Savvy NFL fans know Buccaneers linebacker Cato June as one of the top tacklers in the business. He's a great addition to the Tampa Bay defense who comes over after being a key performer on the defending Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. Fantasy football players who take on the challenge of participating in individual defender leagues value June as a top starter who registered a career-best 142 total tackles in 2006.
June, who is in the prime of his career at age 27, is looking forward to his first season with his new team, where he should make a smooth transition to another Cover 2 defense. What many don't know about him, though, is he will also be busy preparing for the 2007 fantasy football season soon. June is the rare breed who plays in the NFL while also playing in a fantasy football league.
June said he started playing when an old friend from Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., Andre Williams, invited him to join his league.
"I started playing about five years ago and I was so much into the idea of actually owning my own team and tracking my own players," June said. "I liked the fact that you got the chance to make your own decisions on real players, yet the ultimate goal was still winning."
From the beginning, it was a challenge for June not to let his fantasy strategies collide with his real NFL goals. But he quickly learned to balance the two, with his responsibilities to the Colts obviously taking a higher priority than his newfound hobby.
"The business aspect of the game comes first," June said. "I can see fantasy football testing the loyalty of people who play the game, but I put much less of my heart into it. My pride won't allow me to do otherwise. If a guy is on my fantasy team, and I am playing against him, I have to sit him, or it just wouldn't be right."
June entered into such dilemmas when he faced players like Tom Brady, yet he was easily able to separate the two worlds, and now considers fantasy football one of his top leisure activities when he is off the field.
"It gives me something else to look forward to during the season and it takes my mind off other things," June said. "It keeps my mind at ease. It's a hobby and it's different than when I'm involved in the game because it's not real, it's a fantasy."
June quickly took to playing fantasy sports and decided to play more than just football. He has won championships in both fantasy football and basketball, which he has been playing for a few years as well.
"I like fantasy basketball because it's a little more involved than football," June said. "You watch the games and get to check on your team three to four times per week. You really get to know the players better and it adds even more in terms of stats. I have even tried playing fantasy baseball, but there was too much day-to-day management."
When playing fantasy football, though, June often feels like he is being targeted by his league-mates, who want nothing more than to beat a real player.
"Everyone wants to get at you because they know you play pro football," June said. "It's a lot of fun because they want to show they know just as much as you, but when you win the championship you can just say, 'Yeah, right. I told you so.'"
June said he is always on his computer, and makes sure he sets aside time to do his lineups and roster management every week.
"It's all about balance," he said. "It's part of my social side and spare time."
There are also some natural advantages June gains by actually playing in the NFL.
"When you get to watch film regularly, you see how certain teams attack defenses and what their tendencies might be," June said. "You see the little things teams do differently in their game planning."
Because he plays in the league, people in June's league also occasionally ask him for information.
"People think I know more than just the day-to-day stuff. I'm like, 'I don't know and if I do, I'm sure not telling you,'" he said with a laugh.
Last season, June was able to make his league playoffs with a core of Brady, Edgerrin James and Reggie Wayne. He certainly would let any of his Colts teammates know if he needed their help.
"I would tell Reggie I needed him to score a touchdown," June said. "Or I would tell Dallas [Clark] I wanted him to step it up in the offense. They would just laugh at me, but they wanted to do well for the team, so it was a win-win situation when they played well."
June was less successful in his basketball league this past season, failing to make the playoffs.
"I messed up with a bad draft," he said. "Elton Brand would get me a lot of double-doubles, but in fantasy basketball, you need more guys like Andrei Kirilenko, who can really fill up the stat sheet. I didn't have enough balance and it showed up with a bad record."
June can now put that behind him, though. He is focused on meshing with his new team in Tampa Bay, and excited to be a part of a great defensive tradition. June is hoping he can help the Buccaneers spark a defensive resurgence.
"I think it's a great place for me and a natural fit in the scheme," he said. "They play a two-deep shell and it's a good look for me. Plus, I get to play with one of the greatest players ever at linebacker, Derrick Brooks. He's still playing at a high level and we have a lot of veterans who are hungry to take this defense back to the level we know it can be at."
In the process, June should continue to be a fine fantasy player in individual defensive player leagues. He is certainly one of the top outside linebackers in such formats, and soon hopes his own league-mates will agree to add individual defenders to their scoring system.
"I'm pushing for it," he said. "With defensive units, the defense is reflected on such a smaller scale it really deviates from its impact on the game. If they draft defensive guys, fans will feel like they are even more part of the game as defensive players really start to shine more in fantasy."
June said he greatly appreciates the success of fantasy football and how many more fans have become involved in the NFL.
"It makes more people watch more of the games, because they could have two or three players playing in any given game they might not usually watch," he said. "You pay more attention to analysts and learn more about the game. I know a lot of women that play fantasy football, and I think that is great. Fantasy football really broadens the appeal of the NFL and makes it a level playing field for everybody."