It’s a Sunday in April, one week before the 2015 NFL Draft. I’m doing something unusual, attending my first fantasy football draft as a spectator. I follow the NFL, but nowhere near as closely as your average fantasy owner. There are children with an infinitely deeper knowledge of football than I will ever have. In fact, I just met one of them. His name is Josh, and he’s 11.
Josh’s dad is out of town on business, so Josh is serving as proxy general manager for the Westwood Wizards, which will start making its draft picks in an hour. I ask Josh how long he’s been attending drafts. He says since he was 6. He’s also had the opportunity to read a pick at the actual NFL draft. Josh came with his grandfather, Ronnie Feenberg, AKA G’Northridge G’Nerd, one of the league’s founders. He’s a workman’s comp plaintiff attorney and has represented ex-NFL players in brain damage cases. Ronnie emits a sort of crabby benevolence.
Ronnie, Mike, and Josh represent three generations of the Son of G'National Football League, one of the longest running fantasy football leagues in the country with almost all of its original members still active. The league boasts three original members, and it’s comprised entirely of lawyers or ex-lawyers. They’re a well-oiled machine of shit-talking and procedure-as-pleasure.
Their story began in 1978, 37 seasons ago. This is their 38th draft, or the “Alpha Nu” season, in their parlance. The founding members were just out of law school then. The Son of G'National drew its inspiration from a Sports Illustrated blurb about the Gnational Football League, one of the oldest documented fantasy football leagues.
Before the GFL, there was the Greater Oakland Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL), founded by Bill Winkebach in the early 1960s. It was all, of course, a different game back then. The amount of commitment required to log - by hand - statistics or to track down injury statuses weeded out all of the non-diehards. Members of all the early, pre-1990s leagues (including Son of G’National) would go to extraordinary lengths for an edge, like one of the G’National owners phoning Mel Kiper to get tips. Others posed as journalists and called front offices to get a scoop on a injuries. These days, it’s easy to be a fanatic or nerd of minutiae in one’s hobbies. It was a lot harder before the Internet.
I’m one of the first to arrive at the Pitfire Pizza in downtown LA. Josh and Ronnie are already there. The other owners trickle in. As the men enter, they greet each other warmly and banter for a bit about their families and work before settling into fantasy mode. This will likely be the only time they’re all in the same room together this year. I meet them, one-by-one, and ask about certain highlights or lowlights in their tenure in the league. All of them have been there since at least the 1990s, so most have had plenty of both.
I meet Rob Vines (Mentone Beach Divers), the original founder and commissioner of Son of G'National. He had surgery the day before, but that did not stop him from attending this year’s draft. He tells me they’ve had the same payout since 1979 – $250. “It’s not the money,” he says. “It’s the trophies. It’s the bragging rights.”
Next, there’s Bob Dickinson (Duckie of the Eugene Aflacs), a tall fellow who is one of the league’s premier shit-talkers, which comes in handy when he’s writing the Son of G’National newsletter, large chunks of which are un-repeatable in polite society. He entered the league the second year as the Sierra Madre Padres and later moved to Eugene. Like many of this league’s owners, he has Pac-12 allegiances. A former Oregon Duck himself, Duckie has his eyes on Marcus Mariota. He tells me that 10 teams is a good maximum number for fantasy play. Any more teams, and it might become unfair, as there are only so many good quarterbacks. In a scoring-only league, a QB is crucial. If you don’t have a QB who can put up points, then you’re basically SOL.
Then there’s Rick Barone (Tarzana Babes, an original league team). He’s a liability plaintiff attorney who’s had the good fortune of having employed Dan Marino and Peyton Manning as his QBs. He also drafted one of the NFL’s most notorious busts, Ryan Leaf. “You just never know,” he tells me.
I meet the rest of the crew. There’s Bob “Bozo” Blinder (Lake Holly Woodpeckers), whose claim to fame is trying to pick up a free agent he already had. And Pete Crossin (Studio City Gamecocks), who joined in the 1990s and is proud that he’s “not as old as these guys.” Dave Galperson of the Long Beach Grand Prix also brought his son to observe and consult.
The other two owners are not present because of work conflicts. Josh’s dad Mike Feenberg is out of town on business. The other one is Craig Switzer (owner of the Encino Evils).
Dennis Welch, league historian and recently retired, hands me a stack of relics chronicling the league’s history. Draft sheets, correspondences and other fading ephemera.
Many of the guys work as plaintiff attorneys for worker’s compensations claims, which sometimes includes ex-NFL players filing grievances against their former parent company. Their work and play seem to overlap more than your average fantasy league.
