Fantasy Football for Poets, Week 13



Earlier this month, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz published a study in the New York Times called “In The N.B.A., Zip Code Matters,” which demonstrated this finding: Growing up in a wealthier neighborhood is a major, positive predictor of reaching the N.B.A. for both black and white players.

According to Stephens-Davidowitz, “These results push back against the stereotype of a basketball player driven by an intense desire to escape poverty … But the data suggest that on average any motivational edge in hungriness is far outweighed by the advantages of kids from higher socioeconomic classes.” If this is true for the NBA, it may certainly also be true for the NFL.

Access is certainly a part of the divide. Wealthy parents now start hiring personal trainers for their budding Tom Brady as early as grade school, and places like Chaparral High School in Paradise, Nevada—with 75% minority enrollment—have to hold fundraisers just to afford football equipment. However, the disadvantages experienced by an aspiring athlete are far more deep-seated and fundamental than whether their school can afford helmets.

There is no shortage of evidence that a disadvantaged upbringing has long-lasting effects on well-being. Just last month, a study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences concluded that the stress of childhood poverty imbeds itself in the brain, with lasting consequences for adults’ ability to regulate their emotions.

Let’s consider the possibility of an NFL player population comprised largely of the two income extremes. As the enrollment and resulting efficacy of labor unions wanes, and with them, not coincidentally, follows the middle class they forced into being from places like Ford Motor Company and U.S. Steel, so may follow the middle-class athlete. We’ll have on one hand players like Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, the son of a multi-millionaire, and ex-players’ kids like New York Jets tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., and on the other you’ll have folks like former Oakland linebacker Rolando McClain, who ran away from home at 15 when his single mother tried to stab him. While these are extremes now, their numbers will swell, and there’s no mistaking who NFL management tends to favor, often couching the unfortunate results of a player’s impoverished background in the dismissive term “character concerns.”

And while it’s completely wrong to consider to circumstances of a player’s upbringing as a mitigating factor, prima facie, professional coaches and scouts have seen the mentally and emotionally deleterious effects of poverty for decades. They’ve witnessed mentally unstable players cost them wins with their actions or inactions, and understand that more mentally unstable players come from impoverished backgrounds. As the ranks of the impoverished increase—more Americans are on food stamps than ever before, and the SNAP program will be cut by $5 billion in 2014—this issue, and certainly its attendant prejudice, will affect professional sports mightily.

Returning to Stephens-Davidowitz: “After winning his second N.B.A. championship last June, [LeBron] James was interviewed on television. He said: “I’m LeBron James. From Akron, Ohio. From the inner city. I am not even supposed to be here.” Twitter and other social networks erupted with criticism. How could such a supremely gifted person, identified from an absurdly young age as the future of basketball, claim to be an underdog? The more I look at the data, the more it becomes clear that Mr. James’s accomplishments are more exceptional than they appear to be at first. Anyone from a difficult environment, no matter his athletic prowess, has the odds stacked against him.”

Moreover, if you accept the conclusion that an impoverished background leads to an increased chance of mental illness, and accept the similar conclusion that we have a record number of people living in poverty with little hope for change, then it seems an imperative that professional sports, which is the only six-figure field that draws inordinately from the ranks of the impoverished, has an opportunity to set an example with its treatment of mental health. Given that the NFL is exploiting, say, Rolando McClain’s physical well-being for labor, wouldn’t it have been in the best interest of their investment in him to see to his mental well-being as well? Perhaps he wouldn’t have suddenly quit the NFL if mental health counseling had been as de rigueur as wind sprints?

Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, a player with a disadvantaged background, sought the diagnosis and treatment of his Borderline Personality Disorder of his own volition, after a history of violent outbursts nearly destroyed his personal and professional life. The league had nothing to do with this, but it’s a start. Hopefully Brandon inspires more players to follow his example, and in time I believe he will be viewed as a pioneer of a different kind of sports frontier.

Meanwhile, the most visible ambassador of the NFL’s vanishing middle would be Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson. He is, undoubtedly, the best wide receiver in the NFL, if not its best player. Lions teammate Nate Burleson tells USA Today that Calvin is “a cross between Usain Bolt and Hercules.” “Calvin Johnson is a beast,” adds Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, who’s had to cover Johnson in the past. “He should be illegal.”

