The Best Christmas Present in the History of Ever

e609ac07-0160-401e-acea-3deeb82d728e_1.0ab43e92084f38099b22eec8361cf2d6Before Mattel Electronics Football and Coleco Electronic Quarterback, before Madden Football (and numerous other football video games), there was a Tudor Games Electric Football. I got my first one when I was just seven years old. It ranks as the greatest Christmas present Santa ever placed under the Knaak family Christmas tree.

If you are not familiar, the game consists of a metal board painted to look like a football field. The board has a power cord and a switch. A typical electric football game comes with two teams – either painted National Football League teams, or blank paint-them-yourself-teams. Jersey number decals are also included, along with a scoreboard, goal posts, yard markers and foam footballs. Two “triple-threat” quarterbacks (haha) also come in the box. You get two sets of “bases” – either rookie bases that run straight (in theory) or Total Team Control (TTC) bases which feature a wheel that enables you to set players off in a desired direction or pattern (in theory). You also got an order form so you could send away for more teams and/or accessories.

220px-John_madden_footballMy first board was as generic as they come. No NFL branding, no college markings, just two blank teams – one yellow and one white – with associated jersey number decals (black and blue). My father and I were fond of assembling plastic model kits and there was always an abundance of enamel paints (Testors and Pactra) of all colors on hand. My father set to painting the figures. The white team ended up looking a lot like the Raiders (my team) in their road uniforms, and the yellow team, well, let’s just say they ended up yellow and two shades of blue.

I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and by the time Christmas rolled around winter had pretty much set in. As an only child, cold winter nights got a bit boring. As anyone who grew up lower middle class in the 1970s can attest, we had one TV. I read comic books (and chapter books when I was old enough), played outside with my friends and watched TV with my parents for entertainment. Electric football changed everything.

220px-Coleco_Electronic_QuarterbackMy father couldn’t stand the game. I begged him to play. He would hem and haw and finally give in and then bail out halfway through the game because his players stubbornly refused to run in a straight line or as the ball carrier was headed for paydirt, he would inexplicably dart out of bounds short of the goal line. So, I learned to play by myself – “solitaire” games as they are called now. My friend Joey got a set within a year or two of me. He got the ABC Monday Night Football edition that came with the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. I’d go over to his house to play – he usually won, he always won when we played games. I also used to take my game over to other friends’ houses to play.

Within two years, the power switch started to short out. My father, who was really good at fixing things, would get out his soldering iron, some solder and flux, and fix the switch. This happened more than once.

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Christmas 1977. You can see in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo, my first electric football game.

By this time, I had taken to ordering teams and accessories. When I was a kid, Cremora non-dairy coffee creamer came in tall glass jars. We used to keep our spare change, mostly pennies, in rinsed out Cremora jars. I would sit with the order form and roll pennies until I had enough for what I wanted + shipping and handling. The unpainted teams were always cheaper than the pre-painted NFL teams, so I would get blank squads that Dad and I could paint. I would give my dad the rolls of pennies and the completed order form. He would take everything to the bank, get a money order, and then mail off my order to Tudor Games in Brooklyn, N.Y. Four to six weeks later, a small brown padded envelope would arrive with my football dreams inside.

By late 1979, I had more than a few teams and I was playing the game regularly. On December 3, 1979, the Oakland Raiders were in New Orleans to take on the Saints on ABC’s Monday Night Football. I had the mind to play the game out myself with electric football. I had the Raiders and I had the Saints. While my father watched the game on our 19-inch Zenith television in the living room. I set the board up in the floor near an electrical outlet in the dining room. I plugged it in, got the teams out, performed the coin toss, set up for the opening kickoff, kicked off with the triple-threat quarterback, placed the foam football under the kick returners arm, and flipped the switch. Nothing. No telltale buzz. Not even the usual thunk of a closed circuit. Just a dead switch.

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My son has been indoctrinated in the ways of the buzz.

It was a school night. It would be a few years before I would get special dispensation to stay up late when the Raiders were on Monday Night Football. I knew my time was limited. I lost my mind. I was nine and I balled like a baby because my game was broken. My father, after much begging and pleading by your humble narrator, got out the soldering kit and fixed his only child’s game. I was able to stay up a little later and play. The Raiders beat the Saints that night in one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in their franchise history. It’s been my job to tell that story for the last 20 years.

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I won this game on a last-second touchdown pass. Shocking, I know.

