A Little League of Their Own
Sometimes story ideas hit you when you least expect it. I recently spent an NFL Sunday reading a book in Central Park. It was a perfect fall day, sunny and breezy, way too nice to spend inside watching football. Reading quickly turned into people watching, and I noticed a group of boys playing touch football. Kids playing outside? How refreshing! Just as I was thinking that maybe technology isn’t actually ruining the simple joys of childhood, the boys paused their serious argument—‘It’s third down!’ ‘No, it’s second!’—and ran to grab their iPhones or iPads. As they frantically scrolled down their screens, it became clear what the break was for. “Devonta Freeman is on fire!” one yelled out. “What! Aaron Rodgers threw two picks!” another exclaimed. Of course—they were checking the stats of players on their fantasy football teams.
I was baffled. Is this what it’s like to be an NFL fan growing up today? Unable to suppress my nagging journalistic curiosity, I started a conversation with the parents and kids and ended up learning a lot about the youngest generation of NFL fans. We scheduled to meet again the following Sunday for a video shoot.
The kids—Ian Norwood, Charlie Harris, his brother, George, and Will Solit—are true fantasy football experts. They started playing in their first league in second or third grade. Ian, George and Will are 10 years old now, fifth graders at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. George is 11, a sixth grader. Will’s dad, P.J., also plays fantasy football but wouldn’t dare play in a league with his son. “He’s way above my pay grade,” P.J. says. The kids even handle drafting fantasy teams for their parents.
On Sundays the boys are addicted to NFL RedZone. Their parents struggle to tear them away from the TV screen to get out to the park to play. Watching a single live games, the old fashioned way, is “so boring,” Will says. Adds Ian: “We want to see all the touchdowns, no commercials.” Childhood fandom as I knew it—allegiance to one team—seemed an alien concept. “I root for my players,” Ian says. True to his word, he came to the park in a Calvin Johnson Lions jersey underneath a Giants sweatshirt.
The boys play in a flag football league on Saturdays and get their touch games in on Sunday, but it's clear that fantasy is as much a part of their overall experience of football as playing the game themselves or watching it. If I hadn’t cut them short (journalistic curiosity goes only so far when other people’s fantasy lineups are concerned), they could have gone on about their teams in excruciating detail—for “probably two hours,” Charlie said.
Watch the video to get a sense of the next generation of NFL fans is like.