Gambling on College Football Almost Fixed My Dysfunctional Family

My first mistake was feeling sorry for him.

The first season my brother and I bet on college football against each other, I beat him so badly I often bragged I could have lost every single game we gambled on for the rest of the decade and still finished in the money.

Each week, we would agree to disagree on five games across the N.C.A.A. schedule. Each win was worth a dollar. Whoever won the most games of the five we selected cashed an additional five bucks. Best out of five, winner takes all for a maximum potential profit of $10 for the weekend.

He couldn’t have owed me more than $100 — we weren’t kids anymore, making outrageous wagers on games of blackjack at the kitchen table neither of us could have paid off in three lifetimes — but I still didn’t have the heart to make him pay up.

The next year, after torching him a second season in a row, I gave him a book as a joke — “Handicapping College Football for Beginners,” which he told me he relegated to the washroom magazine basket.

I didn’t realize it then, but he was setting me up.

Later he admitted to reading it every chance he got. Studying. Formulas, strategies, all of it. By season three, he cleaned my clock. Our father soon inserted himself into the competition, which, over the past almost 20 years, came to represent our relationship: We went from being a dysfunctional trio of man-children who didn’t have the language to express our feelings to discovering that our mutual love of competition and one-upmanship gave us the language we needed to reconnect.

And then came the coronavirus.

As of June, in response to concerns over the coronavirus, the N.C.A.A. Division I Football Oversight Committee announced their approval of a plan that would allow teams to transition from voluntary workouts to mandatory meetings and preseason camps — just like any other year. But by the end of July, five Division I conferences had canceled their seasons outright. Others, in a last-ditch effort to play something in 2020, are leaning toward playing “conference only” or “plus one” schedules to minimize travel and mitigate risk. The closer we got to August, the more it seemed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been clear in his position from the outset, may have been right after all: “Football may not happen this year.”

My little brother and I remain hopeful that won’t be the case. Five years apart, we were never especially close. Growing up, I’d put him through the wringer.

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When I was 8, and he was 3, I nearly took his eye out with a dead tree branch. He still has a scar above his brow. In high school, my friends and I would wrestle him to the ground, strip him down to his Fruit of the Looms, force him onto the front lawn, and make him run around the block in his skivvies before we let him back in the house. He still delights in telling that story to showcase what kind of brother I was, but there are plenty of other examples. I’ve made Baby Bro steal beer from a convenience store ice cooler, thrown him in the trunk of a friend’s car and done doughnuts in a snowy church parking lot, and run him over with a golf cart.

As adults, even when we both became dads, we weren’t doing much better, and I felt guilty. College football seemed like a good way to connect. But I had no idea what I was in for. It was payback time, and every win he tallied was sweet revenge.

“Hey. Who’s winning this week?” he would call any Saturday he was ahead, pretending not to know.

“Really,” I’d say. “You know good and well who’s winning.”

As much as I hated losing, I did my best to be happy for him.

The kid was due.

When he won in Season Four, evening the series at 2-2, I wasn’t bothered (much), and I wasn’t all that surprised either. After all, we’d both been raised in the same ultracompetitive, winner-takes-all environment.

Our dad never let us win at anything when we were kids. Not golf, not Go Fish. I tell myself now, he only wanted his boys to succeed — his desire to win was that great — but to say that my dad was an enthusiastic spectator was putting it mildly.

Looking back, I imagine in my dad’s mind he was only teaching us to be tough, to never quit or back down — it was the 1970s and ’80s when a spanking was considered a valuable life lesson. So, it made sense after watching our competition from the sidelines for a couple of years the old man wanted in.

“You donkeys worried I’ll beat you too badly?” my dad goaded my brother one summer afternoon as he casually flipped through the pages of his Street & Smith’s “College Football Annual.”

I knew this was going to be a problem.

The man loved sports almost as much as he loved being right, which was a lot. Not only did we have to mastermind a way to manage a three-person, round robin format, but also keep our heads as my father continued what he’d done our entire childhood: reveling in every moment he won.

After every victory he took great pains to remind us, it would be a long time before we beat him at anything.

We were all supposed to be grown-ups, but most of the time we acted like 6-year-olds upset over a game of Chutes and Ladders that didn’t go our way.

We showed we cared by needling each other unmercifully anytime one of us wound up on the wrong end of the point spread.

Like the year my dad gave my brother and me second and third place medals to make sure we didn’t forget who had come out on top that season.

Or when visiting my parents once, my father introduced me to friends of his and my mother’s as “the one who finished in last place” the year before.

I still don’t know half of what I should about my brother, or agree with all the things he believes in. But I’m learning. That ratio skews much higher when it comes to my dad. I’ve realized my brother, dad and I aren’t all that different. We all want to be heard, each of us wants to be seen, and above all, each of us wants to win. After almost 20 years of this, our bonds are stronger than ever.

As disappointing as the prospect may be, whether college football happens this year or not, at least now I have a reason to call.

The bonds we’ve worked so hard to build — even if they’ve come from trash talking each other over our latest win-loss records — are in danger of being lost. If Covid takes that away from us, we’ll just have to find something else to fight, I mean, connect over.

Mike Evans is a writer and television producer living in Los Angeles. He is currently at work on a memoir.


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