Darrell Pulak is living the dream -- or better yet the fantasy.
The insurance agent and owner of Baxter Insurance Group started his fantasy football league back in 1995 and it’s grown to add a lively cast of former classmates and friends, mostly from the Pillager area.
The husband of Vindy and father of three daughters talks about what makes playing fantasy football so fun and why his league is better than most.
Q: How long have you been playing fantasy football? Give us the entire details of how you started before it was actually fantasy football.
Darrell Pulak: I started playing FF in 1995. I had recently moved back to the Brainerd area from the Twin Cities and a buddy that I played softball with asked if I wanted to play in his league. I jumped at the chance. Twenty four years later, I am still playing.
Q: The league you’re in now - what is it called and how was it formed?
DP: It is called the PFFL. Pillager Fantasy Football League. When we started using a website to track our teams and scoring, it required a team name and since most of the people in the league were friends of mine from my high school days at Pillager it just seemed like a good name. Like all professional leagues such as the NFL, NBA, MLB, etc. ... we decided to go with the letters PFFL, to make it sound more official.
Q: What is the draw with fantasy football? A lot of adults participate in this thing, but in your opinion why?
DP: America loves football and many of us think we are pretty knowledgeable about the NFL. So, fantasy football gives all of us Monday morning quarterbacks a chance to pick our players, run our team and compete against our buddies.
Q: Describe your league rules and some other variations you’ve heard other leagues using?
DP: We are a pretty traditional league as far as scoring goes. One thing that we do different is that we only give points for receptions after the player has at least four receptions in the game. Each reception after four, is an additional point for that player. Also, we play two teams each week. There is nothing worse than getting the second highest score for the week and getting beat by the high score for the week. So, about five years ago we changed our schedule and we each play two teams each week.
Q: I’m guessing when fantasy football first became a thing it was pretty hard to keep track of all the statistics. How has technology made things more enjoyable?
DP: In the old days, I would have to score all the players by hand. In those days, the Brainerd Daily Dispatch came in the evening. On Monday evenings, I would take the sports section of the paper and look up the stats for every player in our league and tally their points. Sunday night games would sometimes get over so late in the night that a few times, the Brainerd Dispatch would not include the box score and stats. So, I would have to go to the Brainerd Public Library and find a copy of another newspaper to get those stats. Being the commissioner of the league required a lot of extra work. Now with fantasy football websites, all the scoring is done automatically. You just input your scoring and the website does the rest. In some ways, I do not like all the fantasy football info readily available online. Fantasy owners do not have to do any of their own research now. They just go to the website and all the info is there. It used to be if you were willing to work harder than the other owners you could uncover more info and have a serious advantage. Not any more.
Q: I’ve met a few of your league members and let’s just say you have a strange cast of characters you compete against. Some might say you’ve selected people to play against that you know you can beat. Is that a true statement and, if not, how has this league grown over the years?
DP: When we have a team owner retire or leave the league, we search high and low for the very best fantasy football players in the world. We research their winning percentage and the strength of the league they are in and only the best get the call up to the big leagues -- the PFFL. I personally call and congratulate the new owner and tell them they have been called up to the big time. I am sure the feeling these new fantasy league owners have is similar to the feeling college football players have after getting drafted by an NFL team. One bad thing about being the commissioner of the PFFL, the greatest fantasy football league in the world, is that I have to make difficult decisions. When an owner is past their prime or maybe just can’t handle the stress of playing in the PFFL, I am the one that has to call them and tell them they have been cut from the PFFL. Again, I am sure this gut wrenching feeling of being cut from the PFFL is the same as an NFL player has after being cut or forced to retire. On the bright side, they can always go down and play in the MFFL (Motley Fantasy Football League) which is a feeder league to the PFFL.
Q: Now the NFL season has already started so this might be for next year, but what advice would you give someone hoping to start a fantasy league of their own? What are a few of the most important elements of a successful league?
DP: The most important advice to someone running a fantasy football league or wanting to start one, is to find buddies that are willing to compete and try no matter if they are winning the league or sitting in last place. There is nothing worse than the fantasy football team owner that does not put his lineup in toward the end of the season because he gave up.
Q: Now this is your league. You developed it. You run it. But from my recent talks with a few of the fellow league members you haven’t done so well in the recent past? What’s been the hangup on your success?
DP: You have to have a short memory in fantasy football. Yes, it may or may not be true that I have not had the success that I would prefer the past few seasons, but you can’t dwell on previous years’ successes and failures. One of the great things about fantasy football seasons is that everyone starts 0-0 at the beginning of the season. I truly feel that the fantasy football gods have it out for me. I have the worst luck when it comes to fantasy football. I will come up 1 yard short of winning or my kicker will miss an easy field goal to give me the win. My players seem to sustain more injuries than anyone else’s team. But, this is a new season and I have a feeling that my team will be competing for a title.
Q: Rumor has it you were a competent athlete in high school and even played a bit in college. Do you think this fantasy football stuff is just a way for you to keep living in your past glory days?
