Fantasy Football For Poets: Week 9



Terrelle Pryor, quarterback for the Oakland Raiders, once sold a pair of his pants for $3,000.

He was in college at the time, playing quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes of NCAA Division I, so this particular action got him in quite a bit of trouble.

His coach, Jim Tressel, resigned amid accusations that Buckeye players, including Terrelle, received improper benefits, and it was later reported that some had received cars, tattoos, and other gifts in exchange for signed Buckeye memorabilia. This led to Terrelle being suspended, and subsequently banned from Ohio State for five years, which meant that he couldn’t attend games or have any contact with Ohio State students, prospective students, alumni, or personnel.

Terrelle had a win-loss tally of 31–4 at Ohio State. He set a few Buckeye records that stand today, and was expected to be among the top of his draft class. This would mean a starting job in the NFL, millions of dollars, and a chance to repeat the phrase “Subway, eat fresh” in front of a green screen—hello to all that.

Until such time, like other talented and visible players for winning college teams—I’ll give Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel as examples—Terrelle made a lot of money for his college and would see none of it. Unless, say, he sold his pants.

“The reason why I did it was to pay my mother’s gas bill and some of her rent,” Terrelle said to Sports Illustrated. “She was four months behind in rent … Let me remind you [in Columbus, Ohio], it was freezing cold in November, December, and she’s using the oven as heat. That’s what I did as a kid. I was telling the NCAA, ‘Please, anything that you can do. I gave my mother this so my sister wouldn’t be cold, so my mother wouldn’t be cold.’ They didn’t have any sympathy for me.”

Since college football involves college students, any story involving their misdeeds is rarely liberated from immaturity and moral ambiguity. That said, it’s worth noting that Terrelle was also accused of subsequently trading Ohio State memorabilia in exchange for tattoos, shoes, luxury-brand apparel, and perhaps use of a car or cars, in addition to helping his family keep their house and stay warm, and all of this was taken into consideration when his punishment was meted out.

He was nineteen years old at the time, unaware of the severe NCAA ramifications, and driven to have a better life for himself and his family as soon as he realized it was possible. “I never had much money at all,” Terrelle told the San Francisco Chronicle of his childhood. “I could never get what I wanted.”

Terrelle Pryor-signs-contractJohnny Manziel, currently a sophomore quarterback at Texas A&M, has also been accused of signing memorabilia for personal profit, and is believed to have signed thousands upon thousands of items. Johnny—who’s white, comes from a wealthy oil family, and can afford expensive lawyers—was also punished by the NCAA. He was suspended for one half of one game, and that was it. He’s back playing football as if nothing has happened, and is expected to be a first-round draft pick next April if he leaves school.

Terrelle, who’s African-American and from a poor family, received a far more dire punishment that led to him leaving school early and not being picked in the NFL draft at all. Plenty of Ohio State fans, angry at their former quarterback because of his teenage decision-making skills, were plenty fine with this opprobrium. The way they see it, Terrelle’s actions cost them a coach and a bowl game, and he deserved to be punished.

By the way, a signed college jersey, helmet, or football, no matter how “illegal” it is for players to sell, is startlingly easy to buy; enter “Johnny Manziel” in Google and see for yourself. Even the NCAA itself, until very recently, sold player-specific football paraphernalia, including Johnny Manziel jerseys, on its own website. Apparently it’s okay for anyone to see a profit from a college player’s hard work, except the player and his family (see also: Bush, Reggie).

“It was humbling,” Terrelle told Sports Illustrated. “A mistake I made when I was a freshman by selling my pants for $3,000 just took away everything from me. I was just driven into the ground.”

Terrelle did make it into the NFL eventually, and his first few years were rocky. After not being eligible for the NFL draft, he entered something called the “supplemental draft” in 2011. This draft is usually reserved for college players who had problems in school due to criminal activity, devastating injuries, or academic failings. The Oakland Raiders, who usually consider none of those variables a red flag, selected Terrelle, and patiently groomed him as a quarterback for the better part of two years. After just over a year as a bench player in Oakland, Terrelle dealt with the deaths of both his father, Craig Pryor, and his mentor, Teddy Sarniak, neither of whom lived to see him start in an NFL game.

“The toughest thing is I can’t talk to Teddy or my dad, and they’re the only people I leaned on,” Terrelle told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’m by myself now. I try to work around it and not think about it constantly.”

