Adapted from a piece on Slate's Hang Up and Listen podcast.
The sound of Electric Football is one powerful, echoic memory. Lower in pitch than a barbershop razor, less frenetic than a blender, a cross between a vacuum cleaner and an apartment-building front-door buzzer. Crank the Adjusting Screw in the corner of the end zone and the sheet-metal playing field turned into a gridiron hellscape. The felt ball, the two-point-stance blockers, the untamable chaos. Retractable-armed Fran Tarkenton, I miss you.
Electric Football was invented in 1947 by Norman Sas, who had taken over a New York metal-products company run by his father. Tudor Metal Products had been selling car and horse-racing games in which pieces moved through vibrations generated by a small motor stuck beneath a piece of metal. According to his New York Times obituary, Sas adapted the technology to capitalize on the growing popularity of football after World War II.
The NFL licensed Electric Football in 1967, and Tudor Games sold millions of sets to kids like me. But as video games dawned, sales declined. In 1988, the year John Madden Football debuted, Sas sold to a company called Miggle Toys. The NFL withdrew its license in 2007. A new owner, a Seattle-area businessman named Doug Strohm, has revived the Tudor name, expanded the product line and landed some nice publicity—a Big Mac commercial in September, an NPR piece in October, the cover story in the Washington Post Magazine last Sunday. The Post reported that Strohm plans to add iPad apps and digital scoreboards. He wants the middle-aged parents of a "lost generation" of Madden players to buy lower-tech Electric Football for their kids, while tricking it out enough so those kids will flip the switch and feel the buzz.
Marketing and sales aside, Electric Football never went away. The children of the '70s and '80s turned into obsessive men of the '90s and beyond who paint figurines, meet in chat rooms and compete in leagues. A book—a 652-page book—about the history of Electric Football, The Unforgettable Buzz, was published last year. There's a Miniature Football Coaches Association, complete with a Miniature Football Coaches Hall of Fame (2013 inductee Corey "Mr. National" Johnson "always puts the game first, above personal achievement"). Next week, aficionados will gather at an Embassy Suites in Philadelphia for TudorCon 14: Electric Football World Championships and Convention.
What makes competitive Electric Football possible is what seemed impossible at home: controlling the movements of the players. (My two-inch tall Giants inevitably spun in endless circles or pulled a Jim Marshall and ran to the wrong end zone.) The secret is a process known as "tweaking," though meth is not involved, just pliers and a cigarette lighter. And the Miniature Football website includes training videos to help you get the most out of your roster.
Let's take a lesson, shall we? Our narrator is Maurice "The Electric Coach" Robertson. In just two short, mesmerizing videos, MoRob is going to turn a BuzzBall Speed Diamond figure into an Electric Football assassin. At the beginning of the first video, MoRob's out-of-the-box base (just the base, without a player on top), runs backward. Why? Because the eight prongs under the base are misaligned. MoRob takes his needlenose pliers and squeezes, flattens, straightens and tugs the prongs toward the rear of the base. Then it's time for a test run.
Now that the base is moving forward, MoRob needs to test it for resistance, how it performs up face-to-face against another base. So he sticks an unpainted wide receiver on the base and matches the rookie against ... Darrelle Revis!
Maybe because he's still on the Jets, Revis ABUSES the rookie, pushing him back 10 yards before MoRob gives the kid a break and turns off the field. To show the rook how it's done, MoRob summons a seasoned veteran. It's DeSean Jackson!
With textbook form, Jackson holds up Revis and then releases downfield, probably talking trash along the way. To block like Jackson, the rookie needs more prong surface on the playing field. So MoRob squeezes and flattens the prongs with his duckbill pliers. The rookie does better against Revis, but Revis is still in command. So MoRob squeezes some more. "Get those nice and soft and supple," he says.
This time, the rookie blows by Revis, and it's awesome. The question now is whether the rookie lost any speed while being transformed into a blocking animal. So on the second video, MoRob brings out ... Reggie Bush! Reggie is so fast that MoRob gives the rookie a five-yard head start.
The problem? Excessive plastic protruding from the tips of the prongs. That's called flash, and it's slowing the rookie down. MoRob removes the flash using his needle-nose pliers and a cigarette lighter—helpfully cautioning children not to try this alone "because fire and plastic do not mix." Flashing seems to be the testosterone gummy of Electric Football, because MoRob is so confident that this time he gives Bush a five-yard head start.
Mo likes what he sees. But there's more tweaking. The base holds his ground against Revis, even gaining a couple of yards of push. Rookie a man now. So MoRob lines him up head to head against Bush from the goal line.
Cornerback! That has to be crushing for the rookie. But you gotta do what coach says.
Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.