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Living in a Fantasy World

by Matt Cosentino
When it comes to sports, some South Jerseyans would rather play make believe.

Only the most diehard professional football fans will remember the name Patrick Jeffers. A forgettable wide receiver that spent six seasons in the National Football League, Jeffers hasn’t caught a pass since 2001 or scored a touchdown since 1999.

Yet, to this day, he haunts Tony D’Angelis.

The Gloucester Township native and fantasy football player since the early days of the “sport” can still recall the day when Jeffers ruined his dream season. “I had maybe my best year of all time, but I ended up losing in the playoffs because somebody had a big day from Patrick Jeffers. Things like that you never forget,” he says.

D’Angelis, a lawyer and married father of two daughters, has what some might call an unhealthy passion for fantasy sports, especially during football season. But that doesn’t make him unusual in 2011. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Fantasy sports, namely fantasy football, have evolved from the realm of stat-obsessed nerds to the average fan. “Ten or 15 years ago, if you played fantasy, you were considered a geek,” says Al Sanchez, a Washington Township resident and long-time player. “Now you’re a geek if you don’t play.”

And those who broadcast and cover the games know this all too well. ESPN and the NFL Network both have special shows dedicated to fanstasy football that run on Sunday mornings.

The networks that broadcast the games (CBS, Fox, NBC) flash fantasy scoring updates during actual games. NFL RedZone, a channel seemingly created for fantasy football players, shows every scoring play from every game each week. Even FX has a successful sitcom, The League, now in its third season. Not to mention that players stay plugged in by logging onto websites, calling fantasy tiplines or tapping apps on their smart phone.

The popularity of fantasy sports is undeniable, and the fact that so many are competing for players’ attention shows the attraction is stronger than ever. “I’m 33, and I don’t know any guy in that age group or younger who doesn’t play fantasy football,” echoes Joe Canataro, a Mount Laurel resident. “If you asked me to think of someone who doesn’t play, I would have a hard time coming up with a name.”

One of the appeals of fantasy sports in general and fantasy football in particular often comes down to giving guys a night out. The draft, usually held a week or two before the NFL’s opening week, is considered the highlight of the season. It can be done on the Internet, but most leagues hold a live draft as a chance for old friends to get together and take part in good-natured trash talk.

If it weren’t for the draft night with his friends from LaSalle University, Canataro would never get to see a lot of his buddies in person, as some live as far away as Massachusetts and Colorado.

“It’s a way for us to stay in touch,” Canataro says. “We still do a live draft every year, either in Boston or this area. So everybody gets together; we make a weekend out of it. It’s the only time all year we get to hang out now that people are married and have kids.”

“For me, it’s all about the draft,” adds Joe Connell, a Haddonfield attorney. “Some guys love the week in and week out stuff, but I can’t stand that. I have a job that I have to worry about.”

While men typically love the allure of fantasy sports—and the party surrounding the draft—they’re not alone. More and more women are participating, and D’Angelis’ wife, Jacqueline, even started her own league with one caveat—it’s for women only.

“Growing up and being from a sports family, I always enjoyed watching football,” says Jacqueline, a Washington Township native. “Of course when I met Tony, our Sundays became consumed with football. ... The girls and I were like, ‘Our husbands are all doing this, why don’t we start our own league?’ We’re watching them have fun, we’re watching them do pickups and drops, and watching their scores. We just thought it would be fun to have our own league.”

As with the guys, the highlight for D’Angelis’ all-girls league is the draft. And just like most men’s leagues, some players come more prepared than others. “The draft is fun; it’s a night out just to hang out with the girls,” Jacqueline says. “Some of the girls are really into it; they come with their lists and they’ve been researching and studying. But it’s really about the party. Everybody has a glass of wine or a beer, we all have a good time. Some people just get really competitive and take it more seriously than others.”

Tony D’Angelis has served as the “draft master” for all five seasons of the women’s league, providing all the rules and helping out each team when needed. The main difference he sees between the guys and the girls is that women don’t stress out over each pick like the men do. They also tend to be loyal to their one league, unlike the men who often have two or three teams in hopes of increasing their chances of cashing in on a hefty payday at the end of the season. In addition to his baseball squad, Canataro is involved in three football leagues.

