ESPN NFL analyst Sean Salibsbury says about five years ago, he decided, 'if you can't beat 'em, join' em." The former NFL and CFL quarterback was referring to fantasy football, which has become a large part of both his work and family lives. "It's a great way for football fans to match wits, and personally, I think it's thrilling and a blast. The best thing about fantasy football is it gives anyone a chance to be a GM, owner and a coach, and puts everyone on a level playing field whether they have played the game or not before."
This past season, Salisbury participated in a league with other ESPN personalities and employees, while winning the NFL Live "Fantasy Five" competition for the third time in four years. Salisbury has played in informal fantasy leagues in the past, and his most competitive league might be the one he plays in with his three children. 15-year old Dylan Salisbury could be his father's fiercest opponent, while 13-year old Dodge and 10-year old Shea are no pushovers, either.
"I talk about fantasy football with my kids all the time," Salisbury said. "When your kids say they whipped dad, you laugh it off but you really don't want them to beat you. Dylan is in leagues online and it gets the kids more involved in the NFL. We have our own little draft every year and it gives us another fun thing to talk about."
With the great growth of fantasy football, Salisbury intends to get more involved in more highly competitive fantasy football leagues in 2007. He also plans to offer more fantasy advice on his website (www.seansalisburyonline.com) and he ultimately hopes to travel the country to meet and speak with fantasy football players nationwide.
"I'd like to tour the country, doing fantasy football conventions," Salisbury said. "Every city I would go to, we would hold drafts, share insights, take notes and answer questions. There are so many NFL cities that deserve it and would enjoy it." Salisbury estimated he gets invited to approximately 30 fantasy football leagues per year, but has never had the time to properly participate in the past. "This season it's going to be a priority of mine to get into a highly competitive league and dedicate myself to it," Salisbury said. "I'm ready to make the move to the major leagues. The fantasy craze is amazing."
While Salisbury has always studied lots of game film to prepare for his work, the popularity of fantasy football has definitely affected the way he watches games. "I find myself paying attention to player tendencies even more than before, because I often discuss fantasy and people are always asking about it. I find that thinking from a fantasy perspective also helps my overall analysis."
Salisbury said he is also considering starting his own league in 2007. "I'm going to make a lot of time for it, because I don't want to finish in fourth place," he said. "I'm ready to take it on. Fantasy has become so popular that some players give me a hard time when I don't pick them in the NFL Live Fantasy Five. We always trash talk on the set about the Fantasy Five, and that's probably the most fun about it."
In the NFL Live Fantasy Five, ESPN analysts pick players at QB, RB, WR, and a kicker and defense every week, and the analyst with the most points at the end of the season wins the competition. Salisbury anticipates that participating in more competitive leagues this season will require more work and research. "I'll be on my laptop when I travel," he said. Salisbury said he is looking forward to more trash talk, which is one of the best reasons to play fantasy football. Salisbury is well-known for his good-natured teasing of ESPN's John Clayton, who might make the perfect leaguemate.
"John would be the first guy I would call if I started a league," Salisbury said. "The stuff we do on ESPN would be great fodder for a fantasy league. I'll be handpicking buddies and NFL experts for a league. Suzy Kolber is so brilliant she might be one of the toughest to beat if she is willing to join."
Salisbury is confident that his past experiences as a player could give him a needed advantage in an intense league. "There are a lot of players, coaches and schemes that I have a really good understanding of," Salisbury said. "I know what to expect from Norv Turner because I was coached by him. I have inside information other people can't get as easily. But even with those advantages, things don't always work out quite the way you want them to in fantasy football."
Salisbury said he thinks fantasy football has been great for the NFL. "Anyone who says it's not doesn't have a clue," he said. "People tune in on Friday because they want to know if Tom Bady's elbow is bothering him. Because of fantasy football, NFL ratings are through the roof." While fantasy football does put a positive extra emphasis on the individual, Salisbury has always been a "team player." Some of his most memorable experiences as a professional football player don't even center on himself.
In 1992, Salisbury was named the NFL Player of the Week after he led the Vikings to a win over the Broncos. "Coming from behind to beat John Elway was pretty memorable," he said. "But I was pretty lucky to have played with Marcus Allen (at USC). Just getting a chance to watch him was amazing. Mentally and emotionally, that was one of the biggest thrills of my career. I was always on the mental side of the game. Getting to sit in the same room with Steve Largent and Kenny Easley (as a Seahawk) and ask them questions made me so thankful to be in the pro game. When my dear friend Warren Moon was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I had tears in my eyes."
One of the major highlights of Salisbury's pro career was when he led the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to a Grey Cup win over the British Columbia Lions. "Some people used to say it was Triple-A football," Salisbury. "But those guys have great size and speed, and were terrific athletes. I took it very seriously. I can still say I won a team championship and that is what is most important. I have a big ring and great memories."
Salisbury is very fond of his past as a pro football player, but he is now looking ahead to a successful run as a fantasy football owner. He already knows who will be impact players in 2007. "I don't care what team drafts him, Adrian Peterson is a guy I like a lot," Salisbury said. "Frank Gore is going to take his game to another level, and I absolutely love Laurence Maroney. Heath Miller is going to be really good. And Calvin Johnson will be a major impact player."
Salisbury has played the game. He's been successful in the NFL Fantasy Five. But he also knows that his next season in fantasy football isn't going to be an easy one.
"It puts people who have never been in locker rooms or in game situations on an equal field with anyone else who has been there," Salisbury said. "I'm no fantasy guru, and it's going to be a real challenge. I'm looking forward to it."
Scott Engel covers Fantasy Football and NASCAR for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.