Friends stay connected through fantasy football

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CHICAGO — So much has changed since they first passed around a football magazine in class to pick fantasy teams a quarter of a century ago. Marriages. Kids. Jobs. Thinning hair.

But each year, as summer winds down and NFL previews begin landing in mailboxes and online, the seven friends from New Trier High School know it's that magical season again.

It's the time of year when, no matter where they live or how much their lives have evolved, the guys will get back together and see that some things don't change.

Jeffrey Shubart will bring a ridiculous number of spreadsheets. Murphy "Murph" Monroe will complain how much he hates football. Frank Baiocchi

will remind everyone, again and again, of the one and only year his fantasy team won the championship.

"How about that 1995?" he asks, prompting barely an eye roll from buddies who have heard it so many times they don't even bother to tell him to zip it.

"It was a good year," Baiocchi says with a grin.

The regular NFL season kicked off more than a week ago, and across the country, friends like the group from New Trier are deep into their annual tradition of fantasy football.

Once considered a nerdy pastime for extreme fans, fantasy sports leagues -- in which participants draft "fantasy teams" and accumulate points based on how athletes fare in real competition -- now are played by 13 percent of all Americans, according to a 2012 study.

Evidence of fantasy league popularity -- which surpasses the number of people who play golf or watch the "American Idol" finals -- is everywhere, from drink specials for leagues at sports bars to workplaces developing guidelines for allowing fantasy sports at the office.

"It's just one of those things that's sort of like everyone has a fantasy team," said Matthew Berry, ESPN's senior fantasy analyst, whose book, "Fantasy Life," was No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks after its publication in July.

"And if you do, you're not looked at weird," he said.

It was 1988 when the friends from New Trier heard about a game some people were playing called rotisserie football, which involved football statistics. One of the teens stuck a sheet of notebook paper into a football magazine, and each friend took turns picking players. Jerry Rice, Dan Marino and Neal Anderson were among those drafted during choir rehearsal.

Shubart, known as the most organized of the group even at age 14, tallied each player's scores by hand from statistics in the newspaper.

"It was fun because we were playing football in a way nobody else was," recalled Dave Gordon, now 39 and still inexplicably referred to as "Dave Gordon" -- both names -- by his friends.

When the guys headed off to separate colleges across the country, keeping up the pastime -- known as fantasy football by that point -- was never in question. Each player would make a long-distance call to Shubart's dorm room at the University of Michigan to declare his starting lineup. Each week, Shubart would tally results and send them off with six postal stamps.

They returned each summer to Chicago's North Shore, where they'd get together to play basketball, see movies or hang out at each other's parents' houses as always. And when autumn neared, they'd hold their annual draft at one of their parents' kitchen tables.

Net growth

The average fantasy sports player in 2013 has played for 8.5 years, and 75 percent play with people they know, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

Though not rocket science, those simple stats -- coupled with Internet technology that makes it all easier -- may be enough to explain fantasy football's growth, said Berry, who began playing fantasy sports when he was 14 years old.

"What it says about the American public? I don't think it says anything particularly insightful," Berry said by phone during a break from a 14-city book tour. "The appeal is it's fun. And guess what? Americans like to do fun things."

In 2007, ESPN hired Berry to be its senior fantasy sports analyst. His daily "Fantasy Focus" podcasts are now a morning ritual for fantasy players everywhere, and as of this week he had more than half a million Twitter followers.

Berry's Twitter bio hints at the simplicity behind fantasy's popularity: "I'm just as surprised as you that it's a real job."

But for the guys from New Trier, there was something else, too.

In January 1992, a few weeks after completing their fourth fantasy football season, one of the original league members was killed in a gas explosion in Chicago.

Stephen Hoenig, a budding actor who had known most of the guys since elementary school, died while being photographed at a studio on Chicago's Near Northwest Side. The photographer and makeup artist also were killed in the blast, which touched off fires and explosions that damaged 18 other buildings in the neighborhood.

Each of the friends came home for Hoenig's funeral. And the following August, Hoenig's younger brother -- who had always been in the background, looking up to the older guys -- took over his fantasy team without question.

"It was like that's exactly what he would've wanted," said Jonathan Hoenig, now 37.

"It gave me a lot of strength to know that the tradition and something we all loved would continue."

And continue it did. The guys kept their fantasy league going as each graduated from college, met his wife and had children and they advanced in their careers -- a filmmaker, a college admissions director, two attorneys, a hedge fund manager and two who work at arts foundations.

In 1995, with the friends living across the country, they restructured their league to make annual drafts quicker and easier to keep up. With what is known as a dynasty league, fantasy players keep the same athletes year after year and draft only rookies to replace retirees.

The New Trier friends have held their annual draft in Atlantic City, while in canoes in Wisconsin, at Shubart's office in New York and on the weekends of three of their weddings. On the few occasions when one league member couldn't be there in person, he'd be there by phone or via Skype, as was the case this year with Jason Chaet.

When Heather Chaet went on her first date with Jason, he mentioned the fantasy football tradition right away.

"He basically put it on the line, 'This is my crew, this is what we do every year,'" she recalled with a laugh.

And while the seriousness of the ritual might have been lost on their wives at first, they now look forward to reunions as much as the guys.