Bob Wankel, a high school English teacher and part-time video producer at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, takes his obsession even further.

“I’m in five leagues right now,” says Wankel, who’s been playing fantasy football for the past 12 years. “It’s almost like a second job. You wake up Sunday morning and you look at all your rosters and you have to see who’s out, who’s questionable, who’s doubtful. I’ll spend about an hour or two every Sunday just going over everything and making sure everything matches up correctly. It’s actually kind of burdensome. I’m probably in over my head this year; it’s the most I’ve ever done.

“The other part of having so many teams is that you might have a guy in one league and you’re playing against him in another,” Wankel says. “So half the time you don’t even know who to root for. A lot of times I don’t even follow it. As the games progress, I’ll just look to see how it all comes out at the end of the day.”

While those playing fantasy sports keep their eye on the prize—some leagues even pass around a trophy—the monetary incentive helps diehard fans stay interested in the games when the team they root for is suffering a disappointing season.

“In years where the Eagles aren’t doing so well, it allows you to remain entertained,” Connell says. “With RedZone, you still have something to watch. In a lot of respects, you get to know more about football than when you were just following the Eagles. Normally, would I know who [Kansas City Chiefs running back] Jackie Battle is?”

Football remains the No. 1 sport in the booming fantasy business, but baseball is actually older and remains quite popular, while other niche sports are also growing. Golf and soccer leagues have popped up in recent years. Tony D’Angelis, for one, also partakes in fantasy hockey and NASCAR leagues.

But Canataro believes football will always be the perfect fit for fantasy players.

“I [play] baseball, but I could easily stop doing it and I wouldn’t miss it,” he says. “Football is only two days a week. There’s so many guys in Major League Baseball, it’s a lot of work. People have asked me to be in hockey and basketball leagues, but I cut that off. It gets to be too much of your time.”

Such are the burdens of life in a virtual reality.

Star Search
A new type of fantasy league means keeping tabs on your favorite celebrities. Each year, more men and women are joining fantasy sports leagues, but one group of friends in South Jersey is taking things to a new level, one you might not be familiar with: fantasy celebrity leagues.

When Cherry Hill’s Pat Grugan was asked to join a fantasy celebrity league started by one of his buddies, he wasn’t so sure it was for him. “I thought it was weird at first,” Grugan says, before soon becom­ing hooked. “I thought it might be a little more common, but I went on­line and look­ed it up and couldn’t find anything else like it.”

The prem­ise of the league is that each team drafts a male and female celebrity in three different age groups, as well as two other “wild-card” celebrities. Teams are awarded points each week based on celebs’ appearances in two magazines, People and US Weekly. The highest point totals go to those celebrities on the covers, but you can also score if your team member is featured in certain sections within the magazines.

“At first, I did it by myself, and the last two years I’ve done it with my wife,” Grugan says. “She doesn’t really get too competitive with a lot of stuff, but this is the one thing she gets into.” Tiffany Hood, also of Cherry Hill, once tried her hand at fantasy football and didn’t fare so well. An original member of the celebrity league, she’s found her calling, winning the championship twice.

“We didn’t have to know the stats or the background of any of the football players, all we had to do was watch TV or pick up a newspaper to play,” Hood says.

While Pat Grugan also plays fantasy baseball in the summer and fantasy football during the fall, he fill his spring months with the celebrity league, with a draft in February and the season running from March through May.

“I don’t prepare much; I really just go through magazines and try to see who keeps popping up in the last couple of issues,” he said. “Other than that, you just base it on what’s been going on lately. Like last year, we knew that Kate [Middleton] and [Prince] William were getting married, so we knew it was going to be a big deal and they were going to be all over the magazines.”

With the next celebrity draft approaching, Lisa Grugan expects the usual suspects to be the most sought-after players. “The Kardashians, maybe Justin Bieber again,” she muses. “Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise are always big, and so are Brad and Angelina.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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