With another fantasy football season merging into memory, I’m thinking about the guy we all knew by one name.
Mark Binker and I were like the 35 million other people around us. We played fantasy football — and we loved it.
We played against each other for a dozen years, and for the past several years, he’d arrive on my doorstep every January with his oldest son, Mason, bringing in a plastic tray of wings and four dangerous looking dipping cups that contained something reddish orange … or orangish red.
What I do know is that Binker and I would get into it within minutes of sitting in my den.
No, I’d tell him, I don’t think I’d ever want Tom Brady. Ever. You keep him. Oh, Antonio Brown? What about Antonio Brown.
I’d never trade him.
He’s a Steeler.
That’s my team.
Yeah, that’s right, you beat me by gazillion points that one time. But remember that game in late October? I beat you with that last-minute throw from Philip Rivers.
Slung it 50 yards, he did.
On a rope.
You WISH you had him.
You WISH you had him.
And so it went.
Over beer, wings and bowls of chips, Binker and the other members of our ESPN fantasy football league celebrated that way at the end of our season. One of us won the Super Bowl, another won the Toilet Bowl, and a handful of us gathered at my house to talk about what was and what we wanted to be on our next draft day.
We came together to watch the NFC or AFC championship.
But really, we came together to connect.
At one time or another, we all worked together at the News & Record. When we did, we often parked ourselves between phone calls over our prairie-dog partitions in that cavernous newsroom and talk about the whimsical fate of fantasy football.
We talked about how we won. But mostly, we talked about how we lost by some fluke of scoring or some seemingly magical play with minutes left that left us slack-jawed staring at the TV and thinking, ‘Wha’?’
That was always fun.
Jason Hardin formed our fantasy football league in 2005. Back then, we gave it an incredibly riveting name: the News & Record Fantasy Football League.
For the first few years, we gathered over beers and bad food in August and drafted our teams. I even brought in my son, Will, when he was 8 or 9, and we managed our team together.
Back then, we called ourselves the Two Tigers. You know, we were both born during the Year of the Tiger. That sort of thing. Thank my wife for that. Will is now 19, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill, and he now manages his own team with a new name — The Player Haters.
And mine? The Old Tiger.
Had to. And it had nothing to do with Clemson. Please. I’m a Gamecock.
Binker managed a team he always called the Right Honorable Gentlemen. He was a political reporter – and a damn good one at that – and that’s where his team name came from because he said he ALWAYS was surrounded by so many right honorable gentlemen at the N.C. General Assembly in that spaceship of a building in Raleigh.
Yeah, Binker was funny that way.
Binker and I were brought in by Jason, and since then, we traded players and good-natured barbs on Sundays – and every other day — more than once.
Our league stayed together. Our newsroom didn’t.
One by one, we left the newsroom for other jobs in and out of journalism. I was the last holdout. I remained at the N&R as its columnist until a week before Halloween 2014 before bolting to HPU to become the university’s senior writer.
Around that time, we changed our name to the Scrubs & Scribes League. But a few years before that, I started inviting the managers of our ESPN league to the Rowe abode to watch the NFL playoffs.
Binker and Mason were always the first to arrive.
We talked football. But we also talked about family, too.
Binker married his college sweetheart, Marla. They both began dating as freshmen at Johns Hopkins. Matter of fact, the 26th anniversary of their first kiss was this past Thursday.
Marla told me that this week.
Together, these two JHU grads came to North Carolina at the turn of the century, and Binker took a job as the N&R’s county government reporter.
At our building off East Market Street, he made a reputation for his snarky personality, his side glances that said so much and his dress shirt that was always untucked — especially when he worked on deadline.
We in our newsroom knew him by only one name.
In 2012, he left the N&R to become an investigative reporter with WRAL, and a few of us ribbed him for becoming a pretty face on TV. He always laughed it off, telling us that at least his wardrobe got better.
A year ago in late January, I walked with Binker to his car, with Mason beside us. Binker and I talked like we always do. But this time, it wasn’t about fantasy football. It was how his life had changed by going from print to broadcast journalism.
He talked about how fortunate he felt. Or really lucky. I think that’s the word he used.
Then, we signed off like we often did.
“See you at the draft,” I told him.
Or something like that. I simply knew I’d see him again. We all thought we would.
Soon afterward, we all heard about his good news.
In March, he became the editor of N.C. Insider, a state government newsletter owned by Raleigh’s News & Observer. With his new job, he went back to his print journalism roots and started writing a column that ran in newspapers statewide.
I knew he loved that. He could tell readers what he thought.
Then we all got the call.
