David White II shivered behind a glass wall on a 100-degree day this summer, his body unaccustomed to the air conditioning in a narrow prison interview room at the George Beto Unit, a maximum security facility outside Dallas.
“People in here have demons,” said White, who reached his parole date in July after a decade in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. “Fantasy (football) helps us escape and fight off the demons.”
James Kumm, a fellow inmate at the George Beto Unit and a convicted murderer, said he has leaned on a combination of his Christian faith and fantasy football while behind bars. The debate of Le’Veon Bell vs. Todd Gurley as the top fantasy football pick nests in his mind next to his favorite Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11 — which centers on hope for the future.
“Fantasy is a way of life in prison,” he said.
The pair’s cell block at the George Beto Unit has only two TVs, and no Internet privileges. Without the stats-at-your-fingertips luxury of the digital age, fantasy leagues at this Texas prison (and others like it) have taken on an old-school feel – reminiscent of the early days of fantasy football, shortly after Bill Winkenbach invented it in 1962.
Inmates said fantasy leagues operate almost entirely on handwritten spreadsheets. Waiver wires are often tracked for mid-season pickups. And publications like USA TODAY’s Sports Weekly take on the importance of the pre-Internet era, serving as the source of official statistics.
“When they took out the box scores in Sports Weekly, we were screwed,” White said. (Sports Weekly resumed publishing box scores last year and plans to continue to do so throughout the 2018 NFL season.)
In these information-starved environments, a magazine subscription or printout of an article can provide a major leg up. White compared their importance to mail from family. And Manuel Flores, a former inmate at multiple state prisons in California, said that as one of his prison leagues grew more competitive, his younger brother started mailing him recaps and notes to better his chances.
Vick, who spent 17 months in federal prison for his role in a dog fighting ring, said even he became a resource for some of the prisoners at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan.
“They had their little own brackets and little things going on, getting insight from me,” Vick told USA TODAY Sports. “I gave it to them. I can’t say I was always right. I was right a majority of the time.”
Inmates said you can find all sorts of leagues in prison. There are snake drafts and auction drafts. Standard leagues and points-per-reception leagues. Drummond said it’s relatively common to find multiple leagues on the same cell block – each with its own scoring system.
“For the most part, we are human,” Drummond wrote in a letter. “We enjoy competition just like those on the street.”
Drummond decided to limit his fantasy league to only six teams this year to avoid fights and, in his words, “foolish stuff.” He said fantasy sports have been popular in the eight prisons he’s been in over the past decade, and that he’s learned to keep the dynamic between those he trusts.
As the commissioner of his league, the 34-year-old is responsible for keeping track of standings and rosters and tallying the points. He will run the draft, oversee free-agent acquisitions and, perhaps most importantly, keep the handwritten master copies of rosters and standings in a safe place — “away from water and the like,” he explained.
But lack of technology aside, the fantasy football experience that prisoners describe is otherwise fairly normal. There’s smack talk. Groups of prisoners gathering in a common location to watch games on Sundays with “big bowls of food,” according to Kumm. And, as former San Quentin State Prison chaplain Earl A. Smith put it, fantasy football team names that are “hilarious but not repeatable.”
Smith, who now is the team chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers, recalled inmates hurrying him to finish chapel service on Sundays so they could run to the TV and track their fantasy players.
“People who normally wouldn’t communicate are friendly with each other,” said Smith, the author of Death Row Chaplain: Unbelievable True Stories from America’s Most Notorious Prison. “It doesn’t matter if a white guy or a black guy runs the (fantasy) team. It becomes ‘Am I a better evaluator than you?’ and ‘Can my team beat yours?’ “
Terry Williams, who served 36 years in the California prison system for first-degree murder and robbery, said he came to realize that sports can serve as a bridge between prisoners who might otherwise have nothing in common. Though his sentence largely predated the era of full-blown fantasy leagues, Williams said he frequently competed in weekly pools, picking games against the other seven prisoners on his cell block with the winner receiving a bag of cookies or Kool-Aid.
“It kind of transcends the racial tripping and the gang tripping,” Williams said.