Inside a third-floor studio in Sunset Park, a 44-year-old artist from Cleveland hand-sculpts clay models of middle-aged men reclining in easy chairs. In one hand, the men hold a remote control; in the other, a beer. They are dressed for a life of leisure: socks, slippers, boxer-briefs, and flimsy tank-tops. Guts pop out from beneath their shirts. When a model is complete, the artist makes a mold from it and casts it in a hard resin. As a final touch, he brushes a liquid on the surface that, when dry, makes the man look like solid bronze. A hefty oak base is attached to the bottom of the recliner–a formal throne added to the one the model sits in.
In just under two decades, men and women (though fewer of those) across the planet have come to covet these figures made by Dave Mitri. Each year, he ships hundreds of his sculptures to far-flung homes, where they are displayed with pride on fireplace mantles and in living rooms. To date, at least one of the trophies exists in all fifty states, and in countries ranging from Australia to Scotland. A few years ago, Jay Z had his name added to one. (It reads “Shawn Carter.”)
No other operation is quite like Fantasytrophies.com, the business Mitri created in his parents’ garage in the mid-90s and now runs out of his production space across from a halal slaughter house in Brooklyn. And right now is one of his busiest times of year—the run up to the first game of football season on September 10.
Among fantasy leagues with a trophy from Fantasytrophies.com, the ultimate prize has nothing to do with cash. Far more valuable are the bragging rights that come with beating every friend and family member who worked obsessively to build indomitable imaginary rosters of quarterbacks, tight ends, linebackers, defensive linemen, wide receivers, and on and on. Mitri’s Armchair Quarterback is a monument to that victory, and the ultimate redemption for the ceaseless trash talk endured along the way. There is, quite simply, no amount of money that feels better than that.
Mitri was never a good player (he stayed scrawny into high school), though he excelled as a football fan. But because he’s from Cleveland, to this day, he has never experienced the glory of a hometown sports championship. All of Northeast Ohio is plagued by this curse, including his favorite team, the Browns. He got a job as an usher at the Browns’ stadium, and was present on the day of the most colossal disappointment in team history. On January 11, 1987, the Browns faced the Broncos for the AFC Championship. A win would send them to the Super Bowl. With five minutes to play, the Browns were up. Fifteen plays later, with only 37 second remaining, Denver quarterback John Elway capped off a 98-yard drive and tied the game. The Browns lost in overtime. Mitri watched the tragedy unfold live. His devastation was total.
Three years later, he was at a bar in Cleveland with his friend Dan. A fantasy draft was happening with a bunch of guys he didn’t know. One of them was absent, and they asked Mitri and Dan to stand in. The year was 1990 and, as first-time fantasy players, they won the league. The commissioner skipped town with all the money, but it didn’t matter. The thrill of victory was enough. Mitri and his friend decided to start a league of their own.
Mitri thought they should play for a trophy, but the kind he wanted didn’t exist. “I wanted something that would really speak to how I felt about fantasy football,” said Mitri–sitting around with friends, holding a remote, and drinking beer. Basically, “You just watch football.” (Mitri would splice a cable in half in his parents’ basement and attach each end to two box sets. The league came over and watched prototype picture-in-picture games, before that existed.) At the time, he was studying studio painting at Kent State and had access to the sculpture department. He wanted his trophy to have a retro feel with a leather helmet and a neck roll, “like the middle linebackers would wear in the 70s so they wouldn’t get whiplash.” He thought it would be funny to combine that look with lazy-man loungewear. His cousin Johnny came over to model.
Mitri was in school, so it took him a long time to complete it. The unveiling finally arrived in 1995. No one knew about it but his buddy Mario. They concealed the trophy beneath a sheet, and, when it was lifted, Mitri recalled, “everyone literally went nuts.” All previous winners had been etched onto name plates. While he was in grad school in 1998, he made a weightier version from a dense resin, rather than plaster. “I didn’t want to sculpt the trophy, then you go to lift it and it’s like, oh, nothing,” Mitri reasoned. His league called their trophy The Fedele, after the guy who could lay on the ground and pour back an entire can of Genesee, without lifting his head.
Mitri knew how much his league loved the armchair quarterback and that other leagues would probably love one, too. He took Fedele to Browns games, passed out pamphlets, and displayed it on the back of his truck while tailgating. Fantasy players who saw it got it, and Mitri started to make some sales.
Then, the Internet arrived. Mitri and Mario got online one day and searched “fantasytrophies.com.” It was not taken. He became an e-commerce early adopter.
In 2001 Mitri moved to New York for a girl–now his wife, Suzi. September 11 was his first day in Brooklyn. He remembers standing on the roof of his new home, watching the towers burn to the ground.