On a Saturday afternoon in late April, after pulling into my driveway following a driving lesson with my teenage daughter, Elizabeth, my phone rang. It was John Nagy, a longtime friend, a former N&R colleague and now the editor of The Pilot newspaper in Southern Pines.
“Hey, man, I got some bad news,” he told me. “Binker died last night.”
Ten months later, it still feels like a gut punch.
Binker died from heart disease that no doctor could detect. And it happened, according to Marla, after spending eight years getting in shape. He eventually lost 80 pounds, went to the gym regularly, ate lots of salad and walked between two to six miles regularly.
And yet, Binker died in his sleep lying beside Marla at their home. He was 43.
I know he was this great reporter and all. But we in the Scrubs and Scribes all knew him as the quick-witted, smack-talking manager of Right Honorable Gentleman — RHG for short – who loved having Tom Brady on his roster.
This season, I got to the Super Bowl – and lost. But you know, I’ve learned not to gripe about the serendipity of fantasy football. Plus, I got there on a new team name.
I renamed my crew Binkers … Bums.
I told Marla about it right before our season started last fall. She wrote: “He would be proud of Binker’s Bums.”
I figured he would.
We all were bums, many of us newsroom ex-pats. We worked together at a place that felt like a pirate ship, full of characters with nicknames who challenged authority, used curse words as adjectives and thought nothing of hollering across a newsroom.
And we all could write like hell on deadline.
With the season over, I asked a few of our league managers, the guys who played with Binker for years, to write about the man behind RHG.
We do miss him.
… From Jason Hardin
When I first moved to Greensboro in 2005, the office fantasy league was full. So I decided to start my own, and Mark was one of the first recruits.
I can’t remember if he had played before, but once he was in, he was really in. He got into it fast, and he was really good at it. But what I really remember is how, over the years, the league provided a connection.
I remember the first draft we had in the fall of 2005. Back then, we did them in person, and it was a great way to get to know people better, which was especially nice for me, since being new to Greensboro I didn’t know many people well. We held it at a now-closed restaurant off Battleground Avenue. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant, but what I do distinctly remember is that after the draft, Mark lingered and we talked for a few minutes. About kids — I had a new baby — where we were from, that sort of thing.
Made me feel a little more at home in my new city.
When I moved from Greensboro several years later, I obviously didn’t see Mark or the other guys very often. The connection at that point was virtual. But he still maintained that connection.
When I moved to DC in 2014, he noted that was where he was from and asked me “To take good care of her.” And when I moved back to NC in 2016, he welcomed me back and noted my “repatriated” status.
All these comments and connections were pretty small. But in many ways, it is the small, informal connections that, combined over time, do a lot of the heavy lifting of creating a society beyond just family and the closest friends.
It makes me think about the “Bowling Alone” theory, where social bonds have frayed because people don’t participate in bowling leagues, or any number of civic organizations, like they used to do.
But fantasy football does exactly that, and Mark did exactly what the “Bowling Alone” critics feel like is missing from out society today – he created and tended links between people who otherwise wouldn’t have had them.
… From Jonathan Jones
When I think about Mark and the RHG, what comes to mind is really how our relationship had shifted in recent years from being friends and colleagues to me becoming a regular source for his work.
It would lead to these funny conversations where he would call me up from the WRAL newsroom to ask about some government body that was clearly in violation of the state’s sunshine laws. Always, we’d talk about that for a few minutes. Then we’d spend twice as long catching up, and during football season that invariably turned to how our teams were doing – both real and fantasy.
I’m losing my interest in football for a lot of reasons, but talking about it with Mark from time to time was one of the things that kept me hanging on as long as I have.
I really looked forward to our semi-annual get togethers, which I hate that I missed the last couple years.
… From Eric Townsend
Mark Binker is who brought me to North Carolina. Literally.
It was his old job as a county government reporter for which I applied in 2004 after learning about the opportunity through our mutual connections at the University of Maryland. You see, Binker and I are both Terps. He was a few years ahead of me in Maryland’s journalism graduate program, but we had a vibrant alumni network, so there were often job leads shared with the school by those already out in the industry.
When Binker moved off the county beat to cover the city of Greensboro, he told one of the journalism deans at Maryland about the county opening, and that same dean reached out to me.
The N&R editors never offered me Binker’s job. They froze the position for several months, if I remember correctly. I instead accepted their offer to fill the paper’s vacant night cops beat. What I remember during the application process, however, was a conversation with Binker as I considered whether to relocate from Delaware to North Carolina.
“Greensboro is a great place to live,” he told me over the phone one day, “and a lousy place to visit.”
Binker was never one to beat around the bush. But it wasn’t journalism that defined our relationship.
