Fantasy Football for Poets: Week 8

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LIFE AND HOW TO LIVE IT

After his rookie season for the Cleveland Browns, Kellen Winslow tore his ACL in an accident while driving his Suzuki GSX-R750. Early in recovery, he developed a staph infection and missed his entire second year of football as a result. Afterward, his wife Janelle requested that Kellen never drive a motorcycle again.

She had a point; I’m related to a Gixxer owner. To own a sport bike like that is to frequently test it, and I’ve seen footage of him doing alarming things at 2:00 AM on the otherwise quiet freeways of St. Paul, Minnesota, like take the 61 on-ramp at 140 mph. This particular relative of mine has since lost a friend, a fellow Gixxer enthusiast, to an accident with a bus, and doesn’t ride his Suzuki much anymore at all, being a new father and smitten with dearer priorities than a need to redline an aftermarket engine.

Kellen, now with the New York Jets, was sobered by his first-hand close call. While still in physical therapy, he exchanged the facile rush of sport bikes for a more elective level of intensity, and has since become perhaps the biggest cycling enthusiast in the NFL.

“I feel great when I do it, I feel lousy when I don’t,” Kellen told Yahoo! Sports. “That’s all I do in the offseason is ride. I climb those hills in San Diego. Climbing is brutal enough; you don’t have to lift weights if you climb those hills. That’s my offseason workout—pretty much riding.”

For a man who’s 6’4” and 240 pounds, his regimen of cycling twenty-five miles four days a week and fifty miles on day five is impressive, and the Jets’ other receivers have taken notice of Kellen’s endurance. In football circles, players tend to only ride bikes that are stationary, and even then, usually only when rehabbing an injury—the term “Tour de France” is an insider pejorative for the rows of injured players in rehab. For Kellen, however, the term inspires awe, and watching the race over the years has led him to push himself harder.

“It takes a while for you to get any definition in your legs like those guys,” Kellen admitted to the New York Daily News. “It’s just like running, but without the impact…it challenged me in ways I never knew.”

Another of the NFL’s well-known bike enthusiasts came to it quite differently. The son of a city planner in Detroit, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Connor Barwin is a devotee of public transportation and an environmental activist, taking pictures of his Septa bus rides around Philadelphia and planting trees on his days off.

He’s also been, for years, a bike nut, riding his bike both for practical purposes (it’s been a part of his commute) and, naturally, for pleasure. Immediately after signing with the Eagles as a free agent in the off-season, he checked out the local bike paths, tweeting, “Yo! This bike path along the Schuylkill River is ridiculously awesome!” and presumably raising the eyebrows of his new teammates.

Connor Barwin2After witnessing Connor park his bike outside a restaurant, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox tweeted, “Not everybody can valet they bike on the curb like @ConnorBarwin98,” and posted a photo, perhaps intending it as a kind jab. Connor used the joke as an invitation for advocacy. “It’s free, too,” he replied, adding the hashtag #bikelife.

While Connor doesn’t ride a fixed-gear bike, he’s been accused of being the biggest hipster in the NFL, partially due to his taste in music (Electric Guest, Alt-J, Haim, Tanlines, Tame Impala, Charles Bradley, Kendrick Lamar), his Instagram photos of vintage record players, his pictures with folks like Fred Armisen and Saved By The Bell’s Mr. Belding, and, some would add, his love of biking everywhere, including to work.

Connor’s motives, however, are practical. “I work outside,” Connor says. “Every day I’m playing football outside. Even though it’s a very small way, it’s my way to keep the air a little bit cleaner, because I’m breathing it all day when I’m working.”

WHAT IF WE GIVE IT AWAY?

In an average football game, a running back will be handed the ball by the quarterback between twenty and thirty-five times. It’s a high-profile job, because of both the visibility and the predilection for scoring touchdowns, but it’s also extremely dangerous. Imagine putting yourself in a position where extremely large men in peak physical condition will hit you as hard as possible, up to thirty-five times in three hours, with the intention of both knocking your ass to the ground and forcing you to drop something.

Denver Broncos

What’s more, if you fumble too often—“too often” meaning three or four times in six months—you will lose your job, perhaps permanently. This often means that the career you’ve been training for since age seven is out the window and you’ve become an unemployed, vaguely educated physical behemoth at twenty-five, like an unlucky version of Fezzik from The Princess Bride.

Therefore, it’s taken as gospel that running backs are washed up at age thirty, and a good many suffer crippling, career-flaying injuries well before then. Over the last two decades, an increasing number of NFL teams have steeled themselves against this running back attrition by employing the RBBC (Running Back By Committee) strategy, so the job is split over three, even four people. This helps spread the pain more evenly instead of forcing it onto one pair of delicate mortal hamstrings.

