• Senior Fantasy analyst for ESPN
    • Member, FSWA and FSTA Halls of Fame
    • Best-selling author of “Fantasy Life”

“How Fantasy Football saved my friend’s life.”

As you might imagine, the title of an email from Lee Cook, whom I did not know at the time, immediately stood out.

Lee is the commissioner of the 12-team “Gettin’ It Done” league out of Williamston, North Carolina. Now in its 11th season, it’s a non-PPR redraft league of Lee’s friends, with almost all of them having been in since the league was formed. And among those friends is one named Leavy Moore.

A teacher at Williamston’s Riverside Middle School, Leavy is known for his patience, kindness and optimism. Lee tells me, “I’ve never heard him complain, he always has a bright smile.” Traits that served him well as he dealt with the ISS (in-school suspension) department at his school. Whether it was because of issues at home, behavioral or learning challenges in school, or any of myriad things, when the kids had issues in school, they got sent to Leavy.

He was also the school’s assistant coach for football and helped coach both the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams for Riverside. Leavy loved his kids, and his kids loved Leavy. As did his co-workers, which turned out to be crucial.

In February 2017, Leavy’s mother, Carrie Moore, suffered a stroke. And sadly, soon after that, she passed away due to complications. Leavy, as you might imagine, was distraught. He buried himself in his work, trying to distract himself from the pain he felt from losing his mother.

Leavy has diabetes, and although he was taking his insulin, he admitted to me that he was distracted by his mother’s death and wasn’t testing his blood sugar levels like he was supposed to. He had also caught the flu and was sick at home dealing with that when he, well … he doesn’t remember. He has no recollection what happened next.

That’s because he had fallen unconscious.

Leavy never missed a day of work, so when he didn’t show up at school, his principal became worried. He and the school nurse came to Leavy’s house and found him on the floor, unresponsive. He was sent by ambulance to the local hospital and soon after arriving there was airlifted to UNC Chapel Hill Medical Center.

Leavy was in a coma for more than two months.

The last thing he remembers: He was in his living room. And then he woke up in a strange bed and saw his sister standing over him. “Something must be wrong,” he thought to himself. “Why is my sister here?” He told me it was one of the scariest moments of his life, not knowing where he was, not being able to speak, hooked up to every wire imaginable with his sister (who didn’t live in the state) standing over him.

Over the next week, they slowly started removing tubes, making sure he could do simple things like chew and swallow on his own. They wanted to make sure he didn’t fall back into a coma. Which is why they waited a full week to tell him the really bad news.

Turns out the coma was the least of his issues. While he was unconscious, the flu had turned to pneumonia. And then sepsis had started to set in.

As a result, they told him, he had only one chance at survival. They had to amputate both of his feet.

And both of his hands.

Leavy resisted at first, not wanting to accept it, refusing the surgery, until one day, he said, he smelled it. His arms lying on his chest. He told me, “I had never smelled death before, but that day, I knew. I smelled it. I smelled my arms. They were dead. I just knew. My arms were dead.”

He reluctantly accepted the surgery, and that was that.

Post-surgery, Leavy said, “I went to a really dark place. I am a spiritual man and I am embarrassed to admit this, but I got really down. Why me? Why now? I kept thinking my life is over. I loved my job at the school, and now I couldn’t work anymore. What am I going to do with my life?”

He told me he would hide under the covers in his bed, pulling the sheets over him and not moving for hours, refusing to eat. That summer he would lie there, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, thinking the same thoughts. “I went through some real evil moments. What is my purpose now? Why didn’t I die? Why?” he said. “Am I still living?”

Leavy didn’t want visitors, and when the phone rang, he didn’t want to answer it. But this call was important, he was told. So he took the call.

It was Lee, calling to talk about the plans for fantasy football draft day. Leavy wasn’t in that mindset, but Lee wouldn’t hear of it. They have drafted in person every year since 2011, and this year would be no different. Leavy was joining them for the draft, just like always, and Lee wouldn’t accept any answer other than yes.

