.

Those circumstances had been dictated months before by an almost random draft order. I had paid a nominal fee of fifty dollars to join a fantasy football league and had taken Smith in the sixth round of the draft. A few years earlier, my brother had paid the fee for me. He had to pay the fee in order to get me to play because there was no way that I was going to throw fifty of my own hard-earned dollars into anything as silly as a fantasy football league. "When I want to bet on football," I had told him, "I'll find someone to take my bet. And I'll bet on a game, not a whole season."

He told me that I was missing the point and that the only way for me to understand was to give it a try. His response to my shrug was to pay my fee and draft my team for me and send me updates, via e-mail, on how my players were doing. I did not make it to the playoffs that season, but I was hooked nevertheless. I saw which players flourished despite my low expectations and which ones failed despite my high hopes. I saw how devastating injuries really can be to a team and learned that there are quite a few athletes in the NFL with incredible talent even though they never seem to make the highlight reels. Most importantly, although I will always be a Raiders fan, I learned how much fun it is to come to a true appreciation of other teams and their talents (instead of dismissing a competing club with some formulation as idiotic as, "They just don't have what it takes to beat my crew!").

Although many football fans understand the importance of the distinction between possession receivers and deep threats, it wasn't until I started playing fantasy football that I started paying attention to such details. Moreover, the average fan probably assumed that Rod Smith scored the touchdown mentioned earlier on a pass from the Denver QB. In fact, the reason it had me so excited was that it was a run. The fantasy owner I was playing against that week had taken Frerotte as his QB in order to neutralize Smith, since QB's and receivers both get credit for touchdown receptions; but when Smith lined up in the backfield I knew I had a chance for some points that Frerotte would not share in. If it weren't for the fact that he was on my fantasy team, I wouldn't have paid attention to Smith's versatility. Now, however, even if I never manage to draft him again, I will always have a deeper appreciation of what Smith is capable of accomplishing. Similarly, while the casual football fan would have to admit to being surprised by the performance of the Saints in the 2000 season, most fantasy owners of Joe Horn or Ricky Williams or the New Orleans Defense could say, in all honesty, that they saw the pieces falling into place a month into the season.

To put it as simply as I can, fantasy football has made me a better football fan. Team loyalty is great; I still love watching the Raiders play. But now I have a better appreciation of what such players are up against. I wish I hadn't been beaten to Rich Gannon and Tim Brown in the draft, but at least I was able to snap up Tyrone Wheatley and Sebastian Janikowski. Besides, it may just be that the very best thing about a fantasy draft is that it forces owners to expand their horizons-to think critically about the real chances of success for a semi-rookie like Daunte Culpepper or a relocated Jeff George. Fantasy owners don't just learn about the players on their own rosters, however; they can't help learning a little bit about everyone. Most fantasy match-ups aren't settled until the Monday night games. Sometimes you watch a game to see how your players will do; sometimes you watch to keep tabs on those of your opponent; sometimes both. Games simply become more exciting when they have a direct impact on the viewer. And the viewer who engages in fantasy smack talking at the office wants to see whether the Detroit defense can hold his opponent's receiver to less than a hundred yards because that may decide which owner will make it to the playoffs.

Another great upside of fantasy football is how drastically it increases the pleasure I derive from subscribing to the NFL ticket. Some viewers switch from one game to another just to avoid commercials; some are simply compulsive flickers; but I move through the games methodically, answering such burning questions as whether Baltimore will ever use Ben Coates the way the leader of my division has been praying for them to. While it may be true that coaches' challenges slow down the games for those people restricted to standard network coverage, those of us with the Ticket know that when the referee is reviewing the tape in one game, it's simply an opportunity for us to find out about another. (While the referee is busy persuading himself that Emmitt Smith really did get the ball past the pylon, I can be checking in with the phenomenal Ricky Watters, for whom I had no proper appreciation until I took him as a back up RB in last year's draft.) The exigencies of most fantasy league drafts force owners to build rosters from players spread throughout the league, which means that either your team or your opponent's is likely to have at least one player involved in each game on Sunday. You might just find yourself invested in the final minutes of a match-up between Cleveland and Cincinnati. Behold the power of fantasy football!

So take my advice: Give fantasy football a try. Although I can't volunteer to pay your fee for you, I will be bold enough to guarantee that there is a league near you with people who just want to help each other enjoy the game of football a little bit more. If you're reluctant to put money on it, there are a number of fee-free leagues online. Give one of these leagues (such as those available through Yahoo or CBS.Sportsline) a try. Whether you play in a league based on points or wins, whether you draft well or poorly, whether you make it to your league's championship game or not, you'll almost certainly enhance the pleasure to be derived from those hedonistic Sundays in front of the television. I've lost more often than I've won at fantasy football; but I've always had fun. That may not be the kind of sentiment that would make Vince Lombardi proud-but I'm only a fan, not a player. Fantasy football isn't, like many people think, for folks who want to pretend to be owners; it's for fans who want to get serious about being fans.