Originally published at: Northeast Times Star
By Ed Morrone 03/07/2012 1:01 pm
On Saturday afternoon at the Mayfair Community Center, the main gymnasium was filled with young children happily playing a game of basketball.
Just down the hall, a common room inside the center was filled with another group of kids; only this time around, the “youngsters” were in the 30-to-40-year-old range.
From February until June, these grown men spend their Saturdays and Sundays playing a game with the same level of enthusiasm as a child sitting on Santa’s lap at Christmastime. They are the members of the Northeast Electric Football League (NEFL), and they don’t care about the odd looks they get from outsiders who don’t understand their passion. No, they just tell folks to look at how much fun they have, which makes all of the puzzled expressions worth it.
“We wouldn’t give up this time we have together for anything,” said NEFL commissioner Corey Johnson, a construction worker in his mid-40s. “At the end of the day we’re just a fraternity of brothers. Electric football brought us together, and the friendships we’ve formed have kept us together.”
With the popularity of iPhones, fantasy football and high-definition John Madden video games, an old-school, hands-on game like electric football had become lost in the shuffle as technology continued to evolve. It’s the same tabletop game that first gained mainstream popularity in the 1960s, around the same time that the National Football League (NFL) was moving into its so-called golden era of popularity.
The electric game prides itself on mirroring the pro game. There are 32 teams — same as in the NFL — and each league member is assigned a professional franchise that he coaches. The NEFL also follows the 16-game schedule of the NFL, followed by three rounds of playoffs and culminating with the Super Bowl.
In the electric version of the game, miniature plastic players, mounted on plastic bases, are arranged in pro formations on a 2-foot-by-3-foot metal board painted to replicate an NFL field. (midfield and end zone logos included). The play begins when an electrical switch is pressed, thus transmitting vibrations through the metal board, which in turn sends the miniature players into motion.
The ball-carrier is “tackled” when his plastic base makes contact with an opposing player’s. A pass play is as archaic today as it was 40 years ago — a tiny foam football is attached to the passing hand of a special plastic quarterback, you flick his arm to release the ball, and if it hits the receiver you’re aiming for, it’s a completed pass.
“People look at me like I’m crazy when I try to explain it, but it really is just like an NFL football game that you’d watch on TV,” said Andrew Stewart, a married accountant who has been part of the NEFL for five years. “You need strong tight ends, fast receivers and guys on the board that will take a hit to open up a hole for a big run. You need to have a strong offensive line to protect your quarterback . . . the competitive nature of it really is second to none.”
Although the NEFL’s popularity has remained steadfast for years (there is a waiting list to acquire a team), the biggest challenge facing electric football is attracting a younger generation. Advances in the technology of video games, not to mention remarkable graphics, continue to push electric football toward irrelevance. The NEFL also has a children’s league (called “The Deuce”), but the number of teams has shrunk from a dozen to four or five. In this day and age, keeping kids away from the computer or television is one of the biggest challenges for parents.
“I like to play because, to me, it’s like a real-life video game,” said 14-year-old Ephraim Daniels, reigning champion of The Deuce. “I still play video games like any other kid my age, but this gets me out of the house and doesn’t kill my brain cells. It’s like a moving chess game in that it enhances your strategy and reflexes. If other kids gave it a chance, I know they would love it.”
Added 13-year-old Nafeis Robinson, who, like Daniels, started playing because of his father’s involvement in the NEFL: “There’s no luck involved in this game. It really gets you thinking, but I guess a lot of kids don’t like to think when they aren’t in school. My friends definitely don’t understand it. I feel a responsibility to keep it going, and my selling points are usually that there’s no bullying, and the camaraderie is great.”
Other leagues exist in such cities as New York, Baltimore, Washington, Los Angeles and Detroit. Every January the hobby holds the “Wiggle Convention,” where players from around the country gather in one city to celebrate the brotherhood of electric football.
“I turned down overtime at my job today to come spend time with these guys,” said Johnson, the NEFL commissioner who has earned the nickname “National” because of his enthusiasm to travel around the country and promote electric football. “I don’t know if it keeps us young, but it brings back the memories of when we were young and played the game for the first time.”
Moments before he sat down to talk, Johnson’s San Francisco 49ers defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 21-14, to move his team to 4-1 on the season. One of his heroes, Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, is a wide receiver on Johnson’s team; although the retired Rice no longer plays in the NFL, his status in the NEFL remains active, which allows the league participants to “live through these players,” as Johnson put it.
Thanks to the other leagues, estimates are that the game boasts a few hundred active competitive players around the country.
“We probably know two-to-three-hundred people involved in the hobby, directly or indirectly,” said Ed Scott, who donned a purple Adrian Peterson jersey as he coached his Minnesota Vikings on Saturday. “As you grow older as a man, your lifestyle changes and you fall out of touch with high school and college friends. Electric football allows us to expand our sphere of friendships. What motivates us is that next person who walks in the door to join our brotherhood.”
And, unlike professional football, all you need to play is a genuine interest. And even if technology has been a threat, it also has been a godsend in some ways — for example, the league uses social-media sites like Facebook to spread the word.
“It’s so hands on, and you can’t get that from a video game,” Johnson said. “It’s competitive . . . it’s good people having a good time. I couldn’t be happier to be here.” ••
To learn more about the league and how to get involved, find it on Facebook at “Philly NEFL.”