“Lee said to me, ‘Look, we ain’t doing the league without you. We just aren’t.'”

Leavy didn’t want to be the reason the league broke up, and he and Lee started talking often that summer, about fantasy football, about the draft, about pretty much everything but Leavy’s condition.

Fantasy football gave Leavy an escape.

“Talking about the league, thinking about seeing my buddies, it fired me up,” he said. “It gave me a whole bunch of energy that I hadn’t had before.”

Draft day is always one of Leavy’s favorite days of the year, and knowing he was going to see many of his friends for the first time since his surgery inspired him.

“I used to think, ‘I’m gonna die here.’ But the idea of the draft brought me out of that dark place, ” he said. “I thought, ‘I want to be in a good place for the draft. I worked hard at it.'”

When you lose your arms and legs, you have to learn everything over. Everything. “Even just rolling over; I had to relearn how to roll myself over,” he said. “I had to learn how to sit up. Like, I would sit up for 10 seconds and then tilt over again.”

Every single thing, even the smallest, simplest thing that many of us take for granted every day, like being able to sit down in a chair, Leavy had to relearn in his new reality. But the hospital staff helped him a lot, he said. People worked with him, trained him, gave him a prosthetic and a stylus that he can use on a computer to write. Or, you know, to manage a fantasy team.

With draft day on the horizon, Leavy’s attitude improved. He started reading the letters his students sent him. “You always tell us not to give up, Mr. Moore. You can do this!” His friends, family and co-workers visited. The nursing staff at the hospital, he told me, never wavered in its encouragement and the message that he could still live a full life, helping him with his therapy and showing him videos of how to use his new prosthetics.

He got an electric wheelchair he could drive, and he forced himself to go outside his hospital room, to go to a coffee shop just to see how people would react to him. He was bracing for the worst. “But people were actually really nice to me,” he said.

When draft day came, Leavy had made significant progress. “I could get up in a chair all by myself, I could use my stylus, I could drive my wheelchair.” And when Lee showed up, he had another surprise for Leavy. They weren’t driving to the draft.

The draft had driven to him.

Most of the league lived hundreds of miles away, but they all drove to the hospital to make sure they drafted with Leavy. Lee had secretly arranged it with the hospital — “They were incredibly accommodating” — and the group was set up in a conference room.

“When I saw my friends were all there, the whole league, I broke down and cried,” he said. “I don’t cry often, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop the tears. It meant so much to me.”

As Lee, who has been Leavy’s close friend for many years, said to me, “His mindset was very bleak, but he told me that having that fantasy draft to look forward to, and then that team to manage, not only gave him a purpose but an outlet for relaxation and enjoyment that he didn’t think would ever be available to him again.

“Fantasy football saved my friend’s life.”

Leavy would spend the next two years in a rehab facility before finally being able to move back home. He says he is still learning but moves around pretty well and is hopeful he can find a job soon. So if anyone near the town of Robersonville, North Carolina, wants to get in touch with him, or you just want to send him encouragement, holler at him on Twitter @BigL269. He loves working with kids, and on our call he was beaming with pride as he talked about some of his former students — he keeps in touch with many of them — who are now student-athletes in college.

When I thanked Leavy for sharing his story with me and told him I was flattered that he entrusted it to me, he said something that really struck home: “I want people to know that no matter how bad off you are, no matter how low you are, there is always somebody who has it worse. I was in such a bad place, I thought no one could have it worse than me, and then I saw some stuff that made me think, ‘Thank God I’m just a quad amputee.’ …”

“Count your blessings. There’s always somebody worse off.”

Leavy’s original league is still going strong, and Leavy is now in three leagues, including a dynasty league that he and Lee started together this year. I mean, hey, they’re friends for life — might as well play fantasy for life, right?

“When something like this happens to you,” Leavy told me. “You find out quickly who your real friends are. My fantasy guys showed up for me.”

I have no doubt, Leavy. I have no doubt.

Let’s get to it.

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