[alert_green] The following is excerpted from Football’s Fertile Ground by C.D. Carter. Copyright (c) 2012 by C.D. Carter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. [/alert_green]

I have played in an average of six leagues per season since 1999, and I have won the championships in the following leagues of great prestige: The Man’s Club, Maclin On Your Girl, Colt Following, Vick in a Box, Rice Rice Baby, and Tuff Guy’s Torture Chamber. I trust no one with preseason and in-season projections; I make my own from scratch every August, with tender love and care. I have, in fact, made a hefty profit from the sale of said projections and positional rankings, and I take great pride in being right far more than I am wrong. This game we play is a game of inexact exacts. The person who, at the end of every football Sunday (and Monday), is just slightly more right with player-by-player predictions will, in the end, crush seasonal opponents, destroying them heart and soul in equal proportions. I enjoy this. It excites me.

I am unorthodox, unconventional, but I win, and win often. I would greatly appreciate the open spot in your league – yours seems to be a group of guys who care very much for their fake football. I have great admiration for men willing to crunch so many numbers, weigh so many factors, and make so many gut-wrenching decisions every Sunday morning. But mostly, I admire that you men care so much for this game, this invented competition that fills gaping voids in your life. To deny this would be foolhardy. I sincerely hope you embrace this reality. You and your league members have stared into the abyss, and to keep your eyes averted from the vastness of said abyss, you play this game. It is your distraction from the blackness that you once saw, and occasionally still do, just like some look to alcohol or drugs or food or sex or any manner of vices to keep their attention away from the meaninglessness of it all.

I have made a part-time job – it feels full-time sometimes – of seeking out the most dedicated fantasy footballers. I believe I have found a good batch. I want in.

Please contact me at your earliest convenience.

Sam Belial
iambelial@gmail.com
62606 Childs Lane

Silver Spring, MD 20755

Vern leaned back in his chair, pulled up his undershirt and rubbed his giggling gut, full from a bacon terminator burger he had downed an hour ago. He read the message carefully, and decided there was no point in reading the rest of the entries in his inbox.

This was the one.

Seventy-two hours after placing a Craigslist ad, Vern had found Bryan Zorn’s replacement in the league that mattered most to nine other guys in the Kill Thy Neighbor League, composed of fantasy fiends from across the D.C. suburbs – Northern Virginia, Montgomery and Prince George’s in Maryland, and a couple guys who actual lived in the city.

Sam Belial’s interest in make-believe pigskin was clearly maniacal – he was obsessed, possessed by numbers and competition, in need of an exorcist to expel the geek demon that had planted itself deep in his soul. That was good. That was the central qualification for entry into the Kill Thy Neighbor League: dedication to superb drafting, to optimizing lineups, to calculating odds and chances and never relying on luck. This Sam guy even had his own projection system. That made Sam a fantasy monster.

Vern belched and reached into a bag of Doritos, his chubby hand emerging with a fistful of Cool Ranch chips promptly stuffed into his gullet. He crunched his after-dinner snack, licked the layer of cool ranch from the untamed graying mustache hanging above his lip, and read Sam’s last couple sentences. He had called them a good batch of guys. What a crock. Sam was in for a surprise.

But at least he’d never have to meet Bryan Zorn, the king of assholes in the Kill Thy Neighbor bunch, because Bryan was dead.

*

It was like ripping into an ornately wrapped gift as the scent of pine needles invaded your nostrils and the fire crackled and Frank Sinatra sang Jingle Bells on Christmas morning, only to find, when your hands had finally breached the wrapping and torn through the box, a pile of fresh, steaming shit.

That was what it had been like to watch Bryan win the Kill Thy Neighbor fantasy league on Christmas Night the year before.