The Denver Broncos, entering the 2013 season, were one team expected to have such a committee. They brought back Knowshon Moreno, a fifth-year veteran who’s never had a truly great year, added Montee Ball, a celebrated rookie from Wisconsin, and named a third player, Ronnie “Daydream” Hillman from San Diego State, their “starter” coming into this year.

Anyone who cares about football, especially fantasy football, was pointedly miffed by the opacity of this situation. Broncos fans knew that they were going to be a great team this year, perhaps the best in football, and if the team could just decide on a single workhorse running back, he would lift them up where they belong, where eagles cry on a mountain high. But, as Wallace Stevens wrote, “One likes what one happens to like,” and the Denver Broncos happen to like confusing the hell out of their fans, opponents, and fantasy football players.

At one point this season, Knowshon, Montee, and Ronnie played a game of rock-paper-scissors to determine who would get a goal line carry and likely touchdown, such was the equanimity and perceived equality of these running backs (Ronnie won, and scored his only touchdown of the year). “Look, coach,” they seemed to say, “we’re interchangeable parts, a three-headed monster, and nothing can stop any one of us.” Except, as it turns out, themselves.

The tyranny of the RBBC has been broken in Denver through wild and frightening ineptitude. Montee Ball, the youngest, was once viewed as the most talented, but he’s fumbled the ball away twice this year and didn’t even receive a single carry in their last game. Ronnie “Daydream” Hillman has also fumbled twice, and last week, his second fumble led to Denver’s first loss of the season.

Knowshon Moreno, a bowling enthusiast who owns his own ball, shoes, and shirt, whose magician uncle taught him card tricks that he can still perform to this day, who’s already a veteran at twenty-six, and of whom little was expected, has just set his career high in touchdowns with eight—and the season’s not even half-over. Yes, that Knowshon Moreno, who has burned you so very badly in the past, happens to be helping the Denver Broncos have their best season in recent memory, and he is, unquestionably, their starting running back. For now.

“It cannot matter at all,” Wallace Stevens reports from the 50-yard line. “Happens to like is one of the ways things happen to fall.”

WELCOME TO THE OCCUPATION

Last Sunday, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, under pressure, threw a low pass towards his number-one receiver, Reggie Wayne. According to ESPN, when Andrew is under duress, he has thrown to Reggie 57 times, the most in the NFL over the last two seasons. To put it simply: No quarterback depends more on one receiver than Andrew depends on Reggie.

ReggieWayneReggie loves the kid in return. Earlier this year on his website, Reggie wrote, “How about #12 (Andrew Luck) huh? How good is he gonna be … I’m just glad he’s on my team.”

Andrew is twenty-four, only halfway through his second year in the league. Reggie is thirty-four, old by NFL standards, and through last Sunday night, hadn’t missed a single game of football since his rookie year of 2001—a streak of 189 consecutive games. Just last week, he became the ninth player in NFL history to catch 1,000 passes in his career; the others are Hall of Famers.

Last Sunday, his young, talented quarterback threw him a low pass, and when Reggie twisted his body to catch it, he fell to the ground, holding his knee. No other player was near him or touched him—it was what they call a non-contact injury—but Reggie knew right away it was bad.

Reggie remained on the ground for several minutes as his fellow players surrounded him. When the trainers helped him to his feet, the crowd in Indianapolis burst into chants of “Reggie! Reggie!” and opposing quarterback Peyton Manning, for years Reggie’s teammate on the Colts, walked onto the field to applaud Reggie in a show of solidarity. At the time, no one knew how devastating it was. No one knew it was a torn ACL, which means that Reggie’s incredible 189-game streak is over, his season is over, and perhaps even, at his age, his thirteen-year career is over.

Reggie may have known. Openly crying as he limped to the locker room, he would miss his Colts going on to beat the then-undefeated Broncos, and the last minutes of the final football game he’ll appear in for a very long time, if indeed ever again.

His young quarterback is devastated. Andrew’s never played a professional game in his life without Reggie Wayne. Starting this week, he’ll look downfield, and see speed in familiar second-year players T.Y. Hilton and Lavon Brazill, and comfort in former Stanford teammates Coby Fleener and Griff Whalen. But he will no longer see number 87, the total package, the mentor, the friend, the number-one receiver every great quarterback has and needs. And he blames himself.

“It was my fault,” Andrew told CBS Sports. “Terrible throw. We know he’s a fighter. We’re hoping for the best.”

“Sitting here in the hotel room thinking about the game tonight,” Reggie wrote on his website two weeks ago, hours before game #188. “This is an opportunity to play a kids game under the lights … Gives me chill bumps thinking about it. Anxious to go out there and have fun.”


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 →