A League of Their Own
You have entered the strange, parallel universe known as fantasy football. It's a game, actually, whose Internet-linked participants form leagues, create imaginary teams with real NFL stars, then amass points based on players' real-life performance. "It's a hobby," says Bosco, who spends 48 hours a week in his fantasy world. "But it's more of an addiction. It's what I enjoy doing most." Bosco, who runs a flooring company, and his pals are admittedly obsessed. In the days leading up to Sunday, they bombard each other with calls and e-mails. They pore over statistics, try to outwit each other in player trades and diss each other constantly—just like real team owners.
They're not alone. In the past couple of years, fantasy football has exploded—12 million Americans will participate this year, spending $1 billion on league entrance fees, Internet sites, magazines and even championship rings. Jostens, the jeweler that supplied Super Bowl rings to the New England Patriots last season, now offers a fantasy football ring line from $99 to $400.
The appeal of the game? "Everyone thinks, given the opportunity, they can be a really good coach or general manager," says Howie Long, a FOX Sports broadcaster. Most fans play for bragging rights or tacky trophies, but serious money can be at stake. Bosco and partner Tom O'Grady, 34, paid $1,450 to go for the gaudiest prize: the World Champion of Fantasy Football, worth $200,000 to 1 of 672 competing teams.
And it's not just a guy thing. A growing number of fantasy footballers are women. None is more devoted than Lori Kimbrell, a married mother of three boys from Anaheim, Calif., who belongs to 11 football and 9 baseball leagues. (Baseball was the first fantasy sport.) "Five years ago I became a stay-at-home mom," says Kimbrell, 44. "I had to do something more adult than watch cartoons and wash dishes. It's a release from the boys. When they're napping, I can sit down and check my players. It's a way of participating in the world from my kitchen."
Or from Russia. Kimbrell and her husband, Bruce, went to Moscow in 2003 to adopt their now-2-year-old son, during the height of the baseball season. She insisted on staying in a hotel with Internet access so she could update her fantasy team. A Disneyland operations manager with what he calls "subzero interest in sports," Bruce, 46, doesn't mind being a fantasy widower. "Instead of screaming at the boys and losing it 24/7, she does her job well," he says. "When if s time to relax, this is what she does." When the paper comes, he adds, "I just hand her the sports section."
A hands-on knowledge of actual football-the kind with helmets, mud and torn ligaments—doesn't guarantee success, as Bucky Godbolt found out. Now an Austin, Texas, sports radio cohost, Godbolt, 49, coached at the University of Texas, mentoring future NFL star running backs Ricky Williams and Priest Holmes. He has been a perennial bottom feeder since joining the fantasy league three years ago, but insists, "I love the camaraderie. It's not about the winning." Still, when if s noted he has never won a championship, he admits with a laugh, "It's tearing my guts out."
And that may be the danger of the football fantasy life. In extreme cases, "the game becomes more important than reality, their spouse or their job," says Dr. Thomas E. Granata, 52, a Fresno psychologist who counsels fantasy footballers, some of whom have lost considerable money and strained relationships. That's why it's good to have someone like Bosco's wife, Jen, 29, to keep you grounded. "She wanted us to do a Breast Cancer Walk last year," Bosco says. "I wanted to watch games, so we didn't see eye to eye. She's right. I'm nuts. I should be able to miss four hours of football. So I did go on the walk.
"Luckily it started to rain," he adds, "so I got to go home early."
Richard Jerome. Diane Herbst in New York City, Kevin Brass and Cary Cardwell in Austin, Noah Isackson in Chicago and Len Hochberg in Los Angeles
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