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Nathan Berg: No distance too great when it comes to fantasy football

It was about 3:30 p.m. when the A Train car I was in came to a sudden halt between the Spring and Canal street stops in New York City. I looked to my friend Sam sitting directly to my left and sighed. A voice, distorted to the point of near incomprehension, came over the train’s speaker system to make an announcement.

“There is an unruly passenger in the car ahead of us who has pulled the emergency break. All cars are on standby while police deal with the situation.”

At that point, I was a few minutes away from showing that train car a whole new meaning of the word “unruly.” I had been awake for the past 30 hours (13 of which were spent in the car), both mine and Sam’s tempers were running short and we had a 5 p.m. fantasy football draft to get to in Manhattan.

Let’s step back and rewind for a second.

It all started with a GroupMe message from another friend, Andrew: “Hey, so the draft will be taking place in NYC this year, right?”

I have been the commissioner of this fantasy league for the past nine years, with friends going all the way back to elementary school, and let me tell you, this league has everything: a cash prize, an engraved trophy, an embarrassing last place punishment, you name it. But the best tradition of all has got to be our annual draft. 

The draft usually takes place around the third week of the NFL preseason. Instead of a more standard online draft, we have always opted to do it live, and the winner from the previous season has always hosted. This year’s reigning champion has relocated to Manhattan from his former spot in Athens. 

For most leagues, the myriad of difficulties that come with having everyone come into New York City for a fantasy football draft would have immediately taken the idea off the table. But we weren’t about to let 900 miles come between us and tradition. So plane tickets were purchased, sleeping arrangements decided and a draft board ordered. 

Sam and I were among the more frugal members of the league, so we chose to drive up together. Sam would be staying in New York for three days after the draft, while I bought a one-way plane ticket from JFK to Hartsfield-Jackson for the morning after. The last logistic hurdle we had to clear? My job. 

I was covering the Battle of Oakwood football game between Johnson and West Hall at 7:30 on Friday night, and didn’t get done until around 11. The draft was less than 24 hours later, at 5 p.m. the next day, seven-states away. 

You get where this is going. 

I met up with Sam in Smyrna about 30 minutes after I filed my football game story. We filled the backseat of his car with snacks and energy drinks, pointed the car north and took off. I had no other luggage beyond what I could fit in my pockets. After all, checking a bag on my return flight would have cost me upwards of $35, and I figured I could make do without.

At 2 a.m., the drive didn’t seem that bad. A couple hours later, I was getting a little weary. When the sun finally came up at around 7, I was starting to get delirious. We were a little past the halfway point in the drive. 

We finally finished the driving portion of our trip at 1 p.m., parking in New Jersey, before the final leg on the subway into the Big Apple. After all, our trek up the east coast was fueled by frugality, and New York City parking was not in the budget. Instead, we found a train station in southern New Jersey, offering $4 a day parking and a direct route into the city. 

As soon as we got there, we checked the schedule and found the next train was leaving in four minutes. Another wouldn’t come by for a full hour. 

Missing that train was not an option. 

We took the station at a near sprint, purchased our tickets and got on board. For the first time in too long, there was an opportunity to simply sit and not think. It didn’t last long. 

The train arrived at New York’s Penn Station at about 3 p.m., and all we had to do was navigate our way to the Wall Street station. From there, it would be a quick (so we thought, but more on that later) walk to our draft location. It was going to be a breeze. 

Most local New Yorkers will probably try to tell you the rail system there is simple and easily navigated. But for a pair of tourists dealing with sleep deprivation, it seemed infinitely complicated. After looking at a couple of maps and purchasing a metro card, we identified the train we thought we should be on. We hopped on, happy to finally be on the way to our final destination. 

But as the stops came and went, we began to realize the train was traveling away from Manhattan and into Brooklyn. I started to panic while Sam tried to get a hold of the situation. 

“We’ll just get off at the next stop and ask someone where we have to go,” he suggested. 

The plan was the best we could do, but just when I was beginning to calm down, well, you know what happens next. 

So there we sat, on the wrong train going the wrong direction, while police officers dealt with the idiot one car up who was seemingly having an even rougher day than we were. After a 30-minute hold up, everything got moving again. We ran off the train at Canal Street, desperately asked a policeman how to get to Wall Street and finally found our way to the correct train. 

We walked triumphantly into the afternoon sunlight at 4:15. 

“Ok, now put his address into the GPS and let’s get over there,” Sam said. 

I gladly obliged, put the number and street into my near dead cell phone, and my heart sank. The apartment — which was supposed to be a couple blocks away tops — was 1 1/2 miles from the station. 

And so the final leg of our journey came on foot, which seemed fitting for some reason. We walked as fast as we could, weaving through masses of people with a resigned purpose. Pure force of will drove us on. Finally, we arrived at 4:45, 15 minutes before the start of the draft. 

From there, everything went off much more seamlessly. We talked, drafted and trash-talked each other’s brand new teams into the night, many of my friends chiding me about how I — a Browns fan — drove 900 miles just to draft Josh Gordon in the third round (this is the year!).

Two members of the league live in New York, and six others made the trip (four from Georgia, two from Florida). Only four team owners were forced to draft remotely via video chat. 

By 2:30 a.m., everything was starting to wind down. For everyone else, that meant getting to a previously-planned sleeping destination and nodding off. But for me, it was time to get going. 

The cheapest flight out of the city I could find left JFK at 7:30 a.m., and if I were to fall asleep, I doubted any amount of alarms would wake me. I didn’t want to get stuck in New York City for the week, so instead of risking a quick power nap, I decided to head to the airport. 

My local friends assured me taking the train to the airport was easy, but I decided to call an Uber instead. It was the best $75 I have ever spent. 

By the end of the trip, I had spent less than 12 hours actually in the city and nearly 20 traveling. I went 46 hours without a wink of sleep before immediately passing out on the return flight. 

And I would do it all again in an instant. 

Fantasy football has grown from a nerdy subculture to one of the most common fall activities in the country (try to find an office in any industry that doesn’t at least have a small work league going). Some play it for money and others simply because they love the sport. 

But for our league and many like it, fantasy has held us together, even after we’ve started to drift apart since college. There’s no telling how long this league will last, and at some point the logistics may become too difficult to keep the thing together. But for as long as we’ve got enough guys to play and the previous year’s champion is willing to host, we’re going to draft live, and I am going to be there.  

Nathan Berg is a sports writer for The Times. He can be reached at

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