GELFAND: Fantasy Football with Pinsky, the 85-Year-Old Former Professor

Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Wasn’t it Robert Frost who asked:

“Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?”

I think of Frost’s poem every August, because that’s when Minnesota’s shortest season — summer — unofficially ends, and when the longest season — Fantasy Football — begins. The fantasy season officially starts with the purchase of the first worthless fantasy guide and ends with the true championship game: not the Super Bowl, but the Week 16 fantasy championship game.  

Do not fear.  I offer no advice. No stunning insights that will help you decide whether Todd Gurley is a better choice than Le’Veon Bell. If you’re wondering whether Adam Thielen will build on last year’s breakout season or simply regress to the mean along with humanity itself…well, let’s face it: how should I know?

The only thing I have learned from my mistakes is that I never learn from my mistakes. Each year, I confuse my desiccated brain by purchasing seven different guides offering a total of 1,000 pages of redundant, contradictory, and, for the most part, vapid observations. Right here in front of me is the generically titled Pro Forecast Fantasy Football Guide. Its savant predicts, among other things, that Frank Gore, who is 35 years old and scored four touchdowns last year, is destined to be a bust this year. Does this mean that he will score just three TDs in 2018?

I turn to fantasyfootballcalculator.com, which actually is an invaluable resource. It lists the average draft positions, based on actual drafts and ranking 196 selections. Frank Gore is…not listed. Perhaps someone will take him in the 14th and final round. Drafts are funny that way. So are the drafters. In our league, Actuary Ed, whose teams are generally competitive, likes to wait the allotted 90 seconds before beginning his final-round pick by saying, “Well, I think I’m going to take a dark horse…” Ed isn’t joking. As I said, he’s an actuary.

The other guides do not offer much better information. For one thing, they went to press in March. For another, these are just exercises in groupthink. I would call the authors idiots, except that I’m the one who paid for these publications. For less than I shelled out, I could have purchased a medium-grade paper shredder. That would have been useful.

When I joined my fantasy league many years ago, I asked the legendary Pinsky for advice. Pinsky, a college professor of comparative literature at the time, did not need to deliver an entire lecture. Then, as now, Pinsky was the ethical, intellectual and competitive foundation of the league.

“First,” he said, “ignore the experts. Use the time you save to read the classics — Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Joyce. This will sharpen your mind and enhance your ability to think critically.”

“That’s a long first,” I said.

“Give it a shot, boychick,” Pinsky said. “Or you could watch a few hundred hours of ESPN and take notes on exhibition games.”

“Would that help?” I asked.

“To quote another classic,” Pinsky said, “I will pose a question: Exhibition games — what are they good for?”

“Absolutely nothing?” I asked.

Pinsky recently celebrated his 85th birthday, and still wins his share of championships. Mock one of his picks and by November you will probably be hoping that no one was secretly taping you. (It happens a lot these days.)

Pinsky has slowed down, but reading and thinking critically have kept him motivated. Yes, he needs some help getting around, but even then he is an inspiration. If his walker were a coin, it would be rated Very Fine. Pinsky himself has been well circulated, and he intends to keep rolling on.  He has attached a pedometer to the device, and walks (rolls?) about a half-mile a day — no easy task at the rate of about a quarter of a mile per hour. Pinsky rotates the tennis balls every 100 miles and replaces them every six months. No range balls for the prof — only fresh, tournament-grade balls.

Pinsky made it to the championship game last year, and lost only because his first pick, David Johnson, was injured in Week One.  “When I use my first pick to take Paul Hornung, just shoot me,” he says, but no one will.

His dedication to the league is just short of disturbing. In his late 70s, on the eve of surgery to replace a heart valve, he funded an annuity that will allow him to posthumously own his team for at least 20 years. His two children will have the option of running the team, but if they decline, his picks will be made via auto-draft. Should the league ever disband, any money left in his fantasy football account will be used for a wake — no prayers, consumption of alcohol optional, just a celebration of the league’s life.

In the meantime, Pinsky will get the most out of his picks, as well as his life. He dazzles us by drafting bareback, meaning without cheat sheets. He just glances at the board and then calls out his pick even before the clock is running. Not bad in an era when most folks, thanks to cell phones, haven’t memorized their kids’ phone numbers.

Reform comes slowly to our league. You still get six points for a field goal over 50 yards, an event about as rare as the officials not knowing what constitutes a reception. The entry fee has been $100 since the first draft, even though inflation has more than doubled since then. Which means that there is no scenario by which I can break even. Even putting aside the beer and chips required to watch at least 16 hours of football each week, the fantasy guides and Sunday Ticket package — an absolute necessity if I’m going to watch up to eight games at a time — can set me back $500.  Lost income due to watching all those games pretty much doubles the cost.

But if Pinsky isn’t complaining, I have no right to gripe. We are just two weeks away from the draft, which is the highlight of the year for most players.

Not for Pinsky.

In our league, as in most, we can select up to three free agents each week. There’s usually a scramble to pick up players beginning with the 12:01 a.m. starting time on Thursdays. Most of us are in a hurry. Ejecting underperforming players is a therapeutic way to vent anger, inadequacy, decades-held grievances stemming from shattered relationships and…well, perhaps I’ve already said too much.

But Pinsky takes time to reflect. Come the second week of the season, he will start sleeping in on Sundays, sometimes rising as late as 7 a.m. Then he’ll have his coffee and Miralax, look over his Sunday paper, check the Internet for breaking football news and start making moves. Unlike the rest of us, he’ll have all three moves left, and, with great deliberation, he will use each of them. His third and final transaction generally comes around 11:49 a.m., which is 60 seconds before the deadline.

The professor’s modus operandi might seem quirky, but it reflects a paradox that only a person of a certain age can understand: the less time we have, the more patient we become.

And as much as I hate to lose, I always relish a Pinsky triumph, because the old man soldiers on with grace, whether he laps the field or finishes last. None of which means he won’t struggle to accept the end of a football season.


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