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SALEM — There are memorable fantasy football seasons, and then there's the season Nathan Harrington had.
Harrington, a Salem native, bested some 30,000 competitors to finish No. 1 among prize-eligible fantasy football leagues this season on ESPN.com. He did it all despite a crippling car accident, despite having no permanent residence and no computer. It's a feat not even the most ardent fantasy owners would dare to dream possible, and it has him on the verge of finding a new home.
"It was a ton of bad luck and good luck all rolled into one," Harrington said yesterday.
The bad luck began in the fall of 2009 when a car accident left Harrington with nerve damage and unable to work.
It got worse in October of last year when Harrington, his fiancee and his 3-year-old son were forced to move out of their Beverly apartment because the building was so infested with rats it was unlivable. The family was forced to move into a cheap motel; Harrington's computer went into a storage unit.
However, just four weeks into the new football season and practically homeless, Harrington found one piece of hope to cling to: His fantasy team was ranked in the top 50 of more than 3 million teams on ESPN.com. (A spokesman for ESPN explained that while 3 million teams play, only about 30,000 are eligible for prizes.) It became a salvation of sorts, and he put everything he had into it.
"My fantasy football was the one thing that kind of seemed to be going right at the time," Harrington said. "There was a lot to be upset about, but the one thing that was steady and heading in a positive direction was the fantasy football. So I thought I might as well stick with it and ride it out. Thank God I did."
He knocked on strangers' doors at the motel to ask if he could use their computer. He used the computer at the Blueberry Hill nursing home in Beverly, where his father was staying, to check the waiver wire. He went to his mother's house. He called in lineup changes to friends. He even made his fiancee, Gabby, pull the car over and wait outside the Beverly library so he could check his lineup.
"She laughs about it now," Harrington says. "But there were times when she was really mad at me."
He tried to explain, to no avail.
"I'm in the top 50, of maybe 10,000 people, maybe more," he told her over and over, not realizing until after he had won how many actually play.
When Harrington was able to get online, the 33-year-old proved to be a savvy general manager.
He made 26 transactions over the course of the season, and they all worked. Players who hadn't scored in double digits all season suddenly turned into scoring machines once they were picked up by the Boston Beatdowns, the name of Harrington's team.
Through early trades, he acquired running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe. Bowe finished as the second-ranked wide receiver in fantasy this year, and Peterson was the second-ranked running back. While sitting at the nursing home computer in late September, he added Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, the year's top-ranked receiver, through free agency. Harrington also had the foresight to draft surprise top performer Arian Foster, the top running back in fantasy football this season.
"There's a ton of common sense in fantasy football and a ton of luck. Roll with your gut and just do it, it worked for me," he said.
Harrington used his gut to nail the biggest move of his season on the final week. After his quarterback, Tony Romo, suffered a season ending injury early on, Harrington went with a hodgepodge of journeymen at the position, including Matt Cassel, Carson Palmer, Shawn Hill, Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler and John Kitna. Sitting in seventh place on ESPN.com in the final week of the season, and needing to score big to get to first, Harrington had no idea what to do at QB. Should he go with Cassel, take a shot off waivers with Josh Freeman or upstart rookie Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos?
"I was sitting at my mother's computer going nuts," he said, recalling the debate about whether to put Tebow in the lineup. "I thought 'I'm going to live with this guy, or die with this guy.' I put him in, then took him out. I was thinking 'I can't put everything on Tebow.'"
Then, Harrington's 17-year-old son, Nathan Jr., chimed in.
"Just go with Tebow," he told his dad.
"This is right before 1 p.m., right at crunch time, I had a matter of minutes to get him in," Harrington said.
Tebow paid off big, throwing two touchdowns and running for another in a 27-point performance in the last week against San Diego. It was just enough to put Harrington over the top — by 0.8 points. It was so close, though, that any changes to the stat sheet, even a single yard, might have cost him the top prize — the NFL has until the following Saturday to finalize the week's official stats.
"All week I was freaking out," Harrington said. The score held.
For winning, Harrington received a $3,500 gift certificate to Best Buy, which he is selling to his mother for $2,500. He's going to use the cash to help he and his family move into a new apartment.
"My fiancee says she's never going to say a word about fantasy football when I'm on the computer again," Harrington said.