Hey, everybody needs a hobby. I’ve known people who were into skiing, depression glass, golf, antique roses, rodeo, coin collecting, etc. For me, it’s fantasy football.

OK, so I’m a geek. It’s all a matter of perspective, after all. (Antique ROSES?!) But I’ll defend us six million geeks to the last breath I have.

Yep, a reputable survey once estimated that six million people participate in fantasy football each year. It’s a growing hobby, and that survey was a few years ago, so it’s probably a conservative figure, that six million. Consider there are roughly 250 million people in the U.S., and that means that approximately out of every 40 people you know is a fantasy geek like me. Based on my own experience, that seems about right. And some of the other 39 snicker at me behind my back or to my face, probably, but that’s cool.

DEPRESSION glass?! Lord save me from a hobby that includes the name of a mental disease.

The thing that probably seems funny to many people is the name “fantasy” football. It sounds like something a disaffected teenager would be involved in. However, fantasy football is a serious yet fascinatingly fun hobby that requires football knowledge, management skills, people skills, and persistence. It’s far from being kid stuff. If I had invented it there’d be a cooler name, like “Domination” or something, but hey, it is what it is.

So just what is fantasy football? It’s mostly an NFL-centered game, although there are a few fantasy leagues that use college players or even Arena Football. A fantasy football league typically has 10 or 12 fantasy owners, although I’ve seen leagues from 6 to 16. It just gets squirrely if there are more, or you have to divide the league into two separate leagues. As you can already see, one of the greatest things about FF is that it’s very individualized; no one can tell your group of owners how to run the league. It’s all up to you. You make the rules, play by them, live by them, die by them.

These owners hold an annual draft, just like the NFL does. Owners take turns choosing players to be on their fantasy teams, based on prearranged rules; for instance, some leagues draft individual defensive players, some use only a team defensive unit as one position (e.g. Patriots defense), some don’t use defense at all. Any NFL player is available to be drafted, so that at the end of a draft my QBs may consist of Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, and Jake Delhomme.

Once the draft is over, each team goes about the weekly chore of deciding which of their players to use as their starting lineup for that week. Again, each league has its own rules on a lineup by stating how many starters are required at each position. Through the season teams also trade players (and maybe future draft picks too), as well as keeping an eye on little-known undrafted guys (“free agents”) who are emerging into worthwhile players. Once a team is drafted, the only way to improve it is through trades and free agency.

A major question for the FF novice (geek in training?) is, “So how do you play fantasy games? Is it on the computer?” No, a computer is not required, although it has played a major role in the recent explosion of the hobby. Fantasy football was created by sportswriters in the early ’60s, when a basic computer filled a gymnasium-sized room. Scoring was very basic back then, and it’s those scoring rules that decide who wins a fantasy football game. With computers being so good at…..well, computing…..scoring rules can be as complicated as a league thinks they need to be in order to accurately and fairly reflect the players’ true value. The beauty of it with a computer is that you don’t have to do the math.

Most leagues have a schedule, with teams playing head to head each week, just like the NFL. A league with 10 teams would have five games each weekend, for example, the winner of each game determined by which team scores the most points, of course.

Where do the points come from? They’re based on the players’ performance in the actual NFL games you see on TV each weekend. If Priest Holmes scores a TD, the Chiefs get 6…..and so does my fantasy team, if The Good Father is in my starting lineup, which is decided before kickoff of each week’s games. Most FF leagues, however, also include points for yardage, because any football fan knows that if a player picks up a few yards it’s a good thing…..but in the world of FF, there are no first downs; therefore points are awarded for yards gained.

A typical scoring format (one I prefer) is 1 point per 10 rushing or receiving yards, 1 point per 25 passing yards, 6 points per rushing or receiving TD, and 4 points per passing TD. (Passing is worth fewer points because a QB typically throws for far more yardage and TDs than other players typically get by running or receiving, and to even the players out value-wise, fewer points are awarded.)

That’s the basics. Of course, I could go on and on. For several years I wrote professionally on the hobby and was a commissioner of up to 16 pay leagues per year. I won the national championship of fantasy football in 1999, in a competition with about 2000 other teams, and in 2003 I was fortunate enough to win the FanEx championship (FanEx being a league of fantasy experts, including writers from CBS, USA Today, Pro Football Weekly, and most of the top fantasy football websites, including the guys who appear on TV’s NFL Network).

For me, however, doing FF as a full-time job was something I just had to get out of my system. Having done that, I plan on treating it as strictly a hobby from now on. I expect to be involved in seven or eight leagues in 2004, which is more than enough. My oldest league will celebrate its 10th season in 2004, a 10-team league that still has four of its original owners.

But I certainly plan on staying far away from skiing. As Erma Bombeck once said, any sport where you get on top of a slippery hill with slippery sticks on your feet, and they wait for you at the bottom of the hill with an ambulance, is not for me.