Let's play GOPPL! Digging out the roots of fantasy football

The American Football League gave us wide-open offenses, colorful uniforms, the two-point conversion . . . and fantasy football. That's right, nearly half a century before fantasy football exploded into the wildly popular game it is today, a group of men visiting New York City for a 1962 AFL game gathered together in a hotel conference room to form the Greater Oakland Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPL).

Today, fantasy football has grown into a phenomenon played by more than 15 million men and women who follow the progress of their teams up to the minute on the Internets. Then, it was a group of eight guys wielding pencils and sorting through statistics in the Monday-morning paper.

GOPPL included eight teams, each with 18 players: 12 on offense, two on defense, and four on special teams. Payouts were limited to a quarter or two per touchdown, though scores on returns paid more, including $5 for touchdowns by defensive players.

The league was the brainchild of Bill Winkenbach, one of the Oakland Raiders' limited partners. The inaugural group of fantasy owners included a beat writer covering the team and other members of the Raiders' staff. They turned Winkenbach's idea into a reality during the Raiders' three-week road trip through Buffalo, Boston and New York in 1962. GOPPL got going officially in the Milford Plaza Hotel in New York City -- making the hotel the Hupmobile showroom of fantasy football. (NFL history lesson: The league's first organizational meeting was held in the showroom of a Hupmobile automobile dealership in Canton, Ohio, in 1920.)

In the 1960s, NFL and AFL fans debated passionately about which league was better. The AFL was, by some, viewed as a minor league filled with NFL rejects. For fantasy football players, though, there would have been no question which was better for their game -- the AFL. Why the new kids on the block? Easy, they scored tons of points, early and often. Thus, AFL quarterback George Blanda was fantasy football's first star. Blanda almost certainly was the top pick in 1962, coming off a season in which he passed for 36 touchdowns. He was an accomplished kicker, too. In the NFL, Green Bay's Paul Hornung also was a dual threat, at running back and kicker.

Hornung could have been the basis of "keeper leagues," as owners no doubt smarted over his suspension in 1963. His return also could have led to the development of waiver position -- as a defense against "wire hawks" who stay up until all hours waiting for certain players to become available.

The identity of the first fantasy football bust is up for debate. Boston Patriots fullback Billy Lott scored 11 touchdowns in 1961, and likely would have been a high draft pick using current formats. But then one of the poor GOPPLists got less after he chose Lott, as he did not score a single touchdown in 1962.

Abner Haynes also could be considered one of the first busts. Haynes scored 19 touchdowns in the final season for the Dallas Texans in 1962. The franchise moved to Kansas City in 1963, and Haynes scored only six touchdowns that year. Unfortunately for fantasy football owners, there was no "Larry Johnson" to handcuff to Haynes -- a point further exacerbated when Gale Sayers spurned the Chiefs to sign with the Bears in 1965. Speaking of Sayers, his knees were to the 1960s what Fred Taylor's groin was to the early 2000s. Certainly, some owner passed Sayers over in 1969 because of injuries, only to have him respond with 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns.

As a further wrinkle to these proto-fantasy leagues, consider that there was no Internet technology in the 1960s. Thus, some early leagues delivered lineups by mail. So imagine the rants if the Christmas-card crunch caused some fantasy players to be tardy with their lineups, denying Sayers' owners his six-touchdown performance against the 49ers on Dec. 12, 1965! Talk about your slow connection speeds!

And finally, how big was Jim Marshall's impact on individual defensive players? The Vikings' star returned a fumble the wrong way in 1964, giving the 49ers a safety and leaving one major question: Who got credit for the points?

So as you gather in your own Milford Plazas this fall to continue this decades-old tradition, take a moment to thank the GOPPLists of long ago ... but don't expect Tom Brady to kick any field goals. Not with that knee.

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