By Jon Campisi
Times Staff Writer
Gail Johnson just looks around and shakes her head, smiling at the scene unfolding before her.
It was the championship game for the Northeast Philly-based National Electric Football League, one of a number of leagues across the country that keep this archaic game and hobby alive in this sophisticated video-game era of Madden NFL, with its slick graphics and dazzling action.
But these weren’t children taking part in their favorite pastime at the John M. Perzel Community Center in Mayfair. They were grown men.
For Johnson, of Logan, the event sparked a moment of nostalgia, bringing to mind the time she bought her son Corey his first electric football game. Then she snapped back to reality.
“I just thought it was a phase,” she said with a smile. “He’s thirty-nine.”
Northeast resident Corey Johnson is commissioner of the NEFL, which hosted the Super Bowl game on June 1, a match that featured the Atlanta Falcons, “coached” by Brian Healey, a Stratford, N.J., resident, and the San Diego Chargers, led by Tom Johnson, who lives outside Washington, D.C.
Electric football actually dates to the late 1940s, when it was unveiled by Tudor Games, but it really became popular during the golden era of pro football in the 1960s. Long before the arrival of video games, this was the game for kids — they’d arrange the miniature plastic football players in formations on the metal green field, flick the electrical switch, and root for their teams as the vibrating field caused the little men to “run” in all directions — left, right, forward, backward.
The little guys also tended to make bizarre decisions at the worst times — for example, dashing toward a touchdown and suddenly veering to the right, bolting out of bounds.
The game has been made much easier since the advent of a technique called “tweaking,” in which players use needlenose pliers to adjust the little plastic prongs under the bases the miniature figures stand on, thus minimizing those directional mishaps.
While fans of electric football take the game quite seriously, they also have fun and view it as an opportunity for camaraderie. It’s a small community, of sorts, with probably 500 or fewer enthusiasts across the country, guessed Kelvin Lomax, a Maryland resident who came to Mayfair to watch the championship game.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Lomax said.
“And sometimes we fight like brothers,” George Diamond added jokingly.
Diamond, of Harrisburg, runs one of the few stores that carry electric-football parts. His business is mostly online, a testament to the type of niche product he sells.
“It’s very small,” Diamond said of the electric-football community. “Everybody kind of knows everybody.”
But it wasn’t always this way. Before the Internet came along, it was much more difficult for electric-football players to communicate with one another.
Nowadays, besides opening those channels, the Internet can be used as a teaching tool. Diamond has posted numerous videos on YouTube to explain the game, and he has received positive feedback from viewers.
For Healey, coach of the little Atlanta Falcons, his intro to electric football came 10 years ago. He grew up in Mayfair and works for Pep Boys, where he learned of the game through some co-workers who played it.
And what got him hooked?
“For me, it’s playing football,” he said. “You’ve got to think.”
He also said it’s a rather inexpensive hobby to take up — startup costs can be less than $100 — but, like anything if you take it to the extreme, it can soon become an expensive hobby. Healey, who is 33, has since gotten his sons and nephews into electric football, although they play for fun.
Healey wasn’t about to apologize for his competitive streak. “My job here today is to keep the championship in Philadelphia,” he said before the big game on June 1.
It wasn’t meant to be. Johnson and his Chargers won the trophy, beating Healey’s Falcons, 14-7. Healey was annoyed, but he stressed the importance of being a good loser. The brotherhood never lets competition get in the way of friendship.
He’ll willingly concede that his wife, Beth, wonders about his hobby. “She thinks I’m crazy,” Healey said with a laugh. “I have guys over the house all the time, playing, tweaking.”
He even took her to the “Seawall Brawl,” an electric-football competition held in Virginia last June as a fund-raiser for police families.
“I wanted her to see what I do,” he explained.
Such competitions and conventions are held in various locations throughout the year, and dedicated hobbyists travel quite frequently to take part.
Joe Greco, of Milford, N.J., was another spectator and enthusiast at the championship game in Mayfair. Greco noted that the structure of leagues typically mirrors the actual pro football season — a 16-game schedule, followed by playoffs culminating with a rendition of the Super Bowl.
In fact, players like Diamond meticulously paint the tiny plastic figures by hand to recreate NFL team uniforms, including even the smallest details, such as team logos on helmets. Like his buddies, he describes electric football as a thinking man’s game.
“It’s kind of like a moving chessboard,” he said.
There are a number of electric-football leagues across the country, with names like the Baltimore Metropolitan EF Association, the Dallas-Ft. Worth MFL (Miniature Football League) and the Philadelphia EFL, which is the other league in the Philly area.
There is no doubting the obsessive dedication of those who love electric football. For Gail Johnson, Corey’s mom (who also created a feast of homemade dishes for the event), this is illustrated by the box of fake “snowflakes” — actually little pieces of Styrofoam — that her son includes in his game accessories, should he want to recreate the nasty winter weather of Green Bay or Minnesota.
“When I bought him that first board, it was like any game you buy a kid,” Gail said.
However, after buying him that first game, which cost a mere $9.99 at the time, she soon realized it was something special to Corey. Gail didn’t even mind the loud buzzing sound as the game’s electric switch was turned on and off between plays.
When Corey was playing the game, Gail explained, she knew her son was safe. “I was so concerned with keeping my kids away from drugs and bad activity that I just put up with it,” she said of the noisy football game.
Today, years later, she is impressed that people from all walks of life come together to play a game that still holds meaning — and a lot of nostalgia.
“It’s got no color, it’s got no creed,” she said.
To learn more about electric football, visit www.miniaturefootball.org
Reporter Jon Campisi can be reached at 215-354-3038 or firstname.lastname@example.org