A recent article in Sports Illustrated examined an interesting phenomenon: fewer and fewer young men are choosing to play high school football. The reporter cited a number of reasons for the decline, including increased competition from alternative sports (such as soccer), the high expense of fielding a football team, and the risk of serious injury. One coach even complained that video football games, with their hyper-realistic action and sound, are pulling boys away from the real thing. They can get the thrills without the suffering.
Simulation technology has surely made great strides, because when I was a kid there wasn’t a football coach from sea to shining sea who would have worried about losing any potential linebackers to the imitation football of that era: electric football.
Back in the early 1970s, when I was about ten and my brother was about eight, electric football was one of the Christmas gifts every boy in the neighborhood wanted. In the Sears Christmas catalog – the “wish book” – electric football appeared to be something truly wonderful: a way to stage small-scale, simulated pro football games right in your own bedroom, or playroom, or basement. Each set came with two teams in uniforms of actual pro teams, like the Dallas Cowboys or the Baltimore Colts, plus an electrified football field. Once you set the players up on the field and flipped the switch, what happened was supposed to be an approximation of the real thing, transforming your room into the Orange Bowl or Soldier Field and you into a pint-sized Don Shula or Tom Landry, orchestrating your team’s attack. When we finally opened our electric football set on Christmas morning, we expected epic gridiron struggles, hard-hitting action, and heart-stopping excitement.
The reality of electric football proved to be somewhat less enthralling. The players were tiny figurines, just an inch high (except the quarterback, who was freakish two-inch giant) and they were badly painted. The helmets of my brother’s Minnesota Vikings featured not a sharp horn but an elongated white blob. Each player stood atop a green plastic pedestal. The players were not flexible, but frozen in poses associated with their positions – linemen in blocking stance, and so on. To start a game, you and your opponent lined up your teams in formation on the metal football field, which was about three feet long. Then you flipped the switch.
What happened next was not something you could envision O.J. Simpson or Fran Tarkenton being a part of, no matter how vivid your imagination might have been. The metal field began to hum and vibrate, a grating buzz, like a sound effect in a low-budget Japanese science fiction movie, and atop the field the players began to vibrate, too, like 22 little statues having simultaneous seizures. If the prongs on the bottoms of the plastic pedestals were adjusted just right, the players would sort of move toward each other, meeting in a kind mass, spastic dance in the center of the field. The running back, carrying a tiny football-shaped piece of felt, did not have a nose of the endzone. He might make an erratic, drunken run for the sideline, or chase himself in jittery circles, like Curly of the Three Stooges trying to survive and earthquake. When a player on the other team touched him the play was over. Of course this was always a purely random event: sometimes they even backed into each other. The “tackle” made, you flipped off the switch, and spent several tedious minutes setting up for another play, another disillusioning spectacle.
So electric football failed to meet our expectations. Hell, it failed to get within a hundred miles of our expectations. But that’s usually the way things went when we bought something we had seen advertised. We were the kind of suckers who ordered X-ray glasses and Charles Atlas muscle building kits from comic books, ripe targets for the kind of manufacturers who design products more to be alluring than satisfying. If you’re going to live your life in a consumer society, I suppose it helps to have some early, low-stakes experiences with that kind of scam. In the end, all we ever really lost to electric football was a little of our parents’ money, a little of our credulity, and a little of our youth. We gave it a few chances to become interesting, and it flopped, so we finally flipped the “off” switch for the last time, dug the real football out of the closet, and went out to the back yard.
I wish I still had my electric football set. It would be nice to have around as a freakish specimen of a technological blunder, like a two-headed fetal pig preserved in formaldehyde. Or I could sell it to an antique toy collector and buy my kids a week at some educational camp. But it is gone. And I have no idea what became of it. Given the fact that it disappointed us so much, and given the tendency of boys our age to blow up any non-prized possessions as soon as we got our hands on some firecrackers, those 22 figurines were likely prospects for a mass execution. But I don’t remember anything like that. What probably happened was this: it went into the back of the closet and gathered dust there until Mom finally took it to the Salvation Army. And one day some poor boys in our town found themselves covering their ears against a horrible buzzing noise and watching 22 little figures do a jittery dance that didn’t look anything like football.