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A Baby-Boomer Icon Returns to the Playing Field

By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 3, 2005; Page H01

It's possible that Sunday's Super Bowl between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots will be almost as hard-hitting and realistic as "Madden NFL," the video-game breakthrough that dominates the field of computer-generated pummeling, pulverizing and Hailing Mary.

But for (mostly) males of a certain age, who grew up with the buzzing, stuttering, decidedly low-tech game known as electric football, "Madden NFL" is no great shakes.

Dwayne Thomas, right, of the Beltsville Electric Football League, scrimmages with league-mate Adrian Baxter, left. (Photo Aimee Obidzinski for The Washington Post)

In one of the greatest comebacks in simulated sports history, electric football -- a game that was actually discontinued 17 years ago for lack of any discernible market -- has defied the oddsmakers and now dances triumphantly in the end zone of renewed popularity. Leagues all over the country organize weekend tournaments. Players from opposing teams taunt and gibe one another in chat rooms. There's even an electric football Super Bowl held every year, on the weekend before the real one.

It's a Cinderella story for a game that, in its earlier incarnations, was as famous for its lumbering pace and wobbly results as for its entertainment value. Even grown men nostalgic for its heyday in the 1950s and '60s sound ambivalent when describing its allure.

"The thing I most remember is the tremendous anticipation that would surround getting the game out of the box," says Ken Rudin, political editor at National Public Radio. As a 12-year-old boy, Rudin was ineluctably drawn (as 12-year-old boys still are) to the combination of electronics, sports themes and the chance to tromp friends in virtually any competition.

But, says Rudin, actually experiencing electric football often proved less exciting than pulling the board out from underneath a friend's bed and setting it up. Somehow, the game never quite lived up to the "Tru-Action" intensity promised on the box.

"We couldn't wait to play, but then when we actually played it, everybody was like: 'What was that all about?' " And yet, Rudin says, "we would do it over and over again. We just didn't know any better."

Electric football has been around since the late 1940s, when it was introduced by Tudor Metal Products, a Brooklyn-based company that had already had a hit with a horse-racing game in which tiny equestrian figures raced one another on a vibrating board.

The football spinoff worked in much the same way: Players would set up inch-high figures representing offensive and defensive formations on a green metal board, then flick a switch that set the whole thing vibrating. Over the board's signature buzz, the figure with the ball -- a tiny piece of white felt -- would jitter his way toward the opposite end zone, until he was "tackled" by bumping up against a defensive opponent. (Though a passing game was technically possible, it usually proved so difficult that most kids gave up and concentrated on their running game.) After each play, the switch would be turned off, new formations set up, the tiny felt ball re-tucked beneath the quarterback's arm and the next play set tottering in motion.

The game approximated the experience of real football about as much as throwing a paper airplane approximates piloting an F-16. But that didn't stop kids from begging their parents to plunk down a five-spot to bring it home from the toy store.With the advent of arcade-style and hand-held video games in the late 1970s, electric football seemed destined to become just another icon of boomer nostalgia. By the late 1980s, you couldn't find the game on shelves anymore. The people at Tudor, reading the computer code on the wall, must have been as surprised as they were relieved when Michael Landsman, president of Chicago-based Miggle Toys, offered to buy the company in 1992.

Landsman, quick to acknowledge that electric football was his "all-time favorite game," immediately set about renewing the game's lapsed license with NFL Properties, giving him the right to use team names, colors and logos as well as to market a "Super Bowl" version.

He believed that even in the era of Super Nintendo, the game deserved another chance, but he wasn't sure how to spark a revival. Strange as it may seem, however, the game's renaissance came about thanks to one of its most maddening drawbacks: the way the bitty little football-player figures get lost under carpets and sofas, in backyards and toy boxes.

"We'd get these calls from all over the U.S. -- 'I've had the game for 20 years, I lost this part, I lost that part,' " says Landsman, recalling the steady stream of customer-service queries. "And I started to think: Gee, all these guys think they're the only ones in the world who are playing this game. Why don't we try to find some way to communicate with them, and get them together?"

Landsman decided to publish an electric football newsletter, Plugged In, and mail it to people who had called or written in search of replacement parts. Then, more curious than optimistic, he decided to throw an event for players in Chicago.

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