Son of G'National is a scoring-only league, which sets it apart from many of its contemporaries. The only thing that matters is whether players score points. This usually favors the best players but can sometimes backfire. In 1998 Barry Sanders of the Rollers ran for 114 yards but no scores. That week the Rollers were playing the Long Beach Grand Prix, who played Sanders’ back-up, “Touchdown” Tommy Vardell. Vardell only ran for four yards but vultured three TDs, resulting in a win for Long Beach.
The league is a 100 percent dynasty keeper, head-to-head points per game league. Each team plays a 13-game schedule: eight games in division, five against the other division. The top three in each division make the playoffs. Second place plays third place, with the winner meeting the division champ in the next round. Each starting lineup has 1QB, 2RB, 2WR, 1TE, 1DB, 1PK. Last year, for first time, Son of G’National modified to option one running back and three wide receivers to make lineups reflect current offenses.
The fact that they draft before the actual NFL Draft is also unorthodox. It adds an extra wrinkle. Duckie tells me, “That’s the great anxiety of it. A player I pick could be drafted on a shit team. Mariota might be drafted by the Jets, who have no receivers.”
Every fantasy league has its own trophies, hardware and stakes for winning and sometimes for being at the bottom of the heap. Son of G'National is no different. While two of its trophies aren’t back from the engraver’s in time for the draft, the most important one is here: The Rock, which is the championship trophy that I’m told has been “dropped a few times” over the years.
The other trophy is the “David Akers Award,” which is given to in memory of placekicker David Akers, who lost Rob Vines a championship after he missed a 15-yard field goal. And then there’s the Dré Bly trophy, named after Bly, a defensive back who scored in back-to-back seasons to drive the final nail into the coffin of Ronnie Feenberg’s title hopes.
Lastly, as incentive not to be last, there’s the license-plate holder that reads “I came in last place in my fantasy football league.” The Studio City Gamecocks are the “winners” of this year’s license plate frame.
At five we all sit to start the first of two separate drafts. The first is the free agent draft, where teams can pick from an available pool of mostly journeymen, free agent players. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” is on the radio, appropriately. Ronnie tells me, “This is pretty much a waste of time.” As the teams go around and owners name their players, other owners endlessly riff on the players’ names. “How good can a tight end named Virgil be?”
It goes quickly. I can only imagine that this is what they’re all like at a deposition, plus or minus some swearing. Pizza and pasta are served, and we move on to the league’s main course.
When the college draft begins, the first round of picks is of particularly high importance, and the first few picks don’t surprise many at the table. The Studio City Gamecocks select Amari Cooper. Duckie goes with Mariota. Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon and Kevin White are snapped up. The big question mark in the room is who will pick Jameis Winston and how early.
The consensus from the league’s most vocal members suggests that Winston is a high risk for classic head-case syndrome, which often plagues hyped college ballers. Winston has had more than one brush with idiocy. His potential is off the charts, but his intangibles pose a considerable risk.
Josh, 11, is taking his time on his first round draft pick, and this causes the herd to become a bit restless. He’s waiting for his dad to text him back. Someone calls for a time limit. “Josh, you gotta make decisions. You’re the man of the house now.” Another pipes in, “Do what your dad said. Go with the list and be confident.” Another: “What’s the worst your father could do?”
Josh takes his time before announcing his pick - Jameis Winston - which is followed by a huge “OHHHHHHHH!” “The convict” fake cough, followed immediately by a ‘BUST!’
One week later, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft Jameis Winston first overall.
After him, Barone says, “I know this is a reach, but I’m taking Brett Hundley. I’m looking three or four years down the road. By that point Peyton will retire.”
“Mentone beach picks the man with the double X’s…Maxx Williams”
Next, “La Jolla takes the namesake of the grandson of the Rollers - DeVante Parker.” Followed by “Your grandson’s named Devante?“ “No, it’s Parker.”
Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust” fills the air, and the rest of the draft plays out pretty casually as the later rounds (like the actual draft) feel more and more like work.
At the conclusion, the guys finish their beers and pizza crust and make their way outside. I pause for a moment to grab a photo of Dennis, last season’s champ. I ask him what he’s going to do now that he’s retired, if there are any plans to stop playing fantasy. He says, “My wife and I are definitely traveling more. But with the Internet, I can manage my team, make trades, exchange smack talk with the other league owners and play weekly games from anywhere in the world. Even while on cruise ships. No, I can’t imagine I ever stop playing in our league. I’m definitely a lifer!”
As usual, no one seems to be in the driver’s seat for this season. There’s still so much that will happen. Players will get hurt, traded, cut, or have something unforeseen happen. Unexpected retirements will occur. Coaching changes will affect game plans and, in turn, scoring totals - again, the only thing that matters in this league. The “What Ifs” are infinite. That part hasn’t changed in 38 years.