This season, his third, Terrelle won the starting quarterback job outright in training camp, and has led the Oakland Raiders to a 3–4 record, which, though mediocre, is shockingly better than anyone anticipated. Last Sunday, Terrelle also set an NFL record for longest run by a quarterback in history when he scored a 93-yard touchdown against the Steelers. He’s a talented athlete, and he’s becoming a great NFL player. May he buy, and sell, whatever he damn well pleases.



The best professional sports team in Minnesota is the Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA, who, earlier this month, won their second league championship in three years. In a three-way tie for last, with the Twins and the Timberwolves, are the Minnesota Vikings. They are bad in the same way openly crying on a city bus is bad.

It’s harder to believe that these guys made the playoffs last year than it is to believe that the Baby Bjorn was invented in an insane asylum or that there’s a bakery in Manhattan that sells out of $30 donuts by 8:00 AM. As children, we learn that falsehood cloaks itself in two narratives: those that seem plausible, and those we can’t reconcile with truth. If it’s important to our survival, we learn early and well how to deliver the former and perceive the latter. The recent success of the Minnesota Vikings is a third kind of lie, one so malicious and feeble that it doesn’t bear repeating, and is thus consigned to the realm of aberration and becomes a lesson from which nothing useful can be gleaned.

On consecutive weeks, I watched Vikings games with friends who were either fans of Minnesota’s opponents or who were altogether indifferent to the outcome. It’s too much to ask Vikings fans to suffer through this elective disappointment as a group.

“Mirrors and copulation are abominable,” Jorge Luis Borges writes, “for they multiply the number of mankind.” Vikings games are equally horrid. When winter bites down like a bear trap on Minnesota’s pale loins, the state’s residents require a pleasant diversion, and instead, the Vikings disperse a tacky, weary sadness among people already inclined towards quiet resignation. Thanks to the timing of the NFL regular-season schedule, this sadness decays into raw hopelessness just as everyone’s jack-o-lanterns are frosting over.

The first of the two Vikings games I watched with Jim, a New York Giants fan, and my girlfriend, who intelligently took a seat at the bar facing away from the TV. Any football fan who watched that game agrees that the Vikings/Giants tilt that evening was the worst Monday Night Football contest in recent memory, if not of all time. The Vikings started a quarterback named Josh Freeman who’d been on the team only for about a week and looked as if he’d been playing quarterback just slightly longer. He did show off impressive arm strength; his record 16 overthrows sure had a lot of zip on them, and at least the fans got some souvenirs.

Josh FreemanThe Giants, meanwhile, started a dude named Peyton Hills at running back. A week before, Peyton was living on his ranch in Tennessee and wasn’t even working out, but his agent got him a tryout with the injury-ravaged Giants and he lucked into a matchup at home against Minnesota. He didn’t look great—he later admitted to having “Jell-O legs” during the game—but he was good enough to score a touchdown against an NFL defense, something the Vikings failed to do that entire game and well into the next one.

Speaking of which, the Vikes mixed up the recipe last Sunday by sending out their failed quarterback of the future, Christian Ponder, for his fifth loss in a row. They have a long rivalry with last week’s opponent, the Green Bay Packers, but if you accept that the term denotes parity or even an unexpected outcome, Green Bay is Minnesota’s rival in the same way a tenth-grader could be a fourth-grader’s rival. The Packers have won seven of the last eight against the Vikings and will make it eight of nine in a few weeks at Lambeau Field.

All of my companions for the Green Bay game, Monica, George, and Michael, are too clever to have been consistently engaged by the Packers’ faceless slaughter of the Vikings. Even Michael, a Wisconsinite and Green Bay fan, found enthusiasm difficult to maintain in such a context. When the winner becomes obvious well before the clock expires, as it has been lately with the Vikings, those rooting for the inevitable victor will get kind of quiet, if they have any class or sympathy. As such, the fourth quarter in Minnesota has become a subdued chamber, attenuated by the groans of men and women rising from easy chairs, breaking from this sad community’s shared spectacle to retreat into private sufferings more twisted and oblique for this chosen disappointment.

The hope trapped in this Pandora’s Box of a season: Maybe next year the Vikings can draft Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota;  a better quarterback would do wonders to make their defeats more interesting again.



By now, most fantasy football players have heard of Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones. Scoring four touchdowns in a single game, as he did last weekend, will not just get you on the ESPN highlights, but also cause the opposing team to bench the guy (Dee Milliner) who was covering you. It will cause kids to yell your name, and it will make your family a lot more comfortable with another year of Ohio winters.