After all, I was only at the News & Record for a little over three years, and our paths rarely crossed. Football was the glue that kept us connected.
A bunch of guys in the newsroom formed a fantasy football league in 2005, and for the better part of a decade, I would see Binker each August on “draft day” – originally at the old Ham’s on Cone Boulevard, and later at the Speakeasy Tavern on Battleground – and then again in January at Jeri’s place for trash talking about our fantasy football teams while watching NFL conference championship games on television.
I never failed to be inspired by the guy.
Binker was a living, breathing encyclopedia of North Carolina politics, steeped in the history and context of the policy debates and power plays that have shaped our state in recent years.
I still have no idea how Binker voted, which should tell you how fair he was in his coverage. He seemed amused more than anything at the antics he’d see from both sides of the aisle.
And Binker was a strident advocate for the First Amendment and open government. He respected the norms and traditions of our democracy and saw himself, in his own unique way, as a defender of our nation’s ongoing experiment in self-governance.
When you read Binker’s stories, or watched his reports on television, you knew he was balanced, thorough, and working on your behalf to keep our state leaders honest in their dealings.
One more point.
It wasn’t until Binker’s memorial service that I fully comprehended his dedication to his wife and sons – helping with science fair projects, coaching soccer teams and taking vacations with his family.
He was one of North Carolina’s most influential political reporters – and he put his job second. But you’d never know it from the quality of his work.
If there’s a legacy that Binker leaves, it’s this: You can be the best at what you do and still prioritize those you love.
Even today I think often of Mark. I recently figured out how I plan to honor his legacy – by teaching my daughter how to submit a public information request.
Rest assured, when she does, she’ll let the government know one thing.
“This one’s for Mr. Binker.”
On an overcast Friday in May, Eric and I along with my former editor, Betsi Robinson, drove to Raleigh for Binker’s memorial service. We joined more than a dozen others who had once worked together at the N&R.
Before the service, I looked down our row and remarked, “Man, we could put out one helluva newspaper with the folks on this row.”
A few laughed. It was a move to crack some of the pre-service tension. We all knew it was going to be tough.
During the 80-minute service, we heard about Binker and remembered how his sharp-wit and irreverent sense of humor had made a mark on all of us.
But we also heard about the husband, the father, the guy who coached soccer, helped with science fair projects and took so many photos with Marla and the kids.
We saw the photos. We heard the stories. Speaker after speaker came up to the podium in that auditorium in downtown Raleigh, and each one of them shared some tale about Binker that made us laugh and think about what was important in our own lives.
And it wasn’t journalism.
Then came John Robinson, our old newsroom boss we called JR.
I felt my throat close because I knew what was coming. JR spoke from the heart. At the end of his remembrance, he looked from his spot behind the podium on the stage, down to the front row and addressed Mason and Max.
“Your father,” JR said to them. “He was the best of us.”
For me, that’s when the emotional dam broke. A tear crawled down my cheek, my heart jumped in my throat, and I felt so incredibly sad. For Marla. For Mason and Max. For all of us.
Binker was us. We were Binker.
Afterward, we all stood in the auditorium’s concourse trying to digest what we heard. We couldn’t really. We felt hollow. Yet, we stayed anchored to that spot.
Some of us hadn’t seen each other in years. So, we caught up and shared stories. But others like me looked at our shoes and stared at the dreary weather outside the wall of windows that seemed so damn appropriate.
In a newsroom of cubicles, we had spent years together chasing stories and trying to make sense of the senseless. All of us had scattered to other places, other cities, and yet somehow, our time in that ugly-ass newsroom with Binker kept us cemented to our spot on the concourse outside the auditorium.
More than once I heard, “I wish we didn’t have to see each other again during a time like this.”
Eventually, we stepped toward the door. Some headed home. But a few of us trudged a few blocks to a bar in downtown Raleigh to do what we all thought Binker would enjoy.
We went to drink.
We wanted to put into context what we had heard, saw and felt. We all had lost our friend way too early.
So, we all were confused, angry, feeling a lot like what his oldest son, Mason, 13, said during the service. Mason said something about how he doesn’t want to hear about how his dad is in a better place and that his place should be right there with all of us.
Pretty damn courageous.
We talked about what Mason said in a bar that felt like the old Rhino in downtown GSO. But we also talked about what we found around us, other members of our dysfunctional family, the makers of nouns and verbs.
We had discovered our tribe, and we toasted Binker. Together. We shared more stories, all of which emphasized what we could take away from the untimely death of our friend.
Speak truth to power.
Embrace the people we love.
And play fantasy football.
May that continue. For Binker’s sake.