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Fantasy football's 50th year: Everything and nothing has changed

Originally published in the year 2012 edition of Fantasy Football Index

At this year's fantasy draft, stop and raise a glass to the four men who invented the game 50 years ago this fall. That's the least you can do for Bill Winkenbach, George Ross, Scotty Stirling and Bill Tunnell.

In October 1962, those four hatched the idea for fantasy football, a game now played by millions. Their story makes you realize that everything - and nothing - has changed in the ensuing 50 years.

The four men were part of a traveling contingent that accompanied the Oakland Raiders on a three-week road swing. The Raiders, a third-year team in the upstart American Football League, pinched pennies on plane fare by remaining on the East Coast for the entirety of the three-game trip.

Winkenbach was a limited partner in the Raiders' ownership group. In the 1950s, he organized primitive fantasy golf and fantasy baseball pools.

"We started the thing actually on the airplane ride to New York," says Ross, who was the sports editor of the Oakland Tribune. "One of us mentioned, 'Well, that could easily become a football game, too.' We talked about it later in the hotel, and then on the way home. Wink just set it out and made it work. It didn't take long."

Winkenbach devised rules not so different from those used by many fantasy leagues today, and on August 22, 1963, he hosted the first fantasy draft in his den. The founders called their game GOPPPL - short for Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prediction League. To this day, they still refer to fantasy football as "goppel."

Winkenbach became fantasy football's first commissioner. While he and the other founders had originally conceived of GOPPPL as an AFL-only affair, they ultimately included NFL players as well, thus proving to be ahead of their time in a second respect. The AFL and NFL would not merge in real life until 1970.

The league was cutting-edge, but not high-tech. "There were no computers in those days," Stirling notes, "so on Monday after the football weekend, [Winkenbach's] secretary would total up the numbers. He had the Xerox machine, and she'd send everybody a copy. It was kind of a snail mail deal."

Stirling worked under Ross at the Tribune as the Raiders beat writer. He recruited a partner, Andy Mousalimas, who was an early convert to pro football at a time when the game was widely disparaged.

"You had to be a football fan to really appreciate pro football," Mousalimas says, "because a lot of college guys would tell you, 'What are you doing, going over to watch those fat guys play?'"

GOPPPL wasn't a lightweight league. Stirling went on to become general manager of the Raiders in 1966. He presided over the team at Super Bowl II and held the position until Al Davis returned to Oakland after resigning as AFL commissioner. Stirling later became general manager of the New York Knicks and San Francisco Warriors, and eventually NBA Vice President of Operations.

Another original GOPPPL owner, Raiders public relations staffer Ron Wolf, went on to assemble Super Bowl champions for the Raiders in the 1970s and 1980s. Today Wolf is better remembered for the championship he won as general manager of the Packers, several years after trading for Falcons backup quarterback Brett Favre.

Did GOPPPL propel Stirling and Wolf into real-life front offices? Did they develop special drafting skill or insight into trading psychology?

Stirling answers quickly and dismissively: "No. Not at all. It was more fun than anything else. It looks to me like it's pretty serious stuff today, the way people compete. Listen, it was a game to us, you know. It was just a way to spend some time."

Then Stirling tells a story that illustrates how everything - and nothing - has changed in 50 years.

"The Raiders in those days played in a makeshift field called Youell Field. It was just bleachers. It sat maybe 14,000 at the most. The press box was close to the last row of seats, and that's where most of the GOPPPL people were. They were more interested in incoming results in games, rather than the Raiders game, because they were toting up how much money they'd won or lost."

In 1969, Mousalimas purchased the King's X tavern in Oakland, which he proudly claims was the first sports bar in the Bay Area. By 1972, the King's X was hosting fantasy leagues for 200 customers.

The King's X also hosted trivia contests that pitted its customers against customers from other taverns in San Francisco and beyond. It was only natural that word would get out about fantasy football.

"I think a couple of these bars were from [San Francisco's] financial district," says Stirling. "There'd be guys from the East Coast and from Chicago coming in there to do business, and they came into the King's X and they're talking about GOPPPL. I think that's how it spread."

After the 1970 season, Mousalimas was excommunicated from GOPPPL. His sin? The leagues he ran at the King's X had the audacity to change the original rules, awarding points for yardage. King's X patrons groused that short-yardage specialist Pete Banaszak earned points for 1-yard touchdowns, while O.J. Simpson often earned nothing despite piling up ridiculous rushing yardage. Winkenbach took offense and booted Mousalimas. "I don't blame him," says Mousalimas. "That was his baby and he didn't want the rules changed. But the rules were terrible."

Winkenbach passed away in 1993, in time to recognize that his brainchild was becoming a nationwide sensation. Tunnell dropped out of GOPPPL after a few years, and the surviving members don't know what became of him.

Stirling played in GOPPPL for only two years. "But then I was hired by the Raiders and I was doing it for real."

His former boss played just long enough to watch the game take root in the Tribune newsroom. "I had about a 22-man sports department and they formed another league," says Ross. "It focused their attention on pro football. It worked sort of the opposite with me. I was so busy as sports editor, I had to ignore my GOPPPL membership. I dropped out of GOPPPL after four, maybe five years. I was just too darn busy running a sports department."

Everything has changed in the ensuing 50 years. No longer marginalized, professional football is the 800-pound gorilla of the sports world. Media coverage, not just of sports but of fantasy sports, is now inescapable. And skill-position players no longer double as kickers.

Yet, really, nothing has changed. We love the game because it focuses our attention on the entire NFL - not just the home team. We tinker and fight over rules. We drop out of leagues because we're too busy. We thirst for information that will provide a competitive edge. And we rue drafting Tatum Bell in 2005, just as Mousalimas continues to beat himself up for blowing the first pick in the first-ever fantasy draft: "I'll tell you how dumb we are. We picked [George] Blanda over Jim Brown."

Stirling regrets a different missed opportunity. "If only I got a penny off the millions who played, I wouldn't have to worry about the NBA draft," he deadpans. Now 82 years old, he is the director of scouting for the Sacramento Kings. "But the thing that's interesting is that we had no idea what was going to happen with it."

We're glad "it" happened - that the fantasy football genie escaped from the GOPPPL lamp. So raise that toast this year for the good times that wouldn't be possible without the men on fantasy football's Mt. Rushmore: Bill Winkenbach, George Ross, Scotty Stirling and Bill Tunnell.

Reported and written by Bruce Taylor