These folks, in describing his physical capabilities, are leaving out some of his most salient attributes.

Raised in the Atlanta suburb of Tyrone, Georgia, in one of the highest-achieving school districts in the state, Calvin also had the advantage of two caring parents who stressed education. His father, Calvin Sr., a railroad conductor, only recently retired, despite his son’s success. Calvin’s mother Arica holds a doctorate and is a project manager for the school system; Calvin’s sister is a doctor and a younger brother is in medical school.

His parents “wouldn’t tolerate a lot of being foolish,” Calvin told the New York Times.

This attitude has carried over to Calvin’s adult life. “With Calvin, there’s no baggage,” his high school coach, Chip Walker, told the Times. “Some of the things that may be important to athletes today, the big time of having your face on TV, being at the biggest party, being at big events, those things do not fit Calvin’s personality. Those are things he wouldn’t care about. It’s hard to get him to talk about himself.”

“They set an example for me at an early age,” Calvin tells of his parents. He says that his mom is the person he looks up to the most, and explains to ESPN that she was demanding; he was not allowed to bring home a grade below a B. “Bless my mom,” he tells “Mom is everything to me. She takes care of so many things for me when I can’t be there, especially in Atlanta with my foundation and things like that.”

So, yes: when he’s not challenging himself on and off the field, he and his mom also run his non-profit, the Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation, which lists as its aims “the education, training, and social development of at-risk youth, along with providing financial assistance to community organizations.” Through his foundation, Calvin awards scholarships, runs a summer football camp for high school students, offers mentorships, and sponsors gifts for deserving children of incarcerated or homeless mothers living in transition and refuge centers.

Amidst all of this, Calvin is obliquely humble. “I’m just a worker,” he tells ESPN, hopefully knowing he sounds like Amelia Earheart saying “I sorta like planes” or Vladimir Putin calling himself “a bit of a public servant.”

In the midst of another year of staggering statistical achievement—he attained the 1,000-yard mark after only nine games this season—he’d be the first to tell you that his upbringing deserves all of the credit. He was neither Fresh Prince nor Bel Air; he had neither the disadvantages that come with growing up poor in the inner city, nor the advantages of a personal trainer at age eight. He just had a stable, comfortable family life and strict, supportive parents that loved him. While that normalcy alone is no promise of success, it turns out it’s a hell of a start, and the NFL is positioned to see less and less of it. Are they ready?



I’ve known Evan Gratz, a Christian pastor who works for the chaplain of the Green Bay Packers, for about thirty years, but until he got the job with the team for the 2013 season, I wasn’t aware that NFL teams had chaplains, or what the duties of an NFL team chaplain were. I wrote him this week and asked Mr. Gratz to give The Rumpus the lowdown on one of the most unusual careers in professional sports.

The Rumpus: What’s your job with the Green Bay Packers?

Pastor Evan Gratz: My vocation is a full time Family Life Pastor of Students at my local church in Green Bay. My boss is and has been the team chaplain/pastor for the Packers for almost a decade. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to lead team chapel sessions on my own; my first time leading chapel was at the Vikings / Packers game in Minneapolis last month.

Chapels are voluntary and take place the evening before each game as part of the team’s schedule, just before the mandatory team meeting. It consists of a message and team prayer. Usually a player or coach will pray at the beginning. We’ve had up to forty players attend, because even though it is optional, they see it as a value to put it on the team schedule.

The Rumpus: How many other NFL teams have chaplains, and how do you get the job?

Pastor Evan Gratz: I think every team has a team chaplain. I got the Packers job, and my pastor’s job at my church, from my connection with my boss. We’ve known each other for 7 years now. Becoming a team chaplain is truly about connections and who you know from what I’ve seen. It’s not just something you can approach the team about.

The Rumpus: Which Packers have you gotten to know through the job?

