As a Las Vegas native who literally learned to count by playing blackjack for M&Ms as a kid, Steven Jackson can appreciate the thrill of the big score. And though Jackson, the son of two longtime casino blackjack dealers, doesn't gamble, the St. Louis Rams' halfback has come to understand in recent months that his efforts on the football field last season helped pad a whole lot of pockets.
In an era in which fantasy football has become the new national pastime, Action Jackson was the object of more man-crushes in 2006 than anyone not named LT. Never was this more apparent than at Vegas's McCarran Airport last month, as Jackson sat at a restaurant tucked between the slot machines and the oxygen bar waiting for a meal he wouldn't have to buy.
"I was grabbing a bite before my flight, and a man came and offered to buy me dinner," Jackson recalls. "He told me I'd helped him win his league last year and that he wanted to show his appreciation. He wasn't intrusive or anything – he just picked up the tab and let me finish the meal. And he said he planned on picking me up again this year."
Lest you think this is a unique occurrence, consider the experience of San Diego Chargers halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, the man who in '06 put together what was probably the most prolific season in NFL and fantasy football history. "I get people offering to buy me meals all the time," LT said Monday when I related Jackson's story to him at Chargers training camp.
"People do the strangest things. They say, 'I owe you – let me buy you a meal.' One person said, 'I had you in all six of my fantasy leagues, and I won all of them.' I tell them, 'Hey, I'm just doing my job.'"
Like most players, Tomlinson isn't exactly sure how doing his job translates into others' fantasy-league winnings. He has a vague notion that yards, receptions and touchdowns are a very good thing, but beyond that it's as fuzzy as former San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer's decision-making process during a playoff game.
"I stay away from fantasy football," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber, whose twin brother, former New York Giants halfback Tiki, was a high-scoring player late in his recently concluded career. "It's a bunch of stuff I can't control, and that I don't want to think about."
Many NFL players adopt this blind spot out of necessity, for fantasy's sensibilities have little to do with what they understand to be reality. Because so much of what goes into the communal pursuit of winning a football game isn't quantifiable, the mere consideration of personal productivity is an unwelcome pollutant.
Put it this way: In Tomlinson's world no one is more important than veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal, a man whom fantasy players regard as only slightly more valuable than former "Are You Hot?" judge Lorenzo Lamas.
For this same reason I've steadfastly resisted the fantasy-football thing, but that's about to change. Just last night, profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio invited me to join a league featuring other NFL writers, and though I'm going to pass (it's hard enough maintaining relationships with players from 32 teams without having to fight the urge to curse them for their ill-timed fumbles), there will soon be a regular fantasy element in my columns.
I'll even be attending somebody's draft, albeit in view of the Pacific Ocean, which I expect will brighten my mood as I assess the relative merits of Ladell Betts vs. Marion Barber III. (I actually have Tommy Armour III at the top of my fantasy-golf draft board, but that's another story for another time.)
In short, despite my conviction that it's antithetical to the essence of football, I'm determined to have a better attitude about fantasy. I figure if guys like Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia can go with the flow, I can, too.
Years ago, when Garcia was struggling as Steve Young's successor with the San Francisco 49ers, I learned of a conversation he'd had with some fans in a Bay Area bar. It happened midway through the season, and one of the fans started venting to Garcia that the quarterback's subpar statistics were killing him in his fantasy league.
Rather than blowing the guy off or taking offense, Garcia empathized. "Dude, stick with me," he pleaded. "I'm going to get things going. Keep me on the team and you'll see. I'll turn it up."
And he did, ultimately making the Pro Bowl and, I imagine, scoring lots of fantasy points.
In that sense, embracing fantasy as a new reality, Garcia was ahead of his time.
"People talk to me about fantasy a lot more than they do about our team, even around here," Rams quarterback Marc Bulger told me earlier this month after a training camp practice. "Even if you lose, you'll hear about your fantasy numbers. I guess if you throw for a lot of yards, to some people, it's not that bad of a loss."
And as tempted as Bulger was to roll his eyes as he uttered that last sentence, he understands the fantasy mentality because he knows what it's like to play. "After I got cut in 2000 (and was out of football), I played just to see what it was about," he says, harkening back to the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" era. "Back then, whoever had Kurt (Warner) or Marshall (Faulk) automatically won the league. It's a lot more competitive now."
