I first played fantasy football in 1996.
I somehow ended up with half the Denver Broncos, and I rode John Elway (3,328 passing yards, 26 touchdowns), Terrell Davis (1,538 rushing yards, 13 rushing TDs) and Shannon Sharpe (1,062 receiving yards, 10 TD catches) to a share of the league championship and $100.
It's been all downhill from there.
It's not just that my results were never as good, not even for the 2010 team that lost one - ONE - regular season game before falling in the second round of the playoffs (after a bye, of course) to the upstart seventh seed and eventual (of course) league champion.
It was that fantasy football pretty quickly, and to some degree irrevocably, changed how I watched football.
Back then, I still bled Redskins burgundy and gold. (I hadn't yet spent a year covering a franchise led by a man who takes unceasing advantage of one of pro sports' most loyal fan bases and suits up his ego every Sunday.) So when the Redskins - my team - would square off against an offensive player on "my team," it got awkward. So, let's see, I want X running back to have this many yards and at least one touchdown, and then next week I'm going to need Y tight end to have a 100-yard game, but of course I still wanted my team to win in the end.
And that, it turns out, was the least of the woes. At least, for the first five years or so, I could be assured that the scantily clad bartendress squeezing an orange into my Blue Moon would have no idea why I was contemplating sticking a fork through my eyeball because, after four straight carries by my running back to set up first-and-inches, my traitor team and lame-brained coach had handed off to the detested third-down back at the goal line.
Now, everybody freakin' plays fantasy football, and while that's million-dollar great for the NFL and all the fantasy-spawned cottage industries, it's not so great for me. (I imagine Strat-O-Matic aficionados must have felt the same way, only more achingly so, at the founding of the first rotisserie league.) Something is lost when the particular agonies of fantasy football no longer need translation.
Besides, I spend all day berating myself over enough stuff. (I'm a Virgo; it's what we do.) My oversight in leaving a third-string tailback who's rushed for minus-3 yards before a 200-yard, three-score Sunday breakout (followed by a swift slide back into obscurity) really shouldn't be one of them.
So when the commissioner of our league - a crazy busy mother of two with a new book deal - floated the idea of benching us for the season, I wanted to feel sad. Our league has weathered moves and marriages and other major life changes, and was called Coast to Coast because we once spanned all four time zones.
But mostly, I was relieved.
All good things have their day. Leg warmers, New Coke (OK, that was hideous), Swatches, Culture Club. For me, fantasy football has had its.
Now I can curl up on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, frothy beverage nearby, and watch whatever game I choose, for whatever reason I please, and focus on the big, exciting, last-minute touchdown picture, instead of twisting the cat into a knot because the QB had my guy running free down the middle of the field but instead threw the fade - UH-GIN. I will feel joy when I want to feel joy, based on a score and not a stat, and I will weep when I must, but not because I lost by .07 of point (and yes, that happened.)
So farewell, fantasy. I know my departure will have no effect on the pigskin behemoth you've become. Just maybe, one clear, crisp autumn afternoon, when twilight falls like leaves and jack-o-lanterns adorn porches and Adrian Peterson is once more steaming toward the season rushing record, if you could just ... think of me.
And John Elway, and Terrell Davis, and Shannon Sharpe. And, for that matter, Jason Elam. Back when we were young and people drafted kickers.