Starkey: Electric football alive and well
All-time best sports-related Christmas gift• Easy. It's the same as my worst: An electric football game - Broncos vs. Cowboys - that Santa delivered in the mid-1970's.
I was incredibly pumped until I turned the thing on and saw my running back spinning in circles, as if he'd been drugged in the huddle. My linemen were a bunch of Jim Marshalls, running the wrong way.
The premise was simple enough. You had a metal field and plastic figurines for players. You put them in motion by flicking a switch that made the field vibrate.
As a competitive enterprise with friends, electric football stunk. My solution was to play alone and only from the 5-yard line in. That way, players couldn't veer too far off-course.
To spice things up, I'd turn off the lights and shine a small lamp on the stadium, then pour flour on the field to create a snow effect. I wrapped the linemen's arms with masking tape to create a Gene Upshaw effect.
I was not well.
Until three days ago, I assumed anyone who still owned the game - invented in 1947 - had long since stashed it in the attic, unearthing it only so the kids could gawk at a relic from dad's childhood.
But that was before I typed "electric football" into Google and stumbled across a site run by the "Miniature Football Coaches Association."
I thought this might be a support group for vertically challenged coaches, led by Josh McDaniels. In fact, it is a group of adult electric-football coaches. Grown men from all regions of this country are competing in electric-football leagues (Pittsburgh's league is dormant, from what I understand).
More than 100 men from Harrisburg to L.A. gather annually for a national electric football championship. This year's is scheduled for January in Columbus.
How did I miss this?
Michael Landsman is head of Miggle Toys Inc., the largest seller of electric football games. He said he sells thousands each year, plus parts, of which there are many.
"Business is good," he said, "even in this economy."
Prices range from $32 for a basic game to $500 for an oak-table model. The hottest seller is a Rose Bowl replica with lights.
But here's what really caught my attention: The game has advanced to where players run straight and fast and look incredibly realistic.
Philadelphia construction worker Corey Johnson is part of a 32-team league. He said the key to player manipulation is tweaking the bristles under the base. Coaches use jewelers pliers and even run a flame across the bristles to burn off excess plastic (imagine mom's reaction if you'd tried that!).
Craftsmen are solicited to customize fields and figurines. Some coaches even order tiny mascots and cheerleaders. If you want a Troy Polamalu with hair or a Jack Lambert without teeth, all you have to do is ask, and people such as John Menesini will deliver.
Menesini, 34, is a Stanton Heights caterer who found side work feeding the obsession of electric-football coaches such as Johnson, who uses a team of all-time San Francisco 49ers.
Johnson wanted a miniature coach to stand on the sidelines, so he asked Menesini to make a statuette of Bill Walsh holding the Lombardi Trophy.
For around $20, Menesini nailed it, right down to Walsh's blue eyes.
"I was able to glue the tiny clay football on a balsa wood stick - that's the Lombardi Trophy," Menesini said.
This gets more absurd, or beautiful, depending on your perspective. Johnson has an electric-train set surrounding his home field and fires it up every time his team scores.
How much does he spend on his team?
"Can't say," he said. "My wife sees that, and I'll be out the door."
Players have weight limits, around 3 grams, though some are stronger than others. Johnson said "two guys in Detroit" are like "strength-and-conditioning coaches," noted for tweaking bases to make players more powerful.
What's next, steroids?
We're talking about 1 1⁄2-inch plastic figurines!
I asked Kansas resident Lynn Schmidt, former MFCA president, what his wife thinks of his "hobby."
"She basically thinks we're nuts," he said. "We are nuts."
I think so, too.
Where do I sign up?