Byline: Bart Hubbuch, Times-Union sports writer
They track down Peyton Manning in airports.
They come up to Fred Taylor in restaurants and grocery stores.
They won't let Tony Gonzalez have one moment of peace at the local movie theater.
They all say the same thing:
" 'Play good for me, because I'm starting you this week,' " said Taylor, the Jaguars running back. "If I've heard that once, I've heard it a million times. I'm telling you, it never ends.''
They are fantasy football players. They are what NFL stars -- particularly quarterbacks, running backs and receivers -- once considered amusing but now sometimes view as annoying.
For such on-the-field players as Manning, Taylor and Gonzalez, there is no escape from the fantasy owner on the street because there is no slowing the interest in fantasy football.
According to trade groups, at least 12 million people now occupy their fall and winter weekends by "drafting'' players off NFL rosters and competing against friends in games and leagues decided by the statistical performances of those players.
It's an offshoot of rotisserie league baseball and office football pools, both of which have been around for decades. And it appears to be turning into a nothing short of a national obsession.
Fantasy football has nothing to do with the actual NFL teams, which is why Manning knows that thousands of people will eagerly watch him quarterback the Indianapolis Colts against the Jaguars today without caring one bit about who wins or loses.
"They'll come up to me in the airport and won't even ask for my autograph or ask about the game,'' Manning said. "They just care that I'm their fantasy quarterback or that Marvin Harrison is their fantasy receiver, so I should throw it to him a lot.''
The nationwide rise of fantasy football also is fattening the financial bottom line of a whole host of magazines, Internet sites and even the NFL itself.
With fantasy football foremost on its in mind, the league last year sold its online rights to America Online, Viacom and CBS Sportsline in a deal worth a reported $300 million over five years.
The NFL also has its own fantasy football service, part of which is free -- at least for the time being -- that ballooned last year to more than 1.8 million players from just 300,000 when it started in 2000.
"The growth in interest in fantasy football has been tremendous just in the past five years,'' said Chris Russo, the NFL's senior vice president for new media and publishing. "It's really gone through the roof.''
Easy to get hooked
The formula for the rise of fantasy football is no mystery: The NFL is the most popular spectator sport in the United States, and the Internet has made simple the once-arduous task of compiling fantasy statistics and standings.
As a result, friends and acquaintances from around the globe can square off in complicated fantasy leagues each week with minimal effort.
"The wonderful thing about fantasy football is the community it creates among the fantasy players,'' the NFL's Russo said. "Friends from college, even 10 or 15 years later, are keeping in contact because of these leagues.''
The rise in fantasy football also is creating a legion of "fantasy widows'' -- people whose significant others have an endless, fantasy-fueled appetite for NFL football on Sundays and Mondays this time of year.
The fantasy-widow phenomenon is no joke. Research by the league shows that fantasy players watch as much as three more hours of NFL football each week than non-fantasy players.
Aaron Dalin, a 28-year-old manager of business development for CNN in New York, willingly includes himself among the ranks of fantasy addicts.
Dalin, who competes in fantasy football with high school friends in Jacksonville, has three fantasy teams and also is in charge of running an entire fantasy league. …