Fantasy football: Oh, the way we were …

  For the record, I’m turning 50 this week.

  No, not that 50 – I’m talking 50 years, 50 freaking consecutive seasons, of playing fantasy football. I’m not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed. It’s kind of like that ESPN-inspired slogan: Never Graduate.

  Yes, I’ve been playing fantasy football since 1972, which was back in the early days of Monday Night Football, of straight-on kickers, of Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw and George Blanda. In fact, I might be the longest-running fantasy-football player in the nation. Which is probably like a competition for cleanest garage.

  Legend has it that fantasy football began in the Bay Area in the 1960s, years and years before it became a national thing. says it was born in 1962 when Bill Winkenbach, part-owner of the Oakland Raiders, gathered friends and co-workers in a New York City hotel, staged a draft and named the enterprise the Greater Oakland Pigskin Professional Prognosticators League (GOPPPL).

  The concept was slow to take root. In Oregon, where I worked, we knew nothing of it until Blaine Newnham, later a Seattle Times columnist, came north to the Eugene Register-Guard in September of 1971 from the Oakland Tribune, where he’d covered the Raiders, and said, “There’s this game we played in Oakland . . . “

  The ’71 season had already started, but in 1972, we christened the Greater Oregon Pigskin Prognosticators League. We were off and running, leaving in our draft wake pizza boxes, a lingering pall of cigar smoke and the echoes of Henry Weinhard-fueled side bets.

  For you 30-somethings, it’s almost impossible to convey how different fantasy football was then, but it’s something like your Smartphone compared to the long-cord relic hung on the kitchen wall. Intel was precious, and so hard to get. Even the previous season’s statistics – I recall photocopying them from the annual Pro Football Guide, a reference book sent annually to media outlets. To supplement, I clipped and pasted summaries of exhibition games onto copy paper from the sports department. It was laborious, and necessary. Preseason magazines geared only to the NFL season were hopelessly dated, with nothing fantasy-related.

  Initially, our drafting reflected our ignorance. Conventional wisdom held that since kickers delivered the most reliable points, they had to be drafted in the first or second round. Really.

  The means of learning game results was similarly Neanderthal. NFL Red Zone? You’ve got to be kidding. And there was no “crawl” across the bottom of the TV screen catering to fantasy players. Of course, there was no Internet, splashing statistics. As I recall, the only cryptic updates on the games you weren’t watching came from halftime shows, hosted by people like Irv Cross and Phyllis George and Jimmy the Greek.

  So it wasn’t uncommon that league members unwilling to wait for the Monday paper would drop by the sports department on Sunday afternoon, with the teletype machines clattering, to see the game results for themselves.

  Back in my storehouse of useless information are memories like opening day, 1972, and watching Pittsburgh’s opener with my roommate and GOPPL partner, Bob Clark. Bradshaw, our quarterback, was tackled, stayed down, and the TV analyst, murdering syntax as TV analysts always do, blurted, “It looks he’s hurt bad!”

  Momentarily, Bradshaw popped up, trotted off the field and completed a big day for the Steelers. And oh yes, us.

  That same year, a guy in our league started John Hadl at quarterback and had Joe Namath on the bench the day he threw six touchdown passes at Baltimore. The opposing QB in that game was Johnny Unitas.

  After the openers in 1973, I remember making that Sunday run to the sports department. And while I know you hate hearing about anybody’s fantasy team just as much as I do, in Denver’s 28-10 win over Cincinnati, we had not only Floyd Little’s three touchdowns but Haven Moses’ end-around for a score.

  In 1975, a new partner, Dave Frei – the Dog Guy – and I got saddled with the 10th and last pick of the first round. We threw in with O.J. Simpson, who had a reputation (before he had a real reputation) as a guy who ran all over the place but didn’t score touchdowns. That year, he scored 23.

  We ruled. We rocked.

  We were insufferable.

  Clark and I mailed out Christmas cards to league members, based on a photo we had taken outside Autzen Stadium by Pulitzer Prize-winning (not for this photo, to be clear) shooter Brian Lanker. We were wearing our team polo shirts, the ones with the inscription, “History’s Greatest GOPPL franchise.” The next year, we sent out Christmas letters in the form of a verse describing each league member’s season.

  We did faux press releases and posted them on the sports department bulletin board. Newnham said, not inaccurately, that they were better than anything ever written for the paper.

  Anyway, for reasons I can’t even explain other than force of habit, I’m still playing this foolish game. It’s hardly recognizable from the one we started up in Eugene, way too clinical. Websites abound with player rankings, making the draft predictable. Internet live-draft sites remind you of the best available players. It’s pretty much idiot-proof.

  And for those people who play in four or five leagues, well, there are no words.

  Just know that the fantasy football you’re playing today is only a vague facsimile of what we knew half a century ago. You really should have been there.