DP: Definitely! As all former athletes can attest, we all miss the adrenaline rush of a big game or match. So, I think everyone that plays fantasy football gets a little taste of that adrenaline during big weeks. I have always hated losing and the same is true in fantasy football.
Q: I understand the actual drafting of players is the highlight to these leagues. What strategy do you use when drafting a team?
DP: The only way to explain the draft of your team before the season starts to someone that does not play fantasy football is to tell them it is like Christmas. The night before the draft, you are all nervous and can’t sleep. Then the day of the draft you are so excited to see what presents -- aka NFL players -- you will get on your team. After the draft is over, you just sit there and look at your team with a big smile thinking how great of a fantasy football season you will have. The strategy for the draft really changes all the time. The key is being able to adapt during the draft to ensure you get the best available players on your team.
Q: During the course of the season, league members can make trades to better their roster and chances of winning. Are you an aggressive trader or waiver wire watcher or do you usually stick with the team you have?
DP: It is super hard to pull off trades in fantasy football. No one ever wants to get taken advantage of, so it seems most guys are reluctant to pull the trigger on a big trade. The waiver wire is a different story. I pick up and drop players almost every week. I am constantly trying to find the hidden jewel that will give me the advantage so I work the waiver wire tirelessly. Guys make fun of me because I will pick up a player, he will then have a bad week so I turn around and drop him the next week. Of course with my luck, he then has a huge week after I drop him so I turn around the next week and pick the exact same player back up.
Q: Are running backs still the go-to first choice for most fantasy football teams or because of the NFL’s progression to more of a passing preference have receivers taking up the top spot?
DP: Running backs are definitely the first choices. You have to have running backs that are not splitting carries. Many NFL teams are starting to throw passes to running backs so if you can find one that gets most of their team’s rushes and also catches some passes you are set.
Q: How soon is too soon to pick a defense or a kicker?
DP: Your defense and kicker should always be your last 2 players taken. I just laugh when guys make the mistake of taking them too early in the draft.
Q: I’m guessing here, but is your league made up of men? And if so has there been any interest from any of your spouses to join the league and would they be welcome? Or are they simply happy to have you guys occupied with this very time consuming hobby?
DP: All of our team owners are men. We did have a gal in our league for years and she was so good. I have asked her a few times to rejoin our league, but she is too busy with her children’s activities and their family business. Plus, I think her husband thought it took up too much of her free time. When she retired from the PFFL, she definitely went out at the top of her game.
Not sure on the other spouses, but my wife would never play fantasy football. She hates it and thinks it takes up too much of my time. She actually claims she is a widow during fantasy football season. However, my wife is a diehard participant in doing college basketball brackets during March Madness. I convinced her to do a bracket years ago when we were first dating and somehow she did really well. She was hooked ever since. She is so into the brackets now, that her and I travel to the Final Four to watch the games whenever we can.
Q: Now this isn’t a knock on you personally, but how much time do you think your league members spend during work hours picking their roster, plotting trades and bragging about last week’s win?
DP: I am scared to answer this question honestly. It is a lot of time I can promise you that. Most guys in our league spend as much time smack talking via texts and emails as they do actually preparing their team for the next week’s games. My phone goes crazy from all the texts during fantasy football season. You have to have unlimited texting and data if you play fantasy football.
Q: There is a reason why I’ve come to know your league and some of its members. It’s a pretty strange and outrageous story, but I think it’s family friendly at least. Please share with the audience how my name became synonymous with your fantasy football league.
DP: Well, that is a good story. One of our league owners is my buddy, Reed from college. He has this unbelievable ability to write silly stories that are absolutely hilarious even though most of those stories are making fun of me in some way. In fact, he used to write articles when we were in college about all the stupid things we did. When he joined our league, he took up writing articles again about our fantasy football league and emailing them to the league members. He lives in Madison, Wis., but always tries to have his stories relevant to the Brainerd lakes area. So, years ago, he went online and learned that the Brainerd Dispatch had this sports writer by the name of Jeremy Millsop. Reed would then write articles about our fantasy league and always sign them as Jeremy Millsop from the Brainerd Dispatch. His articles would usually be about Jeremy Millsop from the Brainerd Dispatch interviewing a league owner about their losing streak or starting the wrong player or something like that. A number of years ago, Reed and his family were coming to Brainerd to visit us so I had the great idea of inviting the real Jeremy Millsop to meet Reed, the fake Jeremy Millsop. I had not met the real Jeremy before, but I called the office of the Dispatch and left a message for you to call me because I wanted you to meet someone. I honestly cannot believe that you ever called me back, but you did and you even showed up to surprise my buddy Reed. I will never forget the look on his face when you walked up to him and asked him if he knew who you were. He had no clue. So funny! So, the PFFL even has it own sports reporter by the name of Jeremy Millsop.were. He had no clue. So funny! So, the PFFL even has it own sports reporter by the name of Jeremy Millsop.