Some years later, I finally got a new game for Christmas – the Super Bowl edition. The board was huge and the field was sunken in. Rather than buy labels for the scoreboard, I made my own copying team logotypes, coloring them in and cutting them out in the proper shape for the scoreboard. By this time, electric football had gone from just a game to a full-blown hobby. My dad and I spent hours on end painting teams, often more accurately than what you could buy from Tudor Games. I used my dad’s tape recorder and announced play-by-play for my solitaire games. My cat Siam would crawl up on my shoulder and watch the action.

I also had taken to getting out my dad’s old Remington typewriter and banging out rosters for each of my teams. I eventually had 22 of 28 (at the time). I made schedules and one year I played an eight-game season for the whole “league.” Marcus Allen would lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl title – funny how that worked. Art imitates life (even if the fix may or may not have been in).

images (2)Everyone I knew had the Mattel Electronic Football handheld game. I got the Tudor Games version – talk about brand loyalty. I had the Coleco Electronic Quarterback before that. Neither compared to electric football, but they did help with the long car rides on family vacations, until Dad told me to turn off the, “beep, beep, boobeep.”

I had been in the Navy four or five years and I had taken the game and my teams with me to Washington, D.C., the final duty station of my Navy career. As I was moving from one rental to another in Maryland in 1996, I left everything in the attic of the townhouse where I had been living. I had forgotten one of my most prized possessions.

Eventually, I put electric football away in the deep recesses of my mind. Over time I figured Tudor Games went out of business.

In 2001 (I think), my now wife and I were traveling back east from California. I happened to flip through the Sky Mall catalog and lo and behold, what should I spy with my little eye? A page full of ELECTRIC FOOTBALL! Tudor Games had been purchased by a company called Miggle Toys out of Chicago and the Sky Mall catalog had three sets featured.

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Me trying to use the Electric Football Challenge app as kickoff time approached.

Santa Claus brought me the ABC Monday Night Football edition with the lighted stadium! The game came with the Green Bay Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. I didn’t rightly care which teams were included. There was a newsletter in the box. There were leagues all across the country. There were tournaments and a Super Bowl of electric football. Who knew? On Christmas Day, I set it all up and the Packers and the Jaguars had it out in Living Room Stadium on the coffee table. It was 1977 and I was seven years old all over again.

And then I put it away. It went right in the closet. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t know. I didn’t get it out again for more than a decade. Three or four years ago, I dragged it out and taught my now 13-year-old how to play. It was still Jaguars vs. Packers, but it didn’t matter. Last year for Christmas I got him the Raiders in home and away uniforms. We recreated Super Bowl II, a couple of times. We just did again last night (the Packers won 21-13).

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Kitchen Stadium was the place to be last night.

The game is still maddening. The players don’t run in straight lines. They run out of bounds at the one-yard line just before they’re about to score, they run around in circles. The kickers are too powerful and you spend almost as much time scouring the floor for the football as you do playing the damn game. Passing is almost a joke. You need the patience of Buddha and the manual dexterity of Michelangelo to complete a pass. People have come up with all kinds of tricks and workarounds for the passing game.

Tudor Games bought their progeny back in 2012. Now there’s a website where you can order game boards customized for every team in the NFL. There’s even an Army/Navy version. You can get pre-painted teams, you can get blank teams, you can order two types of jersey numbers, players in true action poses, paints and decals, referees, cheerleaders, chain gangs, you name it. Tudor Games is very active on social media these days. There’s even an app that will do the (simulated) kicking and passing for you. I tried the app, it’s more frustrating than playing the game. I’ll stick to the old ways, and the “vintage” game board.

74495930_2594066463949360_2116868897775812608_nWhen my friend, colleague and neighbor, Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, passed away recently, Tudor Games posted a photo of Brown’s iconic 75-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI in an electric football setting. I got choked up. It was one of the best tributes to “Old Man Willie” that I saw.

I’m 50 now. I can’t tell you what it means to be able to play electric football and share it 43 years after getting my first one. Kids I knew who had a set abandoned it within weeks or months after getting it. Not me. I had electric baseball too, but it didn’t have the exciting gameplay or the charm of electric football.

There’s something about setting up the players in formation, placing that little foam football under a ball carrier’s arm, flipping that switch, hearing the “thunk” of a completed circuit followed by that all too familiar “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz,” plastic gridiron heroes skittering across that metal board heading for the end zone … “he’s at the 30, the 20, the 10, the five …”

“What are you doing?!?”

Dammit, out of bounds at the one.

Season Finale of the Get the Knaak Podcast

Listen in as my good friend and old Navy buddy Chris Ingalls of www.popmatters.com joins me for some conversation about anything and everything. Thanks for listening this year everyone. Hopefully you have enjoyed the conversation and interviews. The podcast will be back in January. In the meantime, here is an hour and eight minutes of your life you’ll never get back.