Electric Football, Invented In 1948, Still Alive And Buzzing

Oct 11, 2013
Originally published on October 11, 2013 10:52 pm

Professional football is America's real pastime.

The 2013 Super Bowl was the third-most-watched piece of television in recorded history. The first- and second-most-watched? The previous two Super Bowls.

And buried deep down inside that avalanche of fandom are the people who still play a board game invented in 1948 called electric football.

Their hard work is now on exhibit at the ADA art gallery in Richmond, Va. There are rows upon rows of miniaturized, plastic versions of the 49ers, Patriots and Eagles — each in their prime years, of course.

You'll find the details you could easily ignore even at human scale. The players are all about 2 inches tall, but they wear jerseys with corporate sponsor logos and helmets with microscopic chin straps that require tweezers and a lot of patience to apply.

Functional And Active Art

When you play electric football, you are a "coach." And as a coach, you send those bite-size players into battle on a metal football field often the size of a lunch table.

Today at ADA, the main coaches are Kelvin Lomax of Washington, D.C., and Dru Sparks of Richmond. They employ real football strategy, shifting players around by hand in carefully planned formations. These are plays they have practiced before.

When everyone is finally set at the line of scrimmage, Sparks flips a switch, which sends electricity into the metal board. The board starts to vibrate, sending both teams scuttling into motion.

"Look at that boy go! Look at that!" Sparks says.

Sparks cheers his tiny, inanimate running back as it rumbles through the defense for a crucial first down. Sparks, 43, played this game as a teenager.

"I practiced for an hour or two every day. I had two-a-days: offense in the morning, defense in the evening, especially in the summertime," he says. "I was the best in the neighborhood then. I was pretty good."

There was one big problem with