Steve Gardner has been busy at his computer this football season researching statistics and checking the progress of his fantasy football teams.  SUBMITTED PHOTO
Steve Gardner has been busy at his computer this football season researching statistics and checking the progress of his fantasy football teams. SUBMITTED PHOTO
Steve Gardner has always loved sports. The 1987 graduate of Spring Valley High School gained recognition on the playing fields and was known for always having an answer when a sports question came up during his years as a student here.

Yet, few people back then knew he also had a passion for the imaginary side of sports - specifically fantasy football, which was an obscure pastime enjoyed by few people back in the early 1980s. In fantasy football, individuals compete against each other as general managers building virtual teams from real NFL players, using their statistics to determine points in fantasy games.

Today, fantasy football is mainstream, enjoyed by more than 20 million people. Gardner, now living in California, has gained recognition as one of the best in the country. He was recently elected to the Toyota Legends of Fantasy Football Hall of Fame.

His passion for fantasy football has led him to win 36 championships and 94 trophies in the last decade, during which he has managed more than 280 teams, many of them in leagues on yahoo.com.

As a student at Spring Valley three decades ago, he played three sports, lettering seven times. Baseball was his main sport as he lettered four times and was named all-conference, all-district and even to the all-state team of the week in his senior year.

He has saved all the articles and photographs of him that were published in the Spring Valley Tribune, even today still recalling the pass he intercepted against Chatfield on Seniors Day while playing for the Wolves in 1987.

His love of sports statistics helped him in fantasy football, which he started playing in eighth grade when Joe Albertson invited him over to his house to hold their first draft together. It was just the two of them in the league.

"Needless, to say Joe and I had some really good team's that year," said Gardner.

Things were different back then. Leagues compiled results from the daily newspaper, not websites, which is the case now. Gardner had an advantage. He delivered the Rochester Post Bulletin, so always had access to the statistics that drive the hobby.

He was also a faithful participant in the Spring Valley Tribune's football contest and did some work for the Tribune, learning about the newspaper business from the inside.

He won his first fantasy football contest that earned prize money at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, where he obtained a sports management degree. He made the baseball team there as a freshman, but never played a game as "I was more focused on other extracurricular activities in La Crosse," he said.

His interest in sports led to jobs in real sports, such as working for the New Orleans Saints summer training camp two years while he was a student at La Crosse, and working for the Sacramento River Cats, the Triple A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics in 2002.

Today, he is a sales representative for build.com, an online home improvement store in Chico. However, he wishes he could get paid for managing fantasy football since he spends so much time scouring the waiver wire and adjusting his lineups.

"I spend about 40 hours a week, and working overtime doing it," Gardner told television station KRCR in Chico for a story on his quest for the Hall of Fame. "I'm watching the NFL Channel and ESPN, and all of the sports shows."

"The thrill is when you're watching football, fantasy football is the game within the game. You don't have to necessarily cheer for your favorite team. So not only are you into the game, you feel like you're a part of the game."

The Toyota Hall of Fame started in 2010, becoming the only hall dedicated exclusively to the best in fantasy football. Five fantasy football enthusiasts are elected to the hall each year and four honorary members were originally named, putting Gardner in a select group of 19 individuals from across the country.

He even has a bronze bust online at the Hall of Fame site (toyotahalloffame.com). The site also has a video of his campaign speech.

So what is the key to his success?

"I've developed an understanding of how players are used in the game plan to develop my lineup - working hard, putting in countless hours looking at my lineups," he said. "I have found that a couple of the keys to being a Hall of Fame caliber player are patience and consistency - knowing when and where to pull the trigger."

He also has sought out the best players in the Yahoo leagues to compete against.

Although trash-talking is a regular part of fantasy football, Gardner notes that his opponents - strangers, friends and family - "have been a great inspiration in helping me stay at the top of my game. I look at these players more as my teammates than my adversaries. Proverbs 27:17 says, 'As iron sharpens iron so one person sharpens another.'"

The sports enthusiast has even started his own fantasy sports blog (www.fantasygardner.com) that includes advice and insight on not just football, but other sports.

On his blog, he noted that he had projected a Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl since early in the season.

In fantasy football, the season typically ends earlier with playoffs during the regular season. He managed six fantasy football teams in 2013, winning one championship and getting three second place trophies and one third place trophy.

He competes against some of the best competition at Yahoo, so he was happy with his showing.

His championship victory was one of the most exciting finishes ever for him. He ended up winning by 1.57 points when Tony Gonzalez made his last catch ever on Monday Night Football in the final seconds of the Atlanta Falcons game against the San Francisco 49ers.

"Now that was one crazy finish to a game as far as fantasy implications go," he said.

However, his election to the Hall of Fame is the crowning achievement of the year. He even received a Hall of Fame jacket that is similar to the one real NFL players get when they are elected.

"It sure is great to be recognized for something I really enjoy doing," he said.