Ex-inmate's 'second chance' includes $300K fantasy football win

Maryland man's life includes drugs, attempted robbery conviction -- and then a $300K win on fantasy football.

Eddie Rybolt often contemplates the wild swings of his life — the homeless years, the addictions and prison time and, finally, how his luck one day turned on a dime. Or rather a quarter.

Paroled after serving three years on an attempted robbery conviction, Rybolt parlayed a 25-cent fantasy football wager into $300,000, arguably becoming Maryland's best-known winner of the popular, online daily fantasy games.

His victory on the DraftKings site was improbable not only because he has spent much of his adult life on the street, in halfway houses and in prison. A daily fantasy newcomer, he defied the odds by winning big without the aid of sophisticated statistical analysis.

While many of his top rivals run reams of National Football League data through computers, Rybolt uses his instincts. "I'm a dinosaur," he says. The muscular, raspy-voiced man sits on his couch in front of a large-screen TV — often tuned to the NFL Network or ESPN — poring over matchups on his phone and occasionally staring out a window onto Old Road Bay.

Across the water is Sparrows Point, the site of the former steel mill that became a reclamation project — just like him.

"I never thought in a million years that I would be here at this place and time in my life," said Rybolt, 46, whose screen name is RockenRaven. "I should be dead."

The rented home he shares with his live-in companion anddaughters, ages 5 and 2, is filled with paintings and models of horses. While in prison, he was the first graduate of Second Chances Farm, a Sykesville rehabilitation program allowing inmates to care for retired racehorses.

He was sent to prison after a Harford County woman identified him as the hooded man who reached into her car window on Halloween night in 2007 and tried to rob her of $45 as she was parked at a drive-through bank machine with her two young children in the back seat, according to court records.

The woman's father told The Sun that she did not want to comment on Rybolt or the events that evening.

Rybolt, who said he was high on heroin and Xanax that night, pleaded guilty to attempted robbery. He was paroled after three years and began a landscaping and pressure washing business that hires independent contractors with criminal histories because Rybolt believes they otherwise struggle to get work.

He started competing on DraftKings last season, playing on a whim. The site, along with rival FanDuel, popularized daily fantasy sports in recent years with advertising that caught Rybolt's attention.

Fantasy sports counts more than 57 million players in the United States and Canada, according to a survey this year by Ipsos Public Affairs and sponsored by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. The industry claims at least 200,000 Maryland players.

Near the end of the 2015 NFL season, Rybolt paid his 25-cent entry fee and won a competition among thousands of players, advancing him to a second contest. His performance there qualified him to join 199 other finalists at DraftKings' $15 million championship. In January, Rybolt advanced to the final 10 in Los Angeles, finishing fifth and earning $300,000. The winner claimed $5 million.

Since the win, Rybolt and his story — including his jail time — have been promoted by DraftKings, which presents him as an underdog.

"This is a story about redemption and second chances," the Boston-based company says on its website about the player.

DraftKings' customers pay from 25 cents to thousands of dollars to enter various competitions tied to actual NFL games.The prizes range from a few dollars to more than $1 million.

Acting as general managers, they select their "teams" of real players. The best players "cost" more than the rest, and customers must keep under a fantasy salary cap preventing them from selecting all prominent players. Points are accumulated — and winners determined — based on players' statistical performances.

Because there's a lot to process, "I think the people that have the highest return are using algorithms to generate their players," said Michael Lopez, a Skidmore College assistant professor who analyzes statistics in football and other sports.

Successful daily fantasy participants have used computer scripts allowing them to make automatic lineup changes— for example replacing injured players before games — in many entries a day, he said.

Rybolt's ascension last season came largely from picking Danny Woodhead, an unheralded San Diego Chargers running back selected by just 1 percent of the contestants on Dec. 20.

"It was a gut thing," Rybolt said. "I said they're going to use him near the end zone a lot."

Woodhead scored four touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins and his 36 fantasy points topped more established running backs.

Rybolt "is doing something that is smart," Lopez said. "He's picking players that a lot of others aren't picking. Your job is to beat other people. It's the same thing with entering a March Madness pool. If everybody picks Duke and Kentucky, your strategy is to pick somebody else."

In DraftKings promotional videos, the heavily-tattooed Rybolt is surrounded by giant television screens showing live NFL games as the championship competition unfolds. He stands and claps, pumps his fist and high-fives fellow competitors. "Yeah, baby – that's what I'm talking about!" he shouts.

"If you were DraftKings, would you rather promote this guy or the nerdy guy sitting at his computer 18 hours who is not even watching the game but doing algorithms and submitting hundreds of entries?" said Gregory J. Matthews, a statistics expert at Loyola University Chicago.

While it worked for Rybolt last year, it won't for most people, Matthews said.

"It's great for him, but how many other RockenRavens lost a lot of money?" he said. "They're just overmatched."

Founded in 2012, DraftKings has more than 2 million customers in 44 states, the company said in a January brief in a New York court case. Evidence suggests "that a small group of skilled contestants consistently win" daily fantasy, wrote DraftKings lawyers in the case.

In reply to Baltimore Sun questions, the company said lots of "Eddies" win as well.

"Players enter picks in a variety of ways, and the way Eddie entered his picks is not unusual. In fact, we see that a lot amongst our winners," DraftKings said in a statement. "As evidenced by Eddie winning, yes, players of all skill levels can win in our contests. We know our business and contests will only continue to be successful if everyone understands our unwavering commitment to a level playing field. "

The company said it runs "beginner only" games for those who have played less than 50 games on the site and offers "a plethora" of games limiting the number of individual player's entries.

In a Jan. 15 advisory opinion, the Maryland attorney general's office said daily fantasy sports may not be legal because the issue was never referred to a statewide ballot referendum — a procedure required under state law to expand commercial gaming.Unlike some states, Maryland has not gone to court to try to halt the games.

DraftKings says its games are based on skill rather than chance. It's an important distinction because Congress in 2006 exempted fantasy sports from its online gambling ban on the grounds that they required skill.

In July, Comptroller Peter Franchot proposed a series of rules and restrictions designed to ensure daily fantasy sports are operated fairly in the state. The regulations will take effect Oct. 24 unless the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Reviewopts for further review. The regulations include restricting most players' maximum monthly spending to $1,000.

Experts say daily fantasy sports can pose the same issues for some customers as casinos do for problem gamblers. The competitions attract young, male sports enthusiasts at risk for gambling addiction, and the games feature elements — such as big-money wins for small investments — that can fuel bad impulses, said Jeffrey Beck, a gambling and addictions counselor.

Rybolt said he didn't spend more than several hundred dollars last season on entry fees and he's spent his winnings largely on business expenses and medical bills. One of his daughters suffers from an eye condition.

While some might consider his $300,000 win his biggest stroke of luck, Rybolt believes it's what happened the night of the armed robbery.

Not only did it set him on the road to recovery from his drug addictions, but the woman and her children narrowly avoided tragedy when she sped off onto Pulaski Highway and almost got hit by a truck.

Rybolt said he regrets the incident and is haunted by his memory of the kids.

"I've punished myself more than anything," he said. "I could have killed three individuals."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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