Even coaches, the ultimate enemies of individual-statistical glorification, have had fantasy seep into their psyches in recent years. Says the Rams' Scott Linehan: "My son, Matt, will say to me, 'Dad, can you get Torry (Holt) the ball?' I say, 'Matt, I'm just trying to win a football game.' And he'll say, 'Yeah, Dad, but can you win and have him catch two touchdowns?'"
Or, might I suggest, Linehan simply give the ball to his big, dreadlocked halfback every time the Rams get near the goal line. That might not make for the greatest show on turf, but at least Action Jackson can save some meal money.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
If Eric Mangini, as reported by the New York Daily News, goes through with his silly threat to fine any New York Jets player whose agent discusses his injury status with the media, the NFLPA (for once) will display a backbone and win a grievance hearing. … Doing his best Walter Jones, New England Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel will have another great season, get franchised again and miss training camp all over again in 2008. … Jerome Bettis' soon-to-be-released book, "The Bus. My Life in and out of a Helmet," will be as straightforward and hard-hitting as his running style.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
I'm not a big preseason guy, but something about San Diego Chargers-Arizona Cardinals, with sublime play-callers Norv Turner and Ken Whisenhunt having some fun (but not too much fun) with their new toys, makes me feel like this could be a fruitful Saturday night. Besides, I haven't bought Edgerrin James a steak or lobster in months .
LIES, LIES, LIES
1) Andy Reid doesn't think Jeremiah Trotter is good enough to play middle linebacker anymore, but the Eagles' coach will soon be nominating him for a Nobel Peace Prize.
2) Reid's sons have been offered co-starring roles in an upcoming Bill Murray movie: "Caddyshack 2007: The Runaway Cart."
3) The Barbers and the Mannings will settle their beef in a tag-team, mudwrestling event for pay-per-view.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
This one comes courtesy of Ronde Barber, and it expresses an opinion The Gameface shares – the absurdity of the Bucs' attempts to recoup signing bonus money paid to retired quarterback Jake Plummer by the Denver Broncos: "That is ridiculously crazy, that we're entitled to some money for something that we have no business being entitled to. The guy's never even set foot in our locker room, and he owes us money? Only in the NFL."
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Cherry Creek (Colo.) High School's quarterbacks coach, John Elway, whose son, Jack, is the team's senior starter at the position. No pressure there, kid. We hope you are a chip off the old block, minus the regrettable decision to attend (and do ridiculously amazing things while representing) the Bay Area's second-best university.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
"Why Duke sucks college." (Warning: If you're offended by swear words, kindly refrain from watching.)
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"One of these years, some NFL coach will stop the training camp Hell and do things a different way. He'll win a Super Bowl and be celebrated as a pioneer. Until then, we'll still have these idiot coaches thinking that you can beat the daylights out of players, dehydrate them, and have them enter the season all banged up. Most of the players don't hate training camp because they have to work. They hate it because most of it is stupid and counterproductive."
Centre Hall, Pa.
Thanks for reading … and for directing the word "idiot" at someone other than me.
"I enjoyed your column about Korey Stringer and the current state of affairs in the NFL; your column makes compelling arguments. If I can take a contrarian view: What happens when it's the first week of the season and these teams have early-season games in the heat? The gods of television aren't going to move games because of heat. If a game is supposed to start at lunchtime in places like Dallas, Miami, Tampa, Fla., Jacksonville (and really most places that aren't domes), barring a hurricane or electric storms, they're playing. There has to be a process to get the players acclimated, but smarter folks than I would speak to being able to strike that balance."
I hear you, but remember that most training camp practices are more taxing than the average game, and that players typically go into games having had a light practice two days earlier and only a walkthrough the day before. As with competitive swimming and many other sports, the best way to ensure optimal performance, even in extreme conditions, is usually to taper and allow the body ample rest.
"About time someone brought up the evils of mayonnaise. Many people have been scared to tackle such a large issue, I applaud you. Too long has its white, thick, slimy grossness plagued our sandwiches and burgers. The weird thing is how offended people are when you tell them you don't like it or 'No, leave it off my sandwich please.' Look, it's not a secret ingredient your great grandmother created; it's just liquid fat spread and it's horrible. Also, congrats and good luck in the move to Yahoo! Maybe you will be like Steve Kerr and turn this job into a general manager position. If you do, dibs on your job as 'assistant general manager.' Not only did I call it (which means I get it no matter what …) but also I know how you like your sandwiches."
