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Thursday, December 31, 2009
Updated: January 2, 11:34 AM ET
From convinced to winning convincingly

By Jim Wilkie

Matt Willig had to be talked into playing fantasy football, but now the former NFL offensive lineman is close to taking the title after his Calabasas Clueless took a commanding 105-66 lead over Kenny Wayne Shepherd's KWS Domination in the first half of the championship for the Alice in Chains & Friends Charity League.

Matt Willig
Matt Willig's NFL expertise and common sense have him on the verge of a fantasy football title in his first try.

Willig said he got to know league organizer Jerry Cantrell better through some poker events, and the Alice in Chains guitarist wanted to include him with the group of musicians he'd recruited for the charity league.

"He said, 'We would love for you to join,' and I'm like, 'Gee, I don't know if I really want to do this, it's not really my style. I don't really get it,'" Willig said in a phone interview Wednesday. "He goes, 'No, ESPN's doing the whole thing, they'll cover it. It will be really easy to do. It requires a little bit of studying pre-draft and you're good.'"

But Cantrell had to up the ante a bit to rope in his poker buddy.

"When Jerry talked to me and wanted me to do it I said, 'OK, here's the deal. I'll do it if you can give me backstage passes,'" said Willig, 40. "They were coming up to a concert in L.A. before the season started. I said, 'You get me backstage passes to the concert and I'll do it.' That was all it took, man."

In fact, Willig first met Cantrell after a concert a few years ago when the band's head of security -- who played football for Arizona against Willig's USC Trojans -- introduced them.

"This is right after a concert, you know, he's sweating and he's tired, he says, 'What are you doing right now?' I said, 'Nothing.' He says, 'Come on back,'" Willig recalled. "So we went back and he pops on his computer and he was like, 'OK, so I'm in this fantasy football league … and he immediately goes into, 'Who do you like? Who do you think will do this and that?' And at the time I was like, 'Come on, man. First of all, it's really cool to meet you, and I never figured you were into fantasy football.'"

Willig, who has transitioned into an acting career that has included parts in Showtime's "Dexter" and the film "Year One," laughed and said, "It's funny, because athletes want to be rockers and vice versa."

After initially doing little roster juggling because he didn't want to "overdo it," Willig said he quickly realized it didn't take that much work to manage his team and have more fun with it.

"Right around Week 4 or 5 I started spending about 20 minutes on it a week. And that was really all I did, just to kind of see where I was and [make] little changes," he said. "And those little changes started to add up.

"And I'll be honest, I kind of got into it a little bit. My wife was going, 'Oh my God, we've created a monster over here.' And it made watching the games fun. And I got lucky with some guys that were pretty consistent all the way around."

Having played as long as I did, I realize that the more you play, the more you think you understand about the game, the less it can help you. … I just used some common sense, like everybody else did.

-- Matt Willig

One of his best moves was grabbing San Francisco's Vernon Davis off waivers Oct. 1 and watching him boost Clueless' point totals while climbing to the No. 2 ranking among tight ends as of last week. Drafting Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson (both ranked No. 1 at their positions) helped a bunch, too, but Willig dismisses the idea that 12 seasons in the NFL with the Jets, Falcons, Packers, 49ers, Panthers and Rams gave him much of an edge.

"Having played as long as I did, I realize that the more you play, the more you think you understand about the game, the less it can help you," Willig said with a laugh. "I really didn't, I just used some common sense, like everybody else did.

"What I thought was really important was to get in as soon as I could on a Tuesday and as soon as I could pick up a couple guys before anyone else grabbed 'em. And it worked for me early on, because I was able to be high up in the acquisition order to pick up a couple key guys at different times, and it just really worked [out with] a couple of defensive team moves."

Now the fantasy football rookie is on the verge of reaping a nice sum of money for St. Jude Children's Hospital, because proceeds from the upcoming auction of items donated by each of the fantasy league's owners will go to the champion's choice of charity.

Willig said he chose St. Jude because he wanted to help kids, and he was looking for a charity that was involved in cancer research, because both his mother and a brother have died from the disease in the past couple of years.

"I'd worked with them several years ago in the NFL for one or two things, and I just really love what they do for kids, and what they do as far as taking everything available for families and kind of just taking care of everything so the kids can concentrate on getting healthy and getting better," he said. "I really dig that, and I think it's a really great charity."

If Shepherd, a fellow fantasy football rookie, manages a comeback, he will direct the proceeds to Mending Kids International, which organizes, finances and provides medical care for needy children around the world.

Shepherd's team -- which led the league with 1,320 points and had the best record in the regular season -- was hurt by the Indianapolis Colts resting quarterback Peyton Manning in the second half last week, but Willig's team also seems to have hit its stride at the right time.

"I don't know how often it happens," Willig said. "But it comes at a time when obviously these guys have already, the Peyton Mannings, have kind of already established where they're at. And like last week they put him down and that really helped me. Now I had a good week all the way around and ended up scoring some points, but yeah, it's really interesting.

"Like I said, I'd never done this. I didn't realize, No. 1, that the playoffs kind of happened before the actual playoffs, which makes sense. And No. 2, the fact that these teams have already made the playoffs and are kind of resting their guys has kind of hurt [Shepherd]. And he -- man, he was scoring unbelievable points."

Here are the final regular-season standings, with a look ahead to this weekend's final-round postseason matchups (mouse over the photos for bios of the participants):