Suzi didn’t love the trophies he stored under their bed, but she was supportive of his passion and encouraged him to pursue the business full time. Fantasy leagues were purchasing his trophies by the dozen without any advertising. His inventory expanded to include all fantasy sports–baseball, basketball, hockey, Nascar and golf. He sculpted a more classic football design, too, the Throwback: a player in the iconic Heisman pose, but instead of a football and a stiff arm, Mitri’s version carries a pack of beer and remote. And then he added a toilet trophy called “The Ultimate Loser” for the guy who comes in last place. Finally, he realized, he should make mini models that individual winners could keep for a more sustainable business model (a single armchair quarterback trophy can hold decades of winner nameplates. One league would make a purchase and never have to come back). Now, on draft day, past winners line up their minis in front of them, their spoils from seasons past, and the trash talk starts strong.
Fantasy sports began in 1980, the vision of ex-New York Times Public Editor, Daniel Okrent. His idea was based on Major League Baseball, a way of making the whole season and every team personally interesting by becoming a manager of an imaginerary team, culled from many. As detailed in a New Yorker profile this spring on the status of fantasy sports today, the first league was christened the Rotisserie League after Okrent and friends’ inaugural meeting at La Rotisserie Française (now long-since closed) on the Upper East Side.
But much like everything else, fantasy baseball and, eventually, every other fantasy sport, evolved with the internet. The analog version based on daily newspaper statistics over an entire season, and made of close friends and relatives has spawned a gigantic e-industry with strangers and corporate sponsors that looks nothing like the original. Okrent himself despises it. Not only do versions like daily fantasy limit statistics and players of interest to a single game day, thereby removing the game itself from the more interesting and nuanced context of a season, but the entire endeavor becomes the numbers. Daily fantasy, above all, is a parasite hobby that uses professional sports as its host, and billions of dollars are at stake.
To say the least, Internet fantasy is a far cry from the nascent fantasy leagues that were created to make an entire season more interesting if, for example, you were from Cleveland, and to provided a non-threatening excuse for staying in weekly touch with your uncles and closest friends from high school, i.e., a shared love of the game and, really, of each other. Ingeniously, fantasy leagues allow big groups of men to mask their feelings for one another as deeply bruising trash talk.
Mitri loves his league—which is made of all his high school friends from Cleveland–so much that he tried to convince his wife to let him fly back home for draft day when their daughter was about to be born. She didn’t let him go. He bought a large headset from Best Buy to join the guys virtually, and prayed Suzi didn’t go into labor. Their daughter was born one day before season-opening kick off. While his daughter slept peacefully in the room where all the babies hang out in the hospital, Mitri was in the lounge watching the game.
“The biggest thing about the trophy,” said Mitri, of that time, “if someone said: ‘You could win the pot or you could take the trophy,’ my wife knows, it’s not even close. You have to get your name on the trophy.” As far as Mitri can tell, there are no other trophies in the market quite like his. If people have imitated his design, the product is cheaper. There are, today, a couple places that make actual bronze versions, but they cost thousands of dollars. The large armchair quarterback sells for $325; split ten to twelve ways in a league, it’s cheap, and holds the entire history of the league. “That’s the coolest part. I have friends back in Cleveland where they say their wife absolutely hates it, because it’s so big and obnoxious. ‘I do not want Tom winning the league,” they’ll say. “‘I do not want that trophy in my house. It’s too big, it’s too ridiculous.”
If you’re not into fantasy sports, and if you’re not a firefighter or policeman, you might not have known that, among individual firehouses and police precincts, fantasy leagues are huge. One firehouse down in Florida found Fantasytrophies.com and wanted a bespoke trophy designed by Mitri. He was stoked, and did it, adding a fire ax and helmut with their station number on it. He did the same thing for a unit of cops in Brooklyn, who asked him to make an armchair quarterback with a donut, a club, handcuffs, and a gun. Dave added old school shades, a shoulder holster, and a mustache to give it his recognizable retro finish.
Still, the appeal of Fantasytrophies.com can’t be for everyone. Mitri says there will be times when someone will ask him what he does. “They’ll give me this look, like, how the hell do you make a business out of that?” Those people, of course, are the ones who don’t know that the fantasy subculture worldwide is more enormous than the fan base of any given sport except, maybe, cricket, or soccer (which is the only sport Mitri does not make a trophy for. With its lack of scoring and quick statistics, fantasy soccer is not really a thing).
Mitri says there are websites that try to calculate the number of hours wasted at work by people checking their fantasy lineup. “It is a ridiculous amount of time,” he said. “But that’s what’s so fascinating about today, you can make a business out of anything. Like, if there’s a niche market and people love it and you have a good product, that’s what’s so cool about it, especially in Brooklyn, where you run across such creative people.”
One year, the firefighters from Florida came to New York for a 9/11 memorial and got in touch with Mitri. They asked him to join them for beers at a hotel they were going to hang out at in lower Manhattan. Mitri was out of town. “I was so pissed,” he said. “Who thinks, ‘I’m traveling to New York, let me contact the guy who made my whatever,” said Mitri, “like, my jeans,'” he joked. “But this guy, he’s coming to New York for the 9/11 memorial and he’s like, yeah, let’s go see him.'”