To many, Marvin’s performance came out of nowhere. His offensive coach, Jay Gruden, is not among the surprised. “He’s tough and works his tail off,” Jay told ESPN. “Whether he’s blocking or running the ball or running the routes, he’s improving every week.”


“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” adds fellow receiver A. J. Green. “He’s from Cal and Cali guys have a chip on their shoulder.”

If so, he wasn’t born with it. A native of California’s Inland Empire, Marvin was the first member of his family to go to college when he earned a football scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley.

“When he got the offer, he ran out in the street,” Marvin’s dad, Marvin Jones Sr., told a Cal Bears video crew. “And I could hear him, hollering, yelling. All up and down the street, when he got that offer from Cal.”

During his freshman year at UC, his girlfriend, Jazmyn, who he’s known since sixth grade, called Marvin to tell him that she was pregnant.

“At first he was like, “no, we can’t do this,’ and I was like, ‘What do you mean, no?’” Jazmyn says. “This is what happens.”

Marvin was scared to call his pastor father. “I broke down,” Marvin told the San Francisco Examiner. “I just didn’t want my dad to be disappointed in me.”

“I could hear he was crying, he thought I was going to be worried about it, or concerned,” Marvin Sr. said. “The main thing is, be a man. Honor your responsibility.”

Marvin did. “He came out looking just like me,” Marvin says of his firstborn son. “Every day is just like a party with him.”

When Jazmyn moved up to northern California to be with Marvin and raise their child together, Marvin was ready. “I already knew the responsibilities of a father, because of how my father raised us.”

His teammates also noticed a change. “He’s not much of a partier anymore,” cornerback Marc Anthony said at the time. “He has more responsibilities as a father. He’s stepped up to the plate, taken care of business.” Marvin did this, both off and on the gridiron, where he became one of the highest-rated college wide receivers in the nation.

Having another son while he was still in college only pushed him harder; he graduated from the University of California in three and a half years and, in the meantime, became a celebrated starting wide receiver with the NFL draft in his future. “I have extra mouths to feed,” Marvin said. “It definitely serves as another form of motivation, having them and having the responsibility of taking care of my family. Me as a person, I’m highly self-motivated anyway. But having my family, it does wonders.”

Matt Waldman of the New York Times noticed Marvin early. “Jones is the most technically sound receiver in this class,” he wrote. “Jones reminds me of Donald Driver – a versatile flanker for most of his career capable of playing every receiver position on the field … he has the talent to have a long career with several seasons of 900–1,200 yards.”

Others, like CBS Sports, were more critical: “[Jones] will have limitations against physical cornerbacks because of his thin frame. If locked at the line, he lacks the upper-body strength to fight off the press with his hands … questionable home-run speed.”

In the 2012 draft, more NFL teams sided with the naysayers than with folks like Waldman, and Marvin tumbled all the way to the fifth round. Twenty-two wide receivers were chosen before him, and the team that picked him, the Bengals, already had a crowded house at wide receiver, including another (Mohamed Sanu) they picked earlier that same draft. This meant that Marvin would now have to fight just to be a bench player. “Every once in a while, when I do think of it, it does get me a little edgy,” Marvin told ESPN about that day.

This summer, in training camp, he was so afraid to miss a shot to make the team, he attempted to play through a possible concussion. The Bengals’ head trainer, Paul Sparling, unable to dissuade him by other means, appealed to Marvin’s fatherhood.

“Okay, what would your children want me to do?” asked Sparling, in a conversation filmed by HBO’s Hard Knocks. “Take care of daddy?”

“Yeah,” Marvin agreed.

“That’s what I’m doing, taking care of daddy,” Sparling replied. “Fair enough?”

“Yeah, that’s good,” Marvin said, and sat out, waiting for another chance.

Even as Sanu and Green claimed the starting jobs, Andrew Hawkins won the slot receiver job, and folks like Dane Sanzenbacher and Ryan Whalen filled out the reserves, Marvin waited.

As he sat on the bench all September, he hoped for a just world, in which there was a professional reward for being a responsible father, in which career advancement is not gambled away by making a sound decision for your brain and body. Now, at last, amidst the constellation of variables that have created a genuine opportunity, Marvin is at last in a position where his best possible job is his to lose. I don’t imagine he’ll have any regrets.

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 →