Sports Illustrated Feb. 5, 2001 Good Vibrations

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February 05, 2001

Good Vibrations

The boards were buzzing at the Electric Football Super Bowl in Canton, Ohio

WE’RE DEALING with a lot of freaks here,” says Steve Feit, an account executive with Silverman Media & Marketing Group, which represents Miggle Toys. Have truer words ever been spoken? Feit is standing in the middle of the NFL Films Theater at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, watching…well…what is he watching? There are men—big, big men—cooing over tiny figurines, talking to them, caressing them, begging them for one fantastic moment. “Just do it for us, Jimmy!” one man bellows. “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

Uhhh….

Jimmy is Jim Brown. Were the real Jim Brown present, slamming into defensive tackles and pummeling cornerbacks, perhaps it would seem normal to scream, “Just do it for us, Jimmy! Do it! Do it! Do it!” This Jimmy, however, is an inch-high figure buzzing about on a piece of vibrating green metal. He has a plastic head and no eyes. His owner is wearing brown Zubaz pants. “You have to understand,” says Feit, smiling. “Many of the people here—they take this very, very seriously.”

Translation: The people here are nuts. How else to describe most of the 2,000 spectators and participants at the seventh annual Official Electric Football Super Bowl & Convention, held on Jan. 20 and 21? There was Paul Bartels (a.k.a. Raiderman), a 26-year-old architectural draftsman from York, Pa., who enjoys painting his face silver and black, swinging a thick plastic sword and showing off his handcrafted collection of Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders figurines, from Jim Otto to Bo Jackson. There was Lynn Schmidt (a.k.a. Weird Wolf), a 40-year-old website designer who arrived in red-and-yellow Kansas City Chiefs face paint, red Chiefs shoulder pads, a red Chiefs bandanna, red Chiefs sunglasses and a red Chiefs Bobby Bell jersey.

One guy who seemed almost normal was Ron Bell, a 32-year-old assistant district attorney from New Orleans, who turned out to be the world’s best Electric Football player. As the other competitors paraded loudly through the hallowed hall in oversized Junior Seau jerseys, faded Eric Metcalf T-shirts, Oilers hats and Jets hats, Steelers hats and Seahawks hats, the conservatively dressed Bell coolly, calmly demonstrated the magic that one year earlier had made him an out-of-the-blue sensation. In the 2000 Super Bowl, played in Washington, D.C., Bell shocked the world (well, 78 guys in a room) by guiding his little Miami Dolphins to the title. This year, with a last-minute 30-24 victory over David Redmond’s Atlanta Falcons, Bell repeated.

Like most of his Electric Football brethren, Bell discovered the game as a youth. Back in the early and mid-1970s, when Twister was the rage and play stations were backyard swing sets, every American boy had—or at least recognized—an Electric Football table. The idea was simple, fun and sort of inane: Line 11 little plastic men on one side, 11 little plastic men on the other side, turn the power on to make the table vibrate and the players move, and see what happens. “It wasn’t a complex game, but it was fun for kids and dads to play together,” says Barrels, whose Raiders lost to Bell’s Dolphins in this year’s AFC championship. “Now there’s no more family time. Both parents work, and everyone comes home dog-tired. So the kid plays a video game by himself instead.”

In the 1960s four companies made Electric Football games. By 1991, after the bankruptcy of Superior Toys, there were none. Since Miggle began producing the game board and pieces in ’93, there has been something of a revival. The Electric Football elite, like that of Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, is a tight community of mostly single men (note: Electric Football tournaments are not good spots to meet the honeys) who communicate through Internet chat rooms. Secrets—how to make the players move faster, ways to illegally widen the base of each player—are the hot topics. Fashion is not.

Watching Electric Football is, 99% of the time, Meet Joe Black dull. The switch is flicked, the little men vibrate. If a receiver happens to get open, the switch is flicked off, everything stops, and a tiny quarterback figurine chucks an even tinier foam football. If the football hits the receiver, the pass is complete. The switch is flicked on again and—yawn—everything moves. Still, the Dolphins-Falcons Super Bowl had its moments. Miggle spared no expense. Two young women sang the national anthem. There was a coin toss. Tom Rubin, an Ohio high school football official for 20 years, wore his black and white stripes and refereed the event, whistle blasts and all. Two men provided commentary over a loudspeaker. On their path to the tide game Redmond, an Atlanta-based postal employee, and Bell took drastically different approaches. Redmond is a defensive specialist, jamming receivers at die line and forcing short screens to the running backs. The pass-happy Bell, as Ira Silverman, president of Silverman Media & Marketing noted, “makes Joe Montana look like a bum.”

For most of the tide game, spectators wandered to and fro, peeking at the board and checking the display tables, then grabbing overpriced hot dogs. As soon as the fourth quarter began, however, things got serious. Ninety-eight people surrounded the tiny field, some standing on plastic chairs, little kids on their fathers’ shoulders. With 7:25 remaining, Redmond‘s Tony Martin figurine did the impossible. For the second time he returned a kickoff 100 yards, a Super Bowl record that gave the Falcons a 24-22 lead.

As Martin buzzed up the field, it was as if Redmond had him on a string. A Dolphin approached from the right, Martin zigged left. A Dolphin approached from the left, Martin zigged right. A hole opened and—zoom!—Martin burst through. “Tony can flat-out play!” noted Ken Allen, the color commentator. “He’s a player!”

He’s plastic. On the next possession Bell guaranteed himself a place in the Electric Football Hall of Fame—if there ever is one. On first and 10 from his own 45, Bell flicked a short pass to a wide-open Mercury Morris, who flew all the way to Atlanta‘s eight-yard line before, inexplicably, turning a hard right and going out-of-bounds. With seven seconds left Bell connected again with Morris for the game-winning touchdown. “Yes!” he said, turning to Jim Bell, his proud father. “We did it! We did it!”

As the final whistle sounded, Bell and Redmond shook hands, then hugged. Both men were emotionally and physically spent. “My team had a lot of experienced guys, a lot of guys who have been through the battles with me before,” said Bell, holding the gold championship trophy. “I looked my players in the eyes, and I knew they would come through.”

The champion smiled. He was kidding—I think.

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