Fantasy Football for Poets: Week Four



When he was eleven, Jimmy Graham’s mom put him in a van and dropped him off at a group home. With Jimmy’s older sister crying and begging their mother not to abandon her little brother, Jimmy’s mom filled out the paperwork in front of her son and left him in a cold room with two garbage bags full of clothes.

For the next several months at the group home, Jimmy was routinely assaulted by older, bigger kids. When the adults were out of sight, they’d kick the shit out of Jimmy until his eyes were swollen shut. One time he was beaten so badly, he was bedridden for four days. He’d call his mother, pleading to be picked up, to be saved from the constant and reckless pummeling, and she’d hang up on him. “Sorry, I can’t do anything for you,” Jimmy remembers his mother saying.

Eventually, his mother did retrieve him, and brought him to live with her and her boyfriend, an abusive lout who beat Jimmy while his mother did nothing. Jimmy also wasn’t being properly fed or clothed—he’d spend winters in North Carolina with nothing to wear but ripped, dirty t-shirts and tank tops—and often went to a local church in Goldsboro for free food and warmth and a couple hours of guaranteed safety.

Even given the neglect and abuse at home, Jimmy, more than anything, didn’t want to return to the group home, and he knew his mother was going to send him back. In a prayer circle after a church meeting, where members heard each other’s hardships and collectively responded with words of comfort, Jimmy’s supplication was simple. Please don’t let her send me back there.

Jimmy’s admission shook the heart of a church volunteer named Becky Vinson. “My mind was flooded with what Jimmy had said. I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something. I can’t respond to this by just praying for it and going about my day.’” Soon after that day, she took Jimmy in and became his adoptive mother.

This isn’t a Blind Side-style story where an affluent couple swoops in with bottomless resources to give structure and care to an at-risk youth. Becky was a single mother and Gulf War vet who lived with her daughter in a single-wide trailer in a bad part of town. The first year Jimmy lived with them, she estimates she made about $3,000. “I was beyond poverty,” Becky said.

“There were times she’d come back and say, ‘OK, what do we want, water or electricity, because I don’t have money to pay for both?’” Jimmy says.

Jimmy wasn’t the easiest kid to live with, either; he had anger issues, would act out a lot, and was a terrible student. Although Jimmy’s first love was football, his poor grades early in his freshman year kept him off the team, and it was a wakeup call to take school more seriously. He improved his marks by the winter and was able to join the basketball squad, and, four years later, did well enough in the classroom and on the court to earn a hoops scholarship to the University of Miami.


He was still brutally poor. Until a female classmate lent him a blanket, his only bedding was a single thin sheet, and he had few changes of clothes. With the spendy Miami club scene another world away, Jimmy worked his ass off in the classroom, double-majoring in marketing and management all while playing Division I basketball for four years. Finally, during his senior year in 2008-2009, he returned to the gridiron for six months, where NFL scouts noticed Jimmy’s long frame, leaping ability, and soft hands, abetted by years of basketball training. His wildly brief exposure to college football still scared off a lot of teams who viewed Jimmy as too raw of a project.

“I laugh when people say, ‘Oh, he’s a basketball player, let’s see if he’s tough enough [for the NFL],’ ” Graham said before the 2009 NFL draft. “They don’t understand what I’ve been through.”

Jimmy’s biological mother was not in attendance to see her son graduate from college, but someone more important was. “Sitting at his graduation, I was a complete wreck,” Becky said. “I was crying and words can’t describe how proud I was of him. I love him as if he’s my own child. I can’t imagine my life without Jimmy.”

When the New Orleans Saints chose Jimmy in the third round, he took it as an opportunity to give back to a special community. “That was one of the things I thought about right away about coming to New Orleans,” Graham said at the time. “I know there are a lot of kids in the city who have lived through a lot, and it seemed like sharing my own experience with them would be a kind of destiny.”

players_JimmyGrahamIn his time in New Orleans, the once abused kid from the group home has also found a family among his fellow Saints players, and is especially close to quarterback Drew Brees. “I’ve never caught a pass from another quarterback,” Jimmy says. “And I don’t intend to.”

