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McGRATH: Fantasy football vs. reality of head trauma

Sean Pamphilon’s documentary “The United States Football” will force you see game differently.

Sean Pamphilon’s documentary “The United States of Football” will force you to see the game differently.

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Updated: October 16, 2013 6:33AM



Football — more specifically, fantasy football — has come to rival Christmas as an advertising extravaganza.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been inundated. Hold your fantasy draft at this pub. Down these snacks and quaff this brew while you’re picking players. Buy this software to keep track of stats, standings and payouts . . . and embarrass any deadbeats. Get a fresh start with a new team each week in this league. You can even buy insurance to cover yourself in the event a star player is injured.

Fascinating, I guess.

My one experience with fantasy football was akin to being drafted . . . into the Army. I was new to a job, and the boss — a tightly wound Type-A competitor — informed me I’d be his partner in the upcoming office league, misguided in his belief that a sports editor would provide inside information not available to the drones from other departments.

Did I mention that he was competitive?

Jim Everett was one of our quarterbacks, and the boss called me from a distant airport on the day Everett had the game of his life, all excited that Everett’s six touchdown passes would surely carry the week for us. I never liked Everett much; the 49ers’ pass rush always unsettled him. And, with the boss unavailable before he left on his trip, I didn’t play Everett that week.

The silence on the other end of the phone when I delivered that news was as awkward a moment as I’ve had with a supervisor; is gross stupidity a fireable offense? I retired from fantasy football when the season ended, with our squad in third place, and I never went back.

And yet, I’m convinced it’s fantasy football — more than point spreads, HD TVs, multi-angle replays or even Martellus Bennett — that has driven the NFL to its position of unparalleled popularity. Everybody is in a fantasy league. Everybody wants to feel like . . . Phil Emery? I guess.

And I’m pretty sure it was fantasy football behind the nationwide sigh of relief that greeted news of the $765  million settlement between the NFL and the plaintiffs who sued the league over its long history of head-in-the-sand response to head injuries. ‘‘Glad that’s over with’’ was a common reaction when the agreement was announced two weeks ago, timed to coincide with the start of a new season. ‘‘Now let’s play some games.’’

Only it’s not over. The bulk of the money, appropriately, is going to the players and the families of players whose lives have been ravaged by the demands of a brutal, violent sport. None of the money will be set aside for those risking life and limb today. And the smallest share is for research into measures for making the game safer, if that’s possible.

I’m not sure it is after watching ‘‘The United States of Football,’’ Sean Pamphilon’s unsparing documentary on a game that has become a national obsession, in part because of its inherent danger.

The movie was a story before it was finished because Pamphilon’s microphones caught Gregg Williams ordering his Saints defenders to target 49ers receiver Kyle Williams as he returned to the field after a concussion. The tapes led to the ‘‘bounty’’ scandal that brought Saints coach Sean Payton a year’s suspension and exposed Gregg Williams as a heartless misanthrope no more suited to coaching young men than Jerry Sandusky was.

Here’s John Mackey, one of football’s proudest, toughest warriors, reduced to an inert, oblivious shell of himself while his gallant wife, Sylvia, pleads with the NFL to acknowledge its role in his deterioration. Sean Morey, a special-teams kamikaze for nine seasons, feels ‘‘like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’’ as debilitating headaches foretell his inevitable struggles. Justin Strzelczyk’s widow agonizes over letting her son play the game that killed his father. Leonard Marshall ‘‘just wishes they had told me’’ the stars and the brown spots that clouded his vision after collisions were danger signs. James Harrison, a poster child for the violent excesses in today’s game, calmly explains that he’s playing the way he was taught to play, but he’s adamant about not letting his son play at all.

If you like your football just the way it is, don’t see this movie — you’ll never watch a game the way you always have.

I was on the sidelines with my Leo Lions the other night when an undersized-but-earnest defensive back got a chance to play late in the game and downed a ballcarrier with a clean, sure tackle, leading with his shoulder and wrapping up.

‘‘Nice play, Darius,’’ I thought to myself.

‘‘Now please get up.’’



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