Tuesday, September 21, 2004

For the love of the game

Ahhhh Mark, we fans of the pigskin do some terrible things to ourselves in the name of love, don't we?

Some like to lay down an occasional buck on teams named the "Browns," the "Seahawks," and the "Cardinals," then seem surprised when these perennial losers don't come through. Others prefer a more interactive form of torture.

Fantasy football, I'm convinced, is the greatest invention of the 20th century. Forget television and the internet. Nothing Al Gore claims to have invented could rock this hard. Like all good inventions, though, fantasy football can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Take my friend Glenn, which is not is real name, so we'll call him Pete for honesty's sake. In just the second year of our keeper league, Pete has managed to turn his team of respectable NFL starters into a Who's Who of the 1997 All-Madden team. Jerome Bettis, Terry Glenn, Marcus Robinson, and Eddie George are all nice players, if you're hosting an old-timers day. But when you're up against Clinton Portis, Koren Robinson, Edgerrin James, and Steve McNair, that simply won't cut it.

Yet Pete's predicament is secondary to ones like what I endured last night. Trailing by five points, I needed Terrell Owens and Bryant Westbrook to outscore Philly kicker David Akers by a margin of 5.5 or more to go 2-0. Simple enough. Of course, this required me to root for the hated Eagles, which I, as a lifelong Giants fan, decided to allow myself given the substantial prize pool at stake.

At the end of the first quarter, Philadelphia had a 7-6 lead and I still trailed by four. McNabb started the Eagles' first drive of the second with a 15-yard pass to Owens. A couple of decent runs by Westbrook and I was only down three. But on 3rd-and-7, the Eagles try a bizarre screen play to Owens that is stopped for -3 yards. Worse yet, I don't get the points for a reception, because the almighty ($%*!hole) official scorer rules it's a backwards pass. Worst STILL, here comes Akers for a 37-yard field goal.

I'm back down by six. But I'm relaxed -- I still have two of the best at their position out there... it's just a matter of time...

Sure enough, the Eagles get the ball back and connect with Westbrook for a 19-yard pass play. That's worth a big two poin-- oops! Westbrook fumbles. Instead of rolling out of bounds, the loose ball sits like a stone near the sideline until a cloddish Vikings defender snatches it. Westbrook giveth; and he taketh away. Minus two for the fumble. Still down six. Time for a rally.

I go downstairs and fetch my lucky Sam Adams bottle, which I found next to eleven others in the fridge, and wait for the magic to begin. It seems to be working as Westbrook notches a catch and an 18-yard carry and I'm only down five at half.

On the first drive of the second half, McNabb finds Owens for six yards. It's a negligible play, but due to our bizarre scoring system, I'm now trailing by just 3.5. Next play, McNabb takes the snap... looks, looks, Owens is open!... pulls it downs and run for a 20-yard touchdown. *#@! Another point for Akers.

Now the Vikings get the ball and a series of painstaking conversions begins. 3rd-and-3: three yard pass. 3rd-and-1: three yard run. Get the ball back, D! The Eagles take a pair of penalties. Finally, the bumbling Vikes boot a 39-yard-field goal. That drive took 6:45, and now I only have 20 minutes to make up four points. I'm getting nervous. Worse yet, I'm still rooting for the Eagles.

Eagles ball. 10 yard pass to L.J. Smith. No points. Two yard run for Westbrook. No points. Incomplete pass to Owens. No points. Incomplete to Ritchie. Zip. 18 minutes to go. Vikings ball.

Again, it's a torturous drive of narrow conversions when all I need is a Vikings touchdown or Eagles stop to get the ball back. Culpepper throws a 10-yard pass on 2nd-and-1. Then a five-yard pass on 3rd-and-3. Another five-yard pass on 2nd-and-3. A 20-yard pass on 3rd-and-11. They're only now reaching Philadelphia territory. A few more dinks and dunks, and I'll be done. Only 11 minutes left. Minnesota's in a 3rd-and-16. Culpepper trots out of bounds and finally this beast is over. Anderson misses the FG... Hooray.

Go to work Eagles. (I'm rooting openly now.) McNabb one-hops a pass to Owens. That was worth 1.5, you #@%!!. Six yard pass to Greg Lewis. Who the hell is Greg Lewis?!. 15-yard run by Westbrook. Now I'm in business. Down 3.5 with 8 minutes to go. But I still need a big gainer by Owens. McNabb drops back to the 50... Throoooows... Is it Owens?. 81 is lunging after the toss. Catch it, big boy!. He got it. He got it!. He tumbles, near the goalline. "Touchdown!" says Al Michaels. "Yeeeeeeahhh!!" I scream, no longer in my head.

Even Akers' meaningless extra point can't stop me now. It's an insurmountable lead with 7 minutes to go. Why are they showing replays? ABC shows Owens bobbling the ball near the endzone. Snap it! Snap it! Snap the ball! The boot is up.... and good! Atta boy, Akers! Unchallengable, baby!

The win is complete. A night of shameful rooting for an enemy team is over. Embarrassed and a little excited, I reach for the remote. It's 12:15 a.m. Work is in five hours. Time to dream a winner's dreams.

But first, I need another drink.

E-mail Mike at michael.casey@newsday.com