Extra Points: Off-Week Gaming

electric-football-101509

by Lee Pace
compliments of  http://tarheelblue.cstv.com

It was, of course, quite the oddity and novelty for these Echo Boomers, these football players from Generation Y who primp for a game with iPod buds in their ears and wield lifelike football players in 3-D on their Madden NFL games. But there it was on a rainy day in the players’ lounge of the Kenan Football Center: a circa 1968 Tudor Electric Football game, complete with steel playing field, 22 plastic players, tiny felt footballs, a cardboard rendition of a stadium full of fans and, of course, the requisite QB-kicker specialty player who completed exactly .085 percent of his career pass attempts. “My dad has one of these games,” cornerback LeCount Fantroy says. “He painted his players by hand. He’s a real big Electric Football fan. One time his passer threw that little ball and it went into the arm of a receiver and stuck. He said that was the craziest thing he’d ever seen in football.” “That’s awesome, that’s pretty cool,” adds guard Alan Pelc. “I would play that game.” Quarterback Bren Renner watches as a Green Bay Packers ball-carrier gets stuck on the sideline with no one else in his vicinity, most of the other players locked in wads of plastic humanity in far corners of the field. “Is that all it does?” asks the 18-year-old innocently. You can’t blame him for not understanding the nuances and fascination of old-time Electric Football, though Renner does say he’s seen his father and grandfather playing the game. Before Madden and EA Sports, before the Wii and PlayStation, there was Electric Football. Anyone 45 or older certainly remembers their Electric Football game, a bastion of mid-century adolescence just like Lincoln Logs, GI Joe and Boys Life magazine. If you remember Johnny Unitas and his single-bar face mask and black high-tops, you remember Electric Football. The game consists of a replica football field made of fiberboard or steel with 22 plastic figurines just an inch and a half high, each player mounted on a base supported by tiny plastic whiskers or “runners.” Flick the “ON” switch and a tiny motor mounted under the board sends the players into a flurry of motion, ostensibly to run a play as designed by the offensive coach. The ball carrier–molded with one leg pumped high and one arm wielding a stiff-arm–is anointed by placing a small felt “football” in his arm, and he’s free to run to daylight until his base is touched by that of a defender. If you want to pass, good luck. A special passer-kicker flicked little footballs from a static position with hilarious and maddening results. “That game was awesome, I played it for hours and hours as a kid,” says offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who was born in 1961 in Oklahoma. “It was a lot of fun. I do remember that it was tough to complete a pass with those little footballs.” Associate athletic director Corey Holliday, a Tar Heel receiver in the early 1990s, played Electric Football with his cousins growing up in Richmond in the late 1970s and enjoyed coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers and guiding quarterback Craig Morton with the Denver Broncos. “You take it out the box and start from scratch, but in time you learn how to really `coach’ your guys,” Holliday says. “We used glue on the bases to add weight and we also glued pennies to the bases. The linemen got pennies because it made their bases heavier and harder to move them out of the way.” The original Electric Football game was created by Tudor Metal Products of New York in 1947 and modeled after a vibrating race car game the company already made. The game was a smash hit, and by the mid-1950s, a rival product was introduced by Gotham Pressed Steel. Just as the Colts and Giants battled one another for Eastern supremacy in the NFL, so too did Tudor and Gotham to get the edge in producing the best Electric Football game. The Gotham game was licensed by the NFL in 1958 and had team logos surrounding the field; it was featured in the Sears Wishbookcatalog and sold like hotcakes. Colorful metal grandstands were added and the quality of players evolved, with Tudor in 1962 introducing four “sculpt-action” poses and later adding to the detail with thigh pads and face masks. Shortly after Green Bay and Kansas City played in Super Bowl I in 1967, Tudor unveiled its new line of pre-painted players–now you could get your favorite team instead of trying to color them yourself with model paint. Tar Heel running backs coach Kenny Browning demonstrated an early knack for astute talent evaluation. He and his brother Eddie played a lot of Electric Football growing up in the 1950s in Durham, Eddie taking the red team and Kenny the blues. “Everyone on your team didn’t have the same speed,” Browning says. “You had to put them out there and figure out who could run at what speed. And there were different points on the board where they ran faster–the board didn’t vibrate consistently. You could run some plays differently on various parts of the board.” A handful of former Tar Heel players whose adolescence spanned some part of the Fifties or Sixties–the glory days of Electric Football–were early fans of the game and bring to bear a keen sense of humor in comparing their days hovered over their plastic figurines to their careers in Kenan Stadium. Jeff Beaver of Charlotte, a quarterback from 1965-67, doesn’t remember his mechanical quarterback being too accurate: “Unfortunately, like myself, he mostly overthrew his intended receiver,” Beaver says. “Thank God there was no such thing as an interception in Electric Football.”

Gayle Bomar was a year behind Beaver and played quarterback as well, for one year under Jim Hickey and two years under Bill Dooley. “When you got everyone lined up and turned the thing on, all the players started shaking and moving in lots of different directions,” Bomar remembers. “There wasn’t a real clear-cut hole to run through, just lots of guys movin’ and shakin.’ It wasn’t pretty, but it did create lots of confusion. Kind of reminds me of our offense that first year under Dooley in 1967.” Battle Wall was a defensive end at the same time and draws a parallel between his game and his Tar Heel team. “We all shook, jerked, leaped, lunged, ducked and indeed `vibrated’ too.” Matt Kupec followed a decade later and was playing Electric Football at home on Long Island when Bomar and Wall were suiting up for the Tar Heels. Kupec played quarterback for Dooley and then Dick Crum from 1976-79. “I remember the ball carrier always seemed to turn on a straight line heading directly out of bounds, and then he’d get stuck into the boundary,” says Kupec, today a vice chancellor in the Carolina Development office. “I tried the same strategy when quarterbacking at Carolina. But I was too slow and often got tackled before being able to get out of bounds.” Jody Zeugner, the Tar Heel Sports Network’s statistician and spotter, grew up near Asheville and remembers his Electric Football running back “going round and round in a small circle five times and then heading toward his own goal.” He shares the frustration Pittman and Beaver felt at the difficulty of passing the football. “I remember loading up the QB for a pass, seeing that open receiver out there, bending his arm back, letting it fly, and the ball invariably landing in the equivalent of Section 229, Row CC,” Zeugner says. “I may have completed two passes in my entire Electric Football career.” Electric Football was popular through the 1970s, but its shine began waning in the 1980s as the home video game market exploded. But there remains a tidy little market of Electric Football aficionados, dozens of whom gather each winter for the Electric Football Super Bowl. “The game is an American icon,” says Mike Landsman, president of Miggle Toys, the Chicago-based company that bought the rights from Tudor in 1992 and still manufactures Electric Football. “Forty years later, grown men remember the box it came in, where they kept it and the sound it made. Especially that sound.” Indeed, that sound, the ubiquitous buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from Electric Football. If you try hard, you can hear the voice of John Facenda narrating the action on the frozen tundra of a steel football field. Lee Pace steered No. 5 in Green Bay Gold to more Electric Football touchdowns than Paul Hornung ever thought about scoring in real life. Write him at:  leepace7@gmail.com .

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