A game with a built-in buzz
Underneath the perfect plastic pines of my lovely Target tree, I am assured today of reaping the usual middle-aged bounty.
There will be DVDs, socks, a sports book written by some friend of whom I’m insanely jealous, a tie that I will wear once before dipping into a grand slam breakfast, an oversized candy bar I will feel compelled to consume on the spot.
Absent, again, will be the one thing I secretly desire most.
Again, there will be no electric football.
I never ask for it, I wouldn’t dare, nobody would understand, but, jeepers, I miss it dearly.
The giant metal field, the tiny little players, the cardboard stands, the wondrous appearance of miniature football . . . followed by the vibrating reality of absolute chaos.
You spend 20 minutes carefully setting up the players to run an intricate off-tackle play. You then flick a switch and howl at two minutes of madness.
The running back carrying the tiny foam ball in his crooked little hand bounces off the fullback, spins and rumbles in the wrong direction.
“No! No! No!” you scream above the rattle of the field.
He never listens, of course, so soon your attention is diverted to the two linemen, arms interlocked, dancing a do-si-do in the other end zone.
“Cut that out!” you shout while turning the dial to increase the vibration in hopes of breaking them up.
That never works, so you then focus on the rest of your offensive line, which has rattled off to block the heck out of the sidelines, repeatedly pounding the metal borders with a vengeance.
“What’s wrong with you?” you shout, momentarily forgetting that you are the one trying to communicate with toys.
At this point, having deemed the running back irresponsible, you flip the switch again, stop the vibrating, remove the ball from his arm, and place it in the appendage of the quarterback, who has a special lever for passing.
This is, of course, a desperation move, the successful completion of a pass in electric football being the single most difficult achievement in the history of sports.
You flip the switch again, the vibrating begins, the arm is cocked, the foam is flung directly into the metal field, a lifetime zero completion percentage intact, but by now, with so many toppled players moving in artful circles, the entire deal begins to resemble electric synchronized swimming.
I loved it. I played it. I suffered it.
I would set up the players for a pregame race, turn the vibration to high, then run for cover when a drinking glass rattled off the kitchen table and fell to its death.
I would attempt to kick a field goal with the kickers’ leg, knock the foam ball under the couch, then scream at vacuum-wielding mother to please back slowly away.
Despite their constant entanglements, the players never really fought. The same could not be said for the coaches, as my older brother Brad and I would tussle for every bit of metal field position.
If a running back is locked in a do-si-do with his blocker, can you remove the running back and point him in the right direction? I said no. Brad said yes. Real football violence would ensue.
How long must we wait for the rumbling runner to break free of an offensive lineman with whom he is locked in a head-to-head stalemate on the sideline? I voted for all day. Brad was more impatient, waiting perhaps 20 seconds before flipping the switch, stopping the action, removing the runner, and throwing him at my pudding-stained face.
By the time I played the game as a kid in the mid-1960s, electric football was already a toy-store staple, having been created by Tudor in 1947.
Amazingly, 40 million sales later, it is still on the market, buoyed by the existence of national conventions and leagues.
Lee Payne, one of the game’s designers, would even routinely receive standing ovations when he acknowledged this fact to his Georgia Tech engineering class.
Seemingly every male between the ages of 30 and 70 has been shaken by this game.
Yet I continue to wonder, has anybody ever scored? I know the latest version contains figures with sturdier dynamics, but still, how do they score?
All those years, not only did I never complete a pass or kick a field goal, but my ball carrier never once bounced into the end zone.
But, really, it wasn’t about scoring, was it? It was about the attempt to score, right? It was about carefully setting expectations, excitedly putting those expectations in motion, then learning to accept their inevitable collapse into nonsensical failure.
It was the first sports game that taught me life not as wins or losses, but as a process, and the importance of embracing that process, as nutty as it may be.
We run the wrong way. We go in circles. We butt heads. We laugh and cry and regroup and try it all again.
My parents hated the awful electric football noise, hated the brotherly fighting, hated the little linebackers they would find under their shoes, but they bought the game for me anyway because I think, somehow, they understood that lesson.
And so this morning, again, I will be listening not for the ringing of bells or chirping of carolers, but for the rumble of a chaotic, blessed youth.