It took an act of supreme will for Vern to keep his dinner down on that horrible night. The league members looked harried and beaten down by the end, as their common enemy, Bryan Zorn, stood atop the couch and roared, over and over, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Half of the league’s members had come to Vern’s house for the Sunday Night Football game, the very last of the regular season and championship week for tens of thousands of fake footballers. The guys had been so happy and full of barely-contained elation when they streamed into Vern’s house at kickoff. He had done what he could with the place, which had devolved into a bona fide pigsty since the postwar single-family home had been passed down as inheritance a decade earlier. Vernon Furbish, a forty six year old IT guy at a community college, had lived alone since then, married to fantasy football, gaining weight seemingly by the hour while he wasted away in his own filth. Vern was a mess, but he was commissioner of the Kill Thy Neighbor League, so to eleven men, he was God, king, and all three branches of constitutional government.

Giddiness coursed through the room as the season’s final game and fantasy championship death match went into halftime. Bryan, who had made what could only be described as a miracle run to the Kill Thy Neighbor championship tilt, was down by a hefty twenty-four points. Bryan wouldn’t only lose the title bout, but he’d lose to Harper Hillman, the league’s only decent human being. Vern’s fantasy bunch was collectively petty, mean, and brimming with worst wishes for their league mates, but if any of them had to choose a guy to win the title, besides themselves, it would have certainly been quiet little Harper. Sure, Harper was gay, and yeah, his longtime partner, Benjamin, was in the league, and yes, sometimes the fellas grimaced when Harper and Ben showed even a hint of affection, but Harper was a genuinely nice person – impossibly, nice, Vern thought. He made Bryan look like the fucking devil.

Harper, a stump of a man who wore red circular glasses, was on his way, cruising to his first Championship Dagger – the reward for taking the Kill Thy Neighbor league title, a six-inch knife painted gold. It was dull, but could still cut. Vern had tested it, and had the scar to prove it.

Bryan wore a long gauze bandage on the side of his neck that night. A few of the guys teased him, but Vern thought nothing of it. Bryan told everyone he had had something removed. What that was, he did not say, nor did Vern much care.

As the football twirled in the air during the opening kickoff of the second half, Bryan sat on a foldout chair, arms crossed, slouched over, stewing in his own permeable misery. All of Bryan’s fantasy players had finished their games hours earlier – everyone except his lone remaining wide receiver, a little guy named Lonnie Gibbs, a third receiver, an offensive nobody. Harper’s fantasy quarterback was still in action. In the sociopathic world of fantasy football, Bryan had brought a sharpened pencil to battle Harper, who was armed with a chainsaw-blowtorch hybrid.

That’s when weird shit started to happen.

Harper’s quarterback, on the second play of the third quarter, jogged out of bounds and, untouched, collapsed on the sideline. He writhed in pain, grabbing at his left ankle. Team trainers descended on him in seconds. Groans filled Vern’s living room when the announcer told his audience that Harper’s signal caller was done for the night, and likely long after that. The poor bastard’s Achilles tendon had ruptured. Bryan, hearing this news, inched upward in his chair. Vern saw the beginnings of a smile form at the corners of Bryan’s mouth. It was a smile, Vern was sure, of expectation – a realization that turned Vern’s spine into a thin rail of ice.

He knows something, Vern thought. He knows something we don’t. And he won’t tell.

Chuck Lane, the previous year’s champion, did his best to puncture Bryan’s newfound hope.

“You still can’t win,” said Chuck, and a guy who had played fantasy sports, like Vern, since the Stone Ages, when stats were culled from the next day’s newspaper. “Keep your panties on.”

Things got quiet for a while, both in the nationally televised contest and in Vern’s dank living room, decorated with drab furniture, a carpet without padding underneath, and, naturally, a sixty-one-inch high definition television screen with surround sound blasting the sounds of football from every which angle.

Things were quiet, that is, until the first play of the fourth quarter.

If Vern remembered correctly – and he was sure he did – Bryan leapt from his chair and dropped to his knees when it happened. It was like watching one of those pansy-ass soccer players celebrate a goal.