He’s wary of the family members that have come out of the woodwork and he’s wary of women, eschewing the groupies who approach him. “I have to chase them,” he says, and plans to delay marriage until his early thirties.

A decade after Becky Vinson took in an angry, shaking teenager in dirty clothes, Jimmy Graham is entering his fourth year for the Saints. He is the best at his position in the NFL. Through three games, he’s third in the league among all receivers with 358 yards and tied for second in touchdowns with four, having scored in every game this year. Drew Brees calls Jimmy “Avatar,” but Jimmy is more graceful, fierce, and uncommonly breathtaking than anything James Cameron could ever throw at us.

“I’m a humble kid from humble beginnings,” Jimmy says. “I’m blessed to be in the situation that I’m in.”


For the first time since 2002, the Miami Dolphins have started the season 3-0. Few people outside of southern Florida are aware of this, but looking at the schedule, a record of 10-6, or better, is a real possibility.

This means that we could be watching young men dressed in circus-peanut orange and sea-foam green run around in January, perhaps in the snow of an inconsolable latitude, and watch hope rise like the crest of a wave for a team that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1973 and hasn’t appeared in one since 1984.

“Numbness is adaptive,” William T. Vollman writes in Poor People. “In Adam Smith’s time, a Highland Scotswoman might bear twenty children, and succeed in keeping only two alive. Wasn’t it best for her and them if she could consider the situation normal?”

The Super Bowl victories of the 1970s, faded like mustard stains on a naugahyde davenport, are the aberrations, the surviving Scottish children, the memories which lead us to mistake unaccustomed competence for momentum. While the numbness of Dolphins fans falls short of fan bases for teams like Minnesota Vikings (who have never won a Super Bowl) or the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns (who have never even appeared in one) there is still, now, an entire generation of people old enough to rent a car who have never had the opportunity to drive from the airport Hertz to a football stadium in February to watch the Dolphins. They can revel in this hot start, without guilt; in this situation, even arrogance is briefly forgiven.

This is supposed to be fantasy football column, so let me explain the fantasy football ramifications of the Miami Dolphins’ success: Almost none. You’d have better luck locating authentic Mexican food in the former Soviet bloc, or asking a two-year old to mix you a proper Singapore Sling. Let’s call it in the realm of possibility, but you know neither the day nor the hour.

And this is why: The Dolphins are 28th out of out the 32 NFL teams in total yards per game. Their breakout offensive player is a 3rd year TE/FB hybrid named Charles Clay.

I like Charles and I wish him well; after all, it’s only week four, and he’s already just 30 yards away from matching his career high in receiving yards, which he’ll almost certainly pass next week. But should Charles be starting for your fantasy team? Sure, if you’re in an AFC-only league, or sick, or drunk. He’s ownable, certainly, but there are about 14 or 15 better tight ends in the league, so if you’re starting him, you screwed up somewhere.


Quarterback Ryan Tannehill deserves credit for much of the Dolphins’ success, but he shouldn’t be in your starting lineup either. Yes, he could be the best Dolphins QB since Dan Marino, or at least since Jay Fiedler, but he’s tied with Christian Ponder in fantasy points, and below names like Alex Smith, E.J. Manuel, Geno Smith, and Jake Locker, none of whom you should be starting, either, or even pointing at.

Who else? Big money free agent-signing Mike Wallace has been a bust in two of their three games. Brian Hartline has scored two touchdowns this year, probably due to Wallace attracting opposing team’s top corners, but he’s not going to be in many winning lineups come Week 16. Running back Lamar Miller has a goal-line vulture named Daniel Thomas. Daniel Thomas’ last goal-line carry was vultured by Charles Clay. The most recent goal-line touchdown was scored by Dion Sims. No one has any idea who on this team will score the next touchdown. That’s beautiful and terrific if you’re an NFL team trying to confuse an opposing defense but it’s terrifying if you’re a fantasy player.

So who’s good on this team? Defensive end Cameron Wake is excellent, and if you’re one of those weirdos who plays in a league with individual defensive players, you know this. Veteran DT Randy Starks is on pace to shatter his record for sacks in a season, and no-name backup Derrick Shelby has two sacks and two forced fumbles over three games. Do you, fantasy owner, care? No.

