By Ryan Cornell
STRASBURG -- It's one of the most sacred days of the year for sports fans. And the 14 guys of the Valley Fantasy Football League treat it as such.
Each draft day the members of the league, most of whom became friends at Strasburg High School, return to their hometown the day before Labor Day to pick their players. In fact, it's a requirement to show up. One of the members, Jeff Whittle, makes the annual trip up from Charleston, S.C., where he coaches basketball and teaches physical education classes.
Andrew Dellinger said his wife came home from the hospital with their newborn daughter on last year's draft day.
"We had our second child on Aug. 31, which was a Friday, and I made it to the draft on Sunday," he said. "My wife made it out of the hospital in the morning, but I still made it to the draft."
League Commissioner Ben Stine joked, "He was actually early for the draft."
On Sunday, the sanctity of their fantasy draft was no different. For three and a half hours, the friends gathered in a basement in northern Strasburg and tilted back cheap beers. They joked about drafting Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez. Away from their wives and children for the day, they lobbed profanity-laden insults at each other like they were back in high school.
The league actually started a little bit before those days, when Stine was in eighth grade. At the time, Steve Young and Barry Sanders were stars, Edgerrin James was a rookie and the league only had eight members. But other than adding six new teams nearly a decade ago, not much else has changed.
They still randomize the draft order by hand. They still write their picks on a dry erase board. And they still give out the league trophy each year and add the winner's name to a list of past champions engraved on it.
Last season, Allan Daly won the league with his unbeatable team, "Off in Church." Although he was lucky enough to score the first pick on Sunday and select Adrian Peterson, he's well aware that anything can happen during the football season.
"I couldn't go wrong with Peterson," he said. "The rest is going to depend on the health of [Demarco] Murray and [Hakeem] Nicks."
Daly, who joined the Valley Fantasy Football League four years ago when someone dropped out, said there's a sizable waiting list to join the league.
"I don't know how many repeats there have been in the league," he said. "I don't think there's ever been a repeat champion."
The second pick went to Doug Martin, a high-scoring running back from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It looked like the draft was going to follow the order of most mock drafts and expert predictions...until the very next pick.
Regis Arnold, a diehard Redskins fan who said his first fantasy pick ever was Art Monk, chose Alfred Morris as the third overall pick. Three rounds later, he added Robert Griffin III. He said he's never played a Dallas Cowboy on his fantasy team, "Touchdown My Pants."
"Most of us will throw out our Redskins allegiance and actually look at stats and everything else and realize this is a competition and try to win," Dellinger said. "That guy doesn't care."
"You draft with your brain, not your heart," Stine said. He advised that fantasy team owners should try to load up on as many running backs as they can in the first rounds of the draft.
Although most of the members graduated high school between 1999 and 2004, Frank Conner is the father of another one of the members and has 27 years of experience playing fantasy football. In a surprise move, he took Dez Bryant for his seventh pick.
Some of the members play other fantasy sports -- college football, baseball, golf and NASCAR -- but this is the most significant of them all. It's the one with the most bragging rights and the most intense rivalries.
Stine said there was a draft one year where Arnold and Adam Wilson, another league member, spent an hour during the draft arguing with each other.
"I'm going to name my team, 'Regis,' because that's how much I hate them," Wilson said. He added that out of all the years he's been in the league, he's never finished higher than 10th place.
"Adam will have some great draft picks," Dellinger said. "But he's quick to trade. He's on the waiver wire trading at night."
Compared with some nightmare picks that day, his team, led by Marshawn Lynch and Peyton Manning, was looking like a serious playoff contender.
Sitting near the back of the room, Jason Fream picked up Jay Cutler, not realizing that he had the same bye week as Andrew Luck, his starting quarterback.
Arnold spent his ninth round pick on Michael Crabtree, a wide receiver who tore his Achilles tendon. ESPN reports that he won't be back on the field earlier than November.
That same round, Dellinger wound up taking Danario Alexander, who tore his right ACL last month and will miss the entire season.
Stine recalled 2011's "controversy of controversies," when Arnold decided to add Mikel Leshoure, a running back who would miss his entire rookie season, in the third round.
"We let him take him and he was hurt and we let him take him off the board," Stine said. "And now we've not done that since. If they're hurt, whoever you say goes up there and stays."
The best pick of draft day went to either Tom Brady, who was selected in the fourth round, or Rob Gronkowski, who went in the sixth.
After the draft, Stine enters the roster information to ESPN.com, where the league is computerized and the match-ups are scored.
Usually it takes longer than four hours for them to draft, one league member said, and it usually depends on how many actual fistfights there are.
"I might retire from fantasy football," Arnold joked. "It's getting old and the concussions are taking its toll."
Contact Staff Writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org