Lonnie Gibbs, that short, slim wide receiver, caught the football over the middle of the field after it careened off not one, but two defenders. The pigskin plopped into Gibbs’s arms, and it was off to the races for the little man. No one came within fifteen yards of him. Gibbs glided into the end zone for a sixty-five yard touchdown. Bryan had scored twelve fantasy points in a single play. Hunter’s lead was slashed in half on the flukiest play any of the fantasy footballers had ever seen.

Hunter squirmed in his seat and took a swig from Benjamin’s beer bottle. Vern took notice – Hunter did not drink.

“Nervous yet, gay boy?” Bryan said, his normally beady eyes widening to make him look insane. “I’m coming for you, Hunter, and unlike Benny over here, I have no love for you.” Bryan fought through Benjamin and straddled Hunter, who was terror stricken.

“I’m gonna fuck you, big boy,” Bryan said, writhing on his league mate’s lap. “But not in the good way.” Ben, with Chuck’s help, shoved Bryan to the floor, where he laughed manically, and again, Vern thought, had that look of omniscience, of knowing. Bryan watched the game as if it were a replay, the outcome long decided. Vern had logged tens of thousands of hours watching the pigskin, and in all that time, he had never seen a look quite like Bryan’s. The was unspoken knowledge in Bryan’s eyes, and Vern knew that if he said this to anyone, he’d be seen as crazier than Bryan looked.

Sitting there with Bryan on one side and Hunter on the other during the final minutes of that Sunday night game was like being witness to an execution. No, Vern thought, not an execution. Torture, and then execution.

With five minutes left, Gibbs, that little sparkplug, caught a bubble screen pass on the short side of the field, made a move, spun out of a tackle, and scored a twenty-yard touchdown – another eight points for Bryan. Hunter’s lead was four.

On that score, Bryan grabbed his crotch and thrust toward Hunter.

“Go to hell,” Benjamin spat. Bryan’s smile was extinguished for half a moment before his crazed laugh was back.

Vern focused on his gigantic TV. Looking at Bryan’s face and listening to his laugh had become more frightening than annoying. The man looked possessed.

The Kill Thy Neighbor fantasy football league’s total eclipse of the sun came with forty seconds remaining in the season finale. Vern felt a piece of Hunter turn to ash and float away on the wind when Lonnie fucking Gibbs took a reverse handoff past midfield, wheeled around the defensive end’s outstretched arms to the forty, the thirty, the twenty, and finally, the seven yard line, before being tackled out of bounds. It was a fifty-two yard gain. It was five points for Bryan. It was his championship, his Golden Dagger.

He had beaten Hunter by a single point.

Vern, in his two decades of fake football obsession, had never seen anything like it. Lonnie Gibbs racking up two hundred and eight total yards and scoring twice in the second half had to be among the NFL’s greatest, least explainable statistical anomalies. Vern slumped into the grooves worn into his couch and joined the room’s collective moan. It hurt so much to see a good person lose, but even worse to see a bad person win.

“Thank you,” Bryan cried out, arms outstretched, head tilted toward the heavens.

“And thank you, Mr. Homo,” Bryan said, doing a curtsy before Harper and Benjamin. “I couldn’t have asked for a less manly opponent. I appreciate all your choking on this fine night. A fucking skirt probably would’ve put up a better fight.”

At that, Ben grabbed the neck of his beer bottle and swung it at Bryan, who ducked away and backpedaled across the room.

Bryan screamed with laughter – strings of spittle connecting his top and bottom teeth — and backed toward Vern’s front door. Vern lunged out of his couch to tell the league’s newest champion to leave, to get out, and to never come back. Vern was going to erupt – he was going to defend Harper, to tell Bryan that that language was means for expulsion.

All this stayed in Vern’s broiling gut because, as he opened his mouth to say these things, Bryan threw open the door, continued to backpedal, down the porch, over the grass, onto the sidewalk – laughing manically all the time — until he was near the curb, on the curb, and in the street, waving at the few guys who gathered at the open door to curse their champion as he left.

A car horn blasted, tires screamed, and Bryan Zorn was flattened by a black 2007 Honda CR-V.

A splatter of dark blood dripped down the windshield.