The 2008 MFCA Convention as published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer

Miniature football has never left the hearts of die-hards

By Jim Nichols

Cleveland Plain Dealer

ClevelandPlainDealer

Photo by XIAOMEI CHEN / THE PLAIN DEALER
Corey Johnson of Philadelphia, right, prepares to fling a pill-sized football to a receiver about to buzz down the electric field. John Martin, left, watches.

NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio — Just up the road, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame legends gather in Canton, the gridiron greats and the ghosts of champions know the sacrifices that a coach like Adrian Baxter makes to win.

Those men paid glory’s price — Brown, Halas, Landry, Lombardi. They would understand the hour upon tedious hour of repetition, exasperation and painstaking detail that Baxter invests, every day, in his relentless quest to turn a squad of trembling players with no heart into champions.

Brothers in that rarified coaching fraternity would appreciate it all.

Or maybe not, if they could see Baxter’s team. His players are about an inch tall. Their uniforms are painted on. And they’re plastic.

Baxter’s little quaking men are the wee warriors of electric football, or miniature football, as adherents now call it emphatically. (Electric Football is actually one game maker’s registered trademark.) Their arena is a vibrating field of sheet steel the size of a newspaper page, and only slightly more anachronistic.

Back in their day, the miniature game dominated the wish list of practically every boy, and some girls. Most have long since forgotten it. But Baxter and a subculture of other die-hards have never hit the off switch.

Fifty or more of them, middle-aged men from all over the country, made a pilgrimage to a Hampton Inn here in Amish Country last month for the inaugural convention of the Miniature Football Coaches Association.

That’s a year-old umbrella group for 33 regional leagues with from a dozen to a few dozen members each.

They came from as far away as California to find kindred souls. During the convention, they played a series of games, crowned a miniature-football champion and inducted players into the Miniature Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

The group chose New Philadelphia because it was the closest they could get to Canton, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame was inducting players.

No one here need feel odd over spending four hours or more to paint a single toy man, or hours per week — even hours per day — perfecting their control of tiny figurines. None need to whisper about dropping $500 or $600 on a custom-made playing field, or spending thousands of bucks a year on game pieces and tournament travel. At this convention, the more crazed a guy (all are men, save for a few preteen sons) is about the game, the more he is admired.

But only here. George Diamond, 49, of Harrisburg, Pa., is a legend in the game’s small circle — a seller of customized playing pieces, a tournament organizer and a member of the association’s first Hall of Fame class. But he said that when he kissed his wife goodbye to attend, she told him to “have fun at the nerd convention.

Baxter, an accountant from Forestville, Md., said his girlfriend is even less understanding.

“She thinks I’m obsessed, and she doesn’t like it,” Baxter said. “She feels threatened, almost like I’m cheating.”

But Baxter said he tries to limit his practice time to two hours a day, or maybe seven at most.

Back in the electric-football heyday — the mid-1950s through the mid-’70s — seven hours would have been a realistic estimate of the total use any given kid might have gotten out of his game. Patience with its noise, uncontrollability, randomness and utter chaos could run out in half that time.

Those of midlife-crisis age remember it well. When the vibration began, the plastic guys would quiver like wind-chilled chihuahuas and veer about slowly and uncontrollably until, inevitably, all would coagulate together.

Then the real humans would start to shake, shouting at the inanimate toys to quit holding, or to turn, turn, turn, darn it, before you go out of bounds. After about an hour and maybe four scoreless plays, someone would quit in a huff.

Games that were actually fun to play — from Mattell’s handheld Electronic Football to today’s Madden NFL 09 — drove the buzz boxes into history’s storage shed.

Adherents learned to “tweak” the figurines’ little plastic bases with heat and razors, trimming and curling the downward-protruding fingers to enhance speed and predictability of movement.

Now, tweaking is the game’s most powerful black art: Competitors have been known to pay $25 for a running back with that extra gear.

Then there’s the game’s version of doping. Juice a figurine with enough coats of paint and you can transform a scrawny 2.5-gram lineman into a bulked-up, ‘roided-out 4-gram behemoth who bullies through opposing blockers as though they were mere … toys. So weight limits, and electronic gram scales, are part of every match.

Still, cheating isn’t unheard of: With a little sleight of hand, a devious coach might try to swap a light guy from weigh-in for a heavier, identical player.

“Boys will be boys,” Diamond said with a smirk. “Everybody wants to win.”

That’s why fanatics also invest incalculable time perfecting their control of the game’s “triple threat” quarterback. Those are monstrous players that, in relation to the others on the board, stand two stories tall and have one springy leg and a protruding, catapultlike arm. In a good coach’s hands, that arm can fling a pill-sized felt football downfield with stunning accuracy.

In a bit of irony, the coaches who shunned computerized football games eventually found each other by computer, said Schmidt, 49, of Kansas City, Mo.

“The Internet saved the game,” he said. “I didn’t know there were other guys still playing. I figured there was no one else like me out there. And then I came across chat rooms, which led me to all these other guys.”

Not that there are all that many. Diamond estimates the total enthusiast universe at 600 to 700, and the new association’s top priority is to grow.

Schmidt says he and some mini-football colleagues are getting close to finalizing a televised tournament deal; that, he hopes, could do for this shaky little game what TV did for Texas Hold ‘Em.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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  1. Chris Stacey says:

    I’ve read better reviews.But then again,I’ve
    read worse ones,also.

    SEMPER FI,
    Chris Stacey
    Hampton,VA

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