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Canzano: Nothing like the electricity of football
One game. One Christmas. Best gift ever?
I tried to explain the video game Pong to my daughters the other day. Atari released the home version of it when I was a little kid.
“It was like two-dimensional table tennis,” I explained.
They went silent.
We had one of those Atari 2600 video consoles. It was a big deal. I remember playing Lunar Lander, a video game based on the 1969 Apollo mission to the Moon. We also had Asteroids and, later, a primitive version of Pac-Man. But no video game could ever compare to the most wonderful game of my childhood — Electric Football.
I never met Norman Sas. The mechanical engineer died a decade ago. He owned Tudor Games and invented the electric table-top game that featured a vibrating metal field, a felt football and unpredictable plastic players. When I was in the fourth grade, I ripped open what would become the most memorable Christmas gift I ever received.
I got Electric Football.
My parents must have known I’d love it. I was 9 and sports crazy. I devoured the box scores in the daily newspaper and consumed games on television and radio. And when nobody in the neighborhood was around, I’d wander into the backyard by myself with a football.
I’d play imaginary football games — dropping back to pass, throwing the ball downfield, then racing to dive and catch the pass myself. I was the running back, the quarterback, receiver, punter and place kicker, all at once. I played until dark, often while commentating the plays under my breath in the voice of Monday Night Football broadcaster Howard Cosell.
On Christmas morning, 1979, amid rising interest rates and a looming recession, my parents explained to their four children that the budget was tight. We’d each receive one gift. As I opened my present with my three siblings alongside, my mother trained a Polaroid camera in our direction and snapped a photograph.
I… look… thrilled.
My siblings look delighted too. My father and younger brother would soon become the opposing head coaches. That duty included the meticulous task of setting up 11 plastic players on their side while I did the same on my side. It was not unlike having to reset an entire chess board after every move.
Once the offensive and defensive players were in position, I’d flip the switch. We’d lean forward and watch the players jiggle about the field for a minute.
Then, came second down.
My version of the game had only two teams (HOME vs. VISITOR). There were no names on the jerseys. The tiny felt football was always getting lost. I eventually replaced the ball with a bit of pencil eraser. Most of the time, the players either drifted off in scattered directions or bunched together in a tangled scrum. But every once in awhile, you’d turn the game on and an orchestra unfolded.
The blockers blocked.
The ball carrier slipped through a hole.
What would ensue was a 70-yard jaunt to the end zone while shrieks from a 9-year-old little boy echoed through our home. And there was no screen-time involved, folks.
I don’t know what happened to my Electric Football game. Maybe I wore the thing out. A couple of Christmases ago, my parents found an old one on eBay and sent it to me. I opened it in front of my own children and demonstrated the tedious task of setting up the players and flipping the switch.
They watched one play.
“That’s it?” one of them said.
I looked up. The girls were gone. But I played on. That Electric Football game is still in our garage somewhere. And on Christmas morning, while sipping coffee and watching my own children open presents, I thought for a moment about that old mechanical engineer, Norman Sas.
Sas went to college at MIT. His father, Elmer, owned and operated Tudor Metal Products in New York. The company made xylophones and a children’s bank. Later, it used a small motor to create vibrations on a metal plate, which sparked car and horse-racing games.
Norman took over his father’s company in the 1940s. He invented Electric Football and sold a pile of them before selling the company in the late 1980s. I talked with former NFL coach Mike Holmgren once about Electric Football. Holmgren got it for Christmas as a kid, too, and still tells people it was the best present he ever received.
Tudor Games still offers Electric Football, no doubt pandering to the nostalgia of a generation. Now, though, you can buy your favorite team, jersey numbers included. Also, you can play games in your team’s home football stadium. The company offers all the NFL teams and three colleges (Ohio State, Army and Navy). Turns out there are some well established Electric Football leagues, tournaments and clubs around the country.
I got my start on Pong. We weren’t the first to get the Atari system. But when we did I marveled at how much fun it was to play two-dimensional table tennis. Later, I had a handheld “electronic” football game that I loved to play. When I was in college, Nintendo released Tecmo Bowl. I loved playing that football game. But nothing compared to old-fashioned Electric Football.
When Sas died in 2012 he couldn’t have comprehended how many Christmas-morning smiles he’d manufactured.
There was just nothing like it.
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