A Super Bowl for Kids Who Never Grew Up

ED-AH016A_elect_20080129180829By MARK YOST

Livonia, Mich
Wall Street Journal
JANUARY 30, 2008

“It’s a real test mentally. You have to be focused, and you have to hit your passes.”

That’s not a quote from Tom Brady or Eli Manning, the two quarterbacks preparing to play in Super Bowl XLII. It’s from Ron Bell, a 39-year-old lawyer from New Orleans and four-time champion of the Official Electric Football Super Bowl and Convention, which took place in a hotel ballroom in suburban Detroit this past weekend.

Electric football was invented in the late-1940s by Tudor Games of Brooklyn, N.Y., and remains largely unchanged. The playing surface is a thin piece of sheet metal painted to look like a football field. Players are called “coaches” and have teams of 11 players, each about 1¼ inches tall, that are mounted on small plastic pedestals called “bases.” Once both teams are lined up, the coach flicks a switch and the field vibrates, causing the players to move. If it’s a running play, the runner is down when he’s touched by a defensive player. Passing plays are more complicated.

The coach on offense can stop the field from vibrating once a receiver is open. He then uses a special quarterback with a flexible arm to flick a tiny foam football toward the receiver. If the ball hits the receiver, it’s a completion. The defensive coach can adjust his men before the power is turned back on. The receiver then advances until he’s touched, goes out of bounds, or scores a touchdown.

Before video games, electric football was one of the most sought-after Christmas presents by boys 8 to 15. Gathered here this past weekend were about 75 of those boys who never grew up.

Like John DiCarlo, a 60-year-old retired postal worker from Rochester, N.Y. He started playing the game when he was 8 years old and never stopped. “It’s the greatest table game ever made,” he said.

Today, Mr. DiCarlo is the commissioner of the Charlotte (N.Y.) Electric Football League (www.leaguelineup.com/welcome.asp?url=cefl), which was formed in 1981 and claims to be the longest-running electric-football league in the country. The eight teams in two divisions — the Amps and the Volts — play 10 games a season, plus playoffs. All games are played in Subterranean Stadium, otherwise known as Mr. DiCarlo’s basement. There’s even a hall of fame.

The Official Electric Football Super Bowl is the brainchild of Ira H. Silverman, a marketing executive from Woodbury, N.Y. Also here was Mike Landsman, 71, the founder and president of Miggle Toys (www.miggle.com), the Chicago company that today makes the electric-football games and accessories.

“It’s a crazy business,” Mr. Landsman said with a chuckle. “But it’s a nice alternative to video games, which are often violent and antisocial. With our game, it’s all about the camaraderie.”

It’s also very competitive. The serious players come armed with tackle boxes filled with hundreds — sometimes thousands — of custom-made players, many hand-painted in favorite team colors and outfitted with such details as face masks, chin straps and dreadlocks. Mostly, though, they focus on modifying the bases to make the running backs go faster, the linemen hold their blocks longer, and the quarterbacks go nowhere and stay in the pocket. They get tips from The Tweak, a magazine for electric-football enthusiasts.

This three-day tourney began Friday night with a social hour and skills competition. Saturday’s opening round featured abbreviated games that lasted about 15 minutes each. The 75-odd players were broken into eight divisions in two leagues. Coaches had just four plays each to score as many points or gain as many yards as they could. I hadn’t played the game since about 1974 but gave it a shot.

My first game was against Elle Hargrave, a 21-year-old college student from Nicholson, Pa., and one of the few women coaches. On her first running play, she lost four yards. She then ran for two yards, threw an incomplete pass, and ran for two more yards, giving her total offense of 0 yards. All I had to do to win was gain one yard, which I did on my first play, a quarterback sneak.

Next I played Joel Pritchard, 46, of Spartanburg, S.C. He plays in the Dixie Electric Football League. We both racked up negative yardage, his minus-10 and mine minus-17 — so our game was a tie.

I then beat Will Travers, 54, of Fort Washington, Md., who plays in three different electric-football leagues. He gained three yards over his four downs. I threw two incomplete passes before pulling off a 14-yard run for the win.

Miraculously, I was undefeated going into my fourth game. But then I ran into Glenn Hardaway, 48, who’s from Sugarland, Texas, and plays in the Houston Electric Football League. On my first play, I threw a pass that hit one of Mr. Hardaway’s players, which is scored as an interception. All he had to do to beat me was move the ball one yard, which he did easily.

From there, it was all downhill. I lost to Mr. Bell, the New Orleans lawyer, No. 1 seed in my division and the favorite coming into the tournament. I also lost to Frank Johnson, 41, from Gary, Ind. My overall record was 3-3-1; not bad for a novice, but not good enough to make the playoffs.

Sunday’s championship game came down to Jimbo Dunagan, 37, of Chicago, and Greg Hardmon, 39, of Toledo. Mr. Hardmon, the winningest coach in the seven-year history of the Great Lakes Electric Football League (www.glefl.com), was favored to win the title game. But Mr. Dunagan vowed in a pregame interview to “attack on both sides of the ball.”

The small crowd stood for the National Anthem, which was played on a laptop computer. Mr. Dunagan got the ball first and had two big runs before turning the ball over on downs. Mr. Hardmon promptly drove down the field, mostly passing, and scored the game’s only touchdown.

Mr. Dunagan almost tied the game with less than two minutes to play, but on fourth and 14 his quarterback was sacked. Mr. Hardmon ran out the clock and took home the championship trophy and ring, his first. The final score in the closely fought game was 7-0.

“It feels good,” Mr. Hardmon said. “I had a good time and met some good people.”

And that, it seems, is what this game is really all about.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Roseville, Minn.

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