I'll call Steve – my writing partner at the Palisades High School Tideline (student newspaper), and thus a witness to my mayophobia from way back – and try to broker the deal.
"You are a moron. Everyone else calls you that, so I thought would too."
That's some exceptionally deep thinking there, Charlie. Keep up the good work.
"How did someone so asinine, ignorant, ridiculously stupid and ugly get to be on Yahoo! Sports? To even bring dog killing and hunting deer up in the same story means you are extremly terrible desperate for some kind of recognition. What a lowlife F+)* jerk. This is the first time I've read your garbage and quess what?"
Long Beach, N.Y.
Pat, what can I say? Thank you for not calling me a moron.
"Your article on defending Vick and calling everyone else hypocrites sucked. I will not read you ever again, you just stupid."
State College, Pa.
I rubber, you glue …
"Give me some over/unders on the following: Four wins for the Raiders? 2000 yards rushing for LT? 16 games played for Joey Harrington? Two more seasons for (Brett) Favre? Six wins for Cal's football team?"
Ninety Six, S.C.
Four unders and an over, hopefully beginning Sept. 1 in Berkeley and ending exactly four months later in Pasadena.
"Michael – You write great stuff. I appreciate your candor, and your piece on (Tony) Romo was good, too. But I'm an avid (Buffalo) Bills' fan and have seen ol' Wade (Phillips) attempt to do the head coaching thing before. Do you really think that he has what it takes to put the 'Boys over the top, regardless of whether or not Romo shows up?"
I really do, especially because he is the antithesis of the man he's following: down-to-earth, utterly unconcerned with flexing his power, and devoid of pretense. Plus he'll turn loose an imposing defense. I think an already stacked team will respond.
"You said, 'Marco Materazzi, thanks for telling us what you said to Zinedine Zidane that made the French star go all neocon in the World Cup final. I don't approve of the word choice, but man, was it effective: Not only did you become Italy's greatest hero of the 21st century, but you even got some love from France coach Raymond Domenech.' Hmmmm...So Materazzi went 'all neocon'? I'm pretty sure you have no idea what this word means. But you do know you've heard George W. Bush being called one and he is an evil dictator who stole the presidency, illegally invaded a sovereign nation with a kind and benevolent dictator, hates black people, invented hurricanes, trades blood for oil, and is trying to steal our freedoms (he probably personally listens to every single phone call you make). Even if all those things about ole Bushie were true, that wouldn't make the word choice any more accurate. Hint: the word neocon is not synonymous with the word warmongerer. Leave political commentary for those who are good at it. You stick to what you do best which apparently is wearing eyeglasses with frames from Star Trek and writing decidedly mediocre sports columns."
Congratulations, Chris: you are the last surviving member of the "We Love W" fan club. Look, I could bore you by justifying the term "neocon" in this context – and I think we can all agree that the neocons (Wolfowitz, Pearle, et al) supplied the intellectual rationale for the invasion of Iraq – but instead I'll simply sit back and marvel at the Star Trek reference. Did Spock wear glasses, or did I miss something?
"What is this 'America's team' and 'America's Quaterback' crap. The Cowboys are Dallas' team. Just because they gave themselves that nickname in the '70s doesn't mean it is or was ever valid. Football loyalties are local and regional and they run very deep. To try and label one player America's Quaterback because he plays for the Cowboys is absurd. F--- you and f--- the cowboys! Go Chiefs!"
Kansas City, Mo.
Moving right along …
"Why are you even allowed to write? This article should have been written months ago. Your stupid, stupid ,stupid! Romo's bobbled snap is oldnews! Are you on life support? You should be … idiot!"
You're precious, precious, precious.
"Silver, if you are a betting man, who comes back to the NFL first: (Michael) Vick or Pacman (Jones)?"
Happy Camp, Calif.
That's a great question. Vick may never make it back, and I can't see Pacman not doing at least three stupid things that prolong his suspension. In the end, though, I'd have to answer Pacman, largely because there's very little dispute as to how special he is as a player. (And no, Mr. Goodell, I am most certainly not a betting man.)