"We didn't mean to auto-draft,” Justin C. Cliburn said. “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.
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],” Cliburn recalled. “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,” said 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,” said Cliburn. “Got LaDainian Tomlinson at No. 3.”
Despite an inauspicious beginning, the league has held together through battle, tragedy and distance. The bond shared by the group led to the push for a 10-year reunion for the SECFOR mission, spearheaded by a fantasy league and its commissioner. The event took place over Labor Day weekend, culminating with a draft party at Cowboys Stadium.
“We kinda had a wake-up call, a year and a half, two years ago,” Pyle said. “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.”
[For more info on post-traumatic stress disorder, visit the National Center for PTSD]
While not all 152 soldiers made it to the reunion, eight of 10 original members of the league are still involved. The league has also grown substantially, with three conferences this season, each with 14 owners.
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.
“I'm just gonna go out there and say it,” said 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.”
While the connection between the group is clear, there have been times when the guys have tried to one-up each other.
“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,” recalled Pyle. “Threw five or six touchdowns. Justin adds him before the game ended.
“Knew he’d be gone if I waited,” said Cliburn, gloating over a 10-year-old transaction.
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.
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. Today it provides a way to continue that brotherhood a decade later.