My first draft of this week’s column started off with a good two paragraphs of traditional “sports talk” about this year’s Super Bowl. Then I re-read it all and gagged so hard I saw stars. Seriously, I like my football but the juice isn’t worth the squeeze when it comes to talking about it for longer than 10 minutes, as my two sick days spent listening to the dregs of sports radio while lying in bed can attest.
So in an attempt to find a different angle with which to approach the subject this week, I bring to you this “I can’t believe I managed to find this” AP article about the folks in 1996 who were still playing that ridiculous “Super Bowl” electronic football game with the little plastic players whose painted feet were cemented into green plastic bases that would chaotically slide across the vibrating metal playing field. Which means I guess I should just say it’s “electric” football and not “electronic” football. Even the scoreboard required you to manually dial in the scores and what down and quarter it was. There actually was an “automatic” timer, two gears that were supposed to turn as the board vibrated, but they didn’t really work either.
But despite knowing pretty much nothing about the nuts and bolts of football beyond “Bears Good, Packers Bad” at that age, it was a game I kept coming back to. For one, it was huge. It was one of two games I had that were so big I had to keep them under the ugly couch in the living room, the other one being Milton Bradley’s “Torpedo Run”, a game with a 46-inch by 24-inch playing surface.
And secondly, I could use it to create a version of football that my video game addled brain could understand. Most times I’d just stuff the “football”, a little foam disc roughly the size of your pinky fingernail, into the base of a random player, then arrange defenders around him in a three-by-three box formation, then set the defenders up directly across the line of scrimmage, then click the big power switch and let them all slowly move like football glaciers until one of the defender pieces touched the player with the ball. End of down, reset play, repeat.
If you’re wondering why I never attempted a pass play, completing a pass involved actually flicking the tiny foam football across the field in the misguided hope that you could actually get it to land on one of the other pieces, a maneuver whose chances of succeeding were about the same as flipping a coin and having it land on its edge. It was apparently the best Tudor Games could do to improve on “NFL Strategy,” a 1970s game I found in a Goodwill store, a game where you put overlapping punch cards representing plays into a slot and then used a bouncing bobber on a spring to randomly select from a range of possible results which you’d track using a sliding football marker. Geez, the lengths we went to play football without playing football, right?
I did a little research and discovered that the “Super Bowl of Electric Football” is still an event, held last year over a sweaty July weekend at the Westin in Fort Worth, Texas. As the YouTube videos currently on their website proved, the event was heavily attended by doughy dudes of a certain age who looked like they could use a lot more vegetables and lot less time under florescent lights in their basement playing Electric Football or Strat-O-Matic Baseball, all in a convention center which appeared to be occupied only by the event official, a few perplexed photographers, and a lot of empty chairs.
I’m quite fascinated with any organized game where it looks like the players are putting a lot of thought into what might look like nothing to everyone else. Trust me, nothing brings me more joy in the world than watching a Curling match where folks are just standing there discussing the placement of “stones” while holding brushes and while the clock runs in the background, or a backgammon match where one player offers the other a big cube with the number “2” on it and the other player has to sit there stewing about whether or not to “accept” it. But even by those standards, watching these clips from the electronic football tournament was a perplexing experience.
From what I could tell, playing this game the “right way” involves taking upwards of around 15 minutes to delicately place and orient all the little plastic players and then at some point after all that someone actually turns the game “on” for about three seconds after which they arrange pieces some more. It all made me wonder why they couldn’t just play the entire game on a piece of cardboard with a rectangle drawn on it.
I doubt I’ll be able to coax any of the attendees at my Super Bowl party this year into a sidebar electric football game to be played in 15-second increments during commercial breaks. But there are other options for football in other forms. For that I bring you, again from the “I can’t believe I found this in the archives” file, this snippet from a 1980 Radio Shack ad featuring the exact same Tandy brand electronic handheld football game I had as a kid, and still have to this day somewhere in a drawer. Far superior to the more widely known Mattel electronic football most kids had in the '80s, the Tandy version had a larger LED field, let you actually move your running back backwards to avoid a tackle, and yeah, had pass plays, which unlike “electric” football were actually possible to complete as long as you could get one blinking red dot to line up with the other blinking red dot. Not bad for 22 bucks.
So this year if you’re the “Why am I here?” guest at your friends’ Super Bowl party and you happen to be perplexed at a moment in the big game where the players are standing around doing nothing while the referees look at tiny screens and the commentators play back footage of the same guy falling down over and over again, just trust me, like electric football, these guys are thinking real hard. And until something actually starts happening again, ask if anyone knows how to fold up a proper paper football; now that’s a real game right there.