The Miami Dolphins are going to keep winning. Just please don’t start any of their players.


IMG_20130918_110654_023-1024x576ON GOING HOME

The Cleveland Browns traded their best player last week, started a third-string quarterback on the road in Minnesota’s notoriously hostile stadium, and still won the game, their first of the season. I ended up watching it at a Browns bar in Sherman Oaks called The Chimney Sweep, because I am a Vikings fan and am greatly outnumbered by Browns fans in my personal life.

Browns fans are growing on me. They’ve been disabused of any avenues to arrogance for so long, they’re able to be genuinely kind, generous people, even if they have bitter resignation to the marrow. Upon arriving at the bar at 9:30 AM, I heard a Browns fan ask another, “So how much are we gonna lose by this week?” It’s not glass half-empty; it’s looking into the glass and having no memory of what water looks like.

Still, I much prefer it to the murderous dismay of Eagles fans, or the dubious anarchy of Packers fans, who chant the name of their obscure fullback with a fury usually only seen during coitus or industrial accidents. They’re lost souls, though; most of them between ages twenty and forty-five are still reeling from papa Favre’s betrayal, and only recently have accepted Aaron Rodgers as a kind-of-cool stepdad. This makes the cheesehead hat, at last, even after those Super Bowls, a lid on a simmering, collective sorrow.

Sadness for Browns fans permeates more wholly, and respites are brief. The signifier of Cleveland hope this week was a native of Lakewood, Ohio named Brian Hoyer, who attended high school at St. Ignatius, an Ohio football powerhouse that has a fan base arguably more devoted than any in the state. To many, a St. Ignatius boy playing quarterback for the Browns is victory enough. This is a fella who Cleveland fans could’ve seen fail miserably and they’d have cheered his glimmers of competence like Led Zeppelin at Budokan.

Last weekend, Brian gave them more than glimmers. He carved up the Minnesota Vikings defense for 321 yards and three touchdowns, in just his second NFL start ever.

In the days since the victory, the Hoyers have become one of the most popular families in Ohio. Everyone’s voice mailbox is full; for a man who’d been a career backup, suddenly there are interview requests and highlights on ESPN, all on the same week that he bought a new house with a pregnant wife who’s due any moment.

Even the national media is paying attention. “Yeah, he made some mistakes, but he’s not afraid to take chances,” gushed former Giants quarterback and CBS analyst Phil Simms. “That’s one thing I like about him. And he just has a presence. What I said about Andrew Luck, I say about Brian Hoyer… He’s got chutzpah.”

“Brian is a Cleveland guy who gets it,” his former St. Ignatius teammate Cody Tomon told “He understands the fan base. For one day, a Clevelander won.”

But let’s not get too excited. Never mind that Brian won a difficult road game and ruined untold millions of NFL survival pools the world over; as of Tuesday, the Browns were still undecided whether to start Brian at quarterback this weekend against the Bengals.


Arizona Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson tackled New Orleans Saints punt returner Darren Sproles last weekend, and while walking to the sideline after the play, he noticed blood leaking from one of his gloves. Usually when this happens, it’s a torn fingernail or a puncture wound from a cleat. This time, Rashad removed the glove, and the tip of his middle finger, above the knuckle, came off inside it.

Rashad“Lost top portion of it,” Rashad tweeted after the game. “Had exposed bone and skin shaved down yesterday and stitched up. Prob most painful injury I’ve had.”

After the game, Rashad had surgery to shave his finger down to the first knuckle. No attempt to reattach the tip of the finger was made.

“I’m not even sure how it happened,” Johnson told a day later. “If I had to take a guess, I would say maybe it dug into the turf there and snapped back and broke it that way. My glove was torn or ripped, which makes me think it didn’t get caught in a facemask or a cleat stepped on it.”

“His gloves were drenched in blood and it was leaking like a faucet,” says teammate Patrick Peterson. “I can’t imagine feeling and seeing that, but he’s a trooper.”

After his surgery, Rashad joked that he could still use his thumbs to play video games and added that his middle finger “probably wouldn’t have been used for anything good anyway.”


J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest and the forthcoming The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His shorter writing has appeared in Hobart, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. More from this author →