Pastor Evan Gratz: One of the nicest guys I’ve had the chance to spend some time with is [kicker] Mason Crosby. In the summer he went through a lot of adversity and had his contract restructured. They even brought in some competition for his job, a guy named Giorgio Tavecchio. I got to know Giorgio well while he was here, and have stayed connected to him. The media wanted to spin it as this huge battle and controversy, but I’ve never seen more supportive and nicer guys who had nothing but integrity and respect for one another. Punter Tim Masthay is in that group too. Honestly, everyone from [wide receiver] Jordy Nelson, to [quarterback] Aaron Rodgers to [linebacker] A.J. Hawk, and the coaches are the real deal, men of integrity and character, and I truly mean that. I haven’t met one guy with any sort of negative attitude. It’s a very classy organization. Note that I say this as a native Minnesotan and Vikings fan.

These guys are all very normal people. A lot of great family men on this team. They have a very professional side and can separate football from normal life. Most of the conversations I’ve had with them rarely involve football or faith. The players are just real guys, with families, hobbies and good senses of humor.

We saw Aaron Rodgers at the Avett Brothers concert last week, and Clay Matthews has been spotted around town lately at the local fishing & hunting stores. Jordy and his wife are spokespeople for Wisconsin Travel, so they’re even known to people who don’t watch football.

The wives are also pretty tight, and my wife JoHanna hangs out with a solid group of players and coaches’ wives.

The Rumpus: Do you play fantasy football?

Pastor Evan Gratz: I’m in a league with a couple of the Packers’ coaches. They take it pretty seriously. I was expecting more “homer” picks in our draft, but that wasn’t the case!

The Rumpus: What’s been the biggest challenge of working for the Packers?

Pastor Evan Gratz: When you get the chance to know guys a little bit, in an industry where many players aren’t guaranteed a contract or a job the next day. It’s been hard to start getting to know some guys and then see them leave town… Giorgio, Graham Harrell, D.J. Williams, to name a few.

The Rumpus: Finally, what’s life like in Green Bay? At about 100,000 people, it’s smallest city in the United States that’s home to a professional sports franchise. How do the Packers influence basic civic life in Green Bay?

Pastor Evan Gratz: Coming from Southern California, Green Bay feels very much like a small town. We’ve enjoyed the quiet and slower pace here, but we have felt bottled up at times.

Yes, one thing is that during any Packers game you can walk into any grocery store, Target, Kohl’s etc. and the game is blaring over the loudspeakers. They are serious about it. But walking through the tailgate zone and to the stadium, you just feel that good Midwest vibe and if you’re a Packers fan, it honestly feels like family. The Packers are true common ground and the heartbeat of this small community.

The Rumpus thanks Pastor Evan for his time and for his pictures from Wisconsin, even if The Rumpus is also a Vikings fan.



Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Bobby Rainey surprised a lot of people two weeks back with his three touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons. However, it shouldn’t have been a shocker, and not just because Atlanta’s run defense is as brawny as moist cheesecloth.

While in college in 2011, Bobby led all of college football in rushing attempts and was fifth in rushing yards, ahead of future millionaires like Trent Richardson, Giovani Bernard, and Tampa Bay teammate Doug Martin. And more so than any of these guys, his college’s offensive scheme was completely dependent on his existence.

While a senior in 2011, when Bobby Rainey’s quarterback let go of the ball, he handed it to or threw it to Bobby on 57% of his team’s total offensive plays. Bobby got the ball 405 times that year, and everyone else on his team combined to catch and carry the ball a total of 300 times. Therefore, all of Bobby’s opponents knew Bobby Rainey was coming, over half of the time, and still, no one on the college level could stop him. This is not where simple dominance becomes hegemony; this is where hegemony becomes disturbing, like when a Starbucks opened in a funeral home.

Bobby’s problem is that he’s short—five foot eight—and played for Western Kentucky, a school that few in the NFL think to send scouts to. The NFL Draft rolled around and despite his stats and proven leadership and stellar off-the-field track record, Bobby was looked upon like that house that hands out apples on Halloween. He had to sign with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent, which also means bottom-level money by NFL standards.

Although he made the Ravens out of training camp, they never put him in a game last year, and this year they cut him for no good reason. His second team, the Cleveland Browns, used him as a third-stringer, then they cut him, because they’re the Browns and are preternaturally confused when fate deals them competence.

Now with his third team in two years, he’s finally with a team that badly needs him—Tampa Bay has already lost three of their running backs for the year with injuries, including Doug Martin—and wants to actually use him. Three weeks back, they gave Bobby his first real shot, and he quickly scored his first pro touchdown. Two weeks ago, against Atlanta, he had the best performance of any running back in the NFL.

“Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money,” James Joyce writes in “After The Race.” After his big game two weeks ago, Bobby had asserted these first two claims, and given the realm of his achievement, seems hopefully on his way to the third.

This last weekend, he hit a wall against the Detroit Lions, but they have one of the toughest defensive lines on the planet. Look for Bobby to bounce back against the Bills in Week 14 and versus the Rams in Week 16.

Bobby, a self-described “blue-collar guy” who stays in shape by playing tennis in the offseason, doesn’t harbor a grudge against the folks who said he was too small or too obscure to deserve a shot in the NFL. He’s focused on success so he can give back to the single mother who raised him. “She took care of four kids including me and we never wanted for anything,” Bobby told Russell Street Report. “I want to be able to take care of her and my three sisters.”

“I think preparation meets opportunity,” Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano told “He’s not lucky. This guy worked his tail off, he trained to do all the right things, and here came his chance and he’s ready for it. So good for us, good for him.”


Nick & Adam seriousTHE END

My friends at 826LA in Echo Park told me that there were two students, brothers Nick (age 11) and Adam (age 8) who were huge football fans and wanted to help me make some Super Bowl and Week 13 NFL picks. I swung by drop-in tutoring last week and dished about football with these two young fans who know more about football already than I’ve known most of my life.

The Rumpus: Let’s start with your predictions for the Super Bowl this year. Which team do you believe will represent the AFC this February?

Nick (11): Maybe New England. Mostly, every year they’re in the playoffs.

Adam (8): I think the Steelers because they have a hard guy that plays rough. He jumps over people to tackle people.

The Rumpus: How did you become a Steelers fan, Adam?

Adam: That’s a good question. Because my friend, it was in his brother’s room, and showed us a video, because he likes Steelers. I picked them because they’re really hard and tough.

The Rumpus: What’s your pick from the NFC?

Nick: The Packers, because last year they were in the playoffs. They lost to the 49ers. But last year it was just like practice.

Adam: Yeah, this year, it will be really for real.

The Rumpus: How did you become a Packers fan, Nick?

Nick: When I was looking through the World Records, I saw that Green Bay was the first team to win the Super Bowl. They won the first two Super Bowls. Also my aunt likes the Packers too.

Adam: The Packers, they suck. I like the Cowboys. I like the whole team.

The Rumpus: OK, so for the Super Bowl: Nick picks New England vs. Green Bay and Adam picks Pittsburgh vs. Dallas. Mark it. So let’s have your picks for some of the Week 13 games. Let’s start with Green Bay at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

Nick: Green Bay.

Adam: Detroit.

The Rumpus: Adam’s not just being a contrarian younger brother here?

Nick: No, he really hates Green Bay.

The Rumpus: Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Thanksgiving night. Who wins this one?

Nick: Pittsburgh.

Adam: Yeah, the Steelers.

The Rumpus: In agreement on that one. Let’s do two more. Here’s a tough one. The rematch of Denver vs. Kansas City. Denver won the first game at home. This one’s in Kansas City. Who wins?

Nick: The Broncos.

Adam: The Chiefs.

The Rumpus: A house divided again. Finally, let’s pick the Monday night game, possibly a preview of the NFC Championship: New Orleans at Seattle.

Nick: The Saints.

Adam: Seattle Seahawks.

The Rumpus: We’ll see shortly which brother comes out ahead. I’m sure either way you’ll do better at your NFL picks than I will. One final question: Who’s your favorite or least favorite player in the NFL, and why?

Nick: Clay Matthews, because he’s a tough man, he’s serious, sometimes he’s a Hall of Famer.

Adam: Clay Mathews sucks. He doesn’t pass. He hogs the ball sometimes. He tries to make a field goal, but he doesn’t pass to other people when they’re wide open.

The Rumpus: Some of those things are absolutely true, as it turns out.

Nick: I don’t like Colin Kaepernick. He runs the ball too much this year. He hogs the ball a lot.

Adam: Like me.

The Rumpus: You’re a ball hog, Adam?

Adam: Yep.

The Rumpus: Nice. I think we’ll end it there.

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 →