Football, wartime, and an uncommonly important fantasy league
"We didn't mean to auto-draft,” says Justin C. Cliburn. “But the internet in Baghdad wasn't the most reliable."
It was August of 2006. Cliburn was a specialist stationed at Camp Liberty in Baghdad, part of a security force (SECFOR) of Oklahoma Army National Guardsmen from the 1st Battalion, 158th Field Artillery regiment. His squad’s role was to escort civilian training contractors to Iraqi police stations, Cliburn serving as a Humvee gunner.
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He also served, reluctantly and incongruously, as a first-year fantasy commissioner.
“That season the guy who was supposed to run our league was stationed down in Diwaniyah [at Camp Echo],” recalls Cliburn. “He had next-to-no internet access, so I took over.”
And still the league began with technical difficulties.
“Yeah, internet cut out right before our draft began,” says Kevin Pyle, a founding member of the OklahomIraqis League. “Every team was auto-picked. Not Yahoo’s fault. That was Iraq.”
“I really lucked out, though,” says Cliburn. “Got LaDainian Tomlinson at No. 3.”
Despite an inauspicious beginning, the league held together. Eight of ten original members are still involved, and the league has grown substantially. The group expanded to two conferences last season, in fact, each with 14 owners.
“Out of the 28 that were in it last year, 26 were on that original mission,” notes Cliburn. “Twenty-seven were in the 158th Field Artillery, and 27 of the 28 have combat experience.”
Today’s version of the league is significantly deeper and more competitive.
“Understand, in 2006, we had very few trades and very few message board posts,” Cliburn says. “I'd be lying if I told you we took it as seriously then as we do now.
“Heading into that first season, all of us had been in a convoy hit by an IED, been shot at, or both. My squad found out the Iraqi general in charge of the police station we trained was skimming thousands of dollars a month — like $40,000 — from the U.S., and there really wasn't much we could do about it without getting ourselves killed. Every so often, some of the officers we trained there were found tortured and killed. … And other officers we trained were running sectarian death squads at night.
“So the fantasy football league was just a healthy distraction for us at first.”
Under the best possible circumstances, in the most low-maintenance league, it’s no simple thing to serve as a fantasy commissioner. Doing so in combat — facing extreme danger and 120-degree heat — seems almost unimaginably difficult.
But if you’re an obsessed player, you usually find a way.
“I remember Justin raced to an internet café at like 2:30 in the morning to add Tony Romo on Thanksgiving [in ‘06], while Romo was having his breakout game,” says Pyle. “Threw five or six touchdowns. Justin adds him before the game ended.
“Knew he’d be gone if I waited,” says Cliburn, gloating over a 10-year-old transaction.
But the league’s first title was actually claimed by Pyle, thanks largely to in-season pickup Maurice Jones-Drew, then a rookie. Pyle also credits his somewhat favorable patrol schedule.
“We all had such different hours over there,” he says. “The group that I went outside the wire with, it was more of a ... well, I don't want to say it was a 9-to-5, but we would go outside around 8 in the morning. Depending on what we were trying to accomplish that day, we could be back by 3 or 4 in the afternoon. So I had maybe a little more access than other guys.”
Reliable connectivity and a non-disastrous auto-draft went a long way in Baghdad in 2006, no question.
Of course Cliburn’s league wasn’t the only group of active fantasy players in Iraq back in ’06 – nor, in all likelihood, was it the most hardcore. But very few commissioners have ever documented the lifetime of a league as thoroughly and faithfully as Cliburn. In so doing, he’s strengthened the connections between those who served together in the 158. Cliburn’s website is a rich and impressive thing, an ongoing project detailing the full history of the regiment and its deployments, as well as the decade-long story of his league. Generally speaking, no one likes to hear anyone else’s fantasy tales. But Cliburn’s only deal with fantasy at the most surface level. Often, they’re stark and difficult and painfully real.
Consider the complexities involved in managing the league when many members, but not all, returned to Iraq in 2008:
“You had guys who clearly had PTSD, including myself, who had never sought any form of treatment — again, including myself at that point," Cliburn says. "So guys were more anxious and irritable. The slightest thing would set off a series of angry texts and emails. Then you had the added stress of the unit being sent to Iraq again so soon.
“On top of that, there was some resentment that some of us weren't on that 2008 Iraq mission. Accordingly, the ones who weren't there — like we felt we should be — felt a lot of guilt. We played out the season giving more leeway to the guys who were deployed, but we'd get really frustrated when they wouldn't set their lineup or answer a trade offer — and then we'd feel guilty about that, too. What if they'd been hit? What if they were out on a mission? Stuff like that.”
“I'm just gonna go out there and say it,” offers Pyle. “I think Justin is one of the greatest commissioners ever. He connects us in-season, out-of-season. We're always communicating with each other. Justin was having to play peacekeeper in the league those first three or four years — I was dealing with issues that I didn't realize at the time, and wasn’t alone.
“This league means a lot because you don't realize that bond that you had until you're separated again. There's just a void there, a gap. This league helps bridge it. The league is so much more than something to do, something to brag about.”
After a pause:
“We kinda had a wake-up call, a year and a half, two years ago. One of our brothers who was over there with us took his own life. About half of us made it to the services and we all mentioned that we have to get together at times other than this. That's part of why we thought it would be so great to get all of us together – not just the league, the full 152 of us that were over there in 2006.”
And so began the planning a 10-year reunion for the SECFOR mission, spearheaded by a fantasy league and its commissioner. The event will happen over Labor Day weekend, culminating, hopefully, with a draft party at Cowboys Stadium.
As fantasy players, most of us have some vague sense that our leagues serve as social hubs, and many of us travel to drafts each year — maybe you keep in touch with your freshman-year dorm floor through a 12-team, half-PPR. The 158 isn’t so different, except that its league came together while the owners were risking their lives in service to their country. If you can afford to help them reunite, great. Here’s a link. Do what you can do. These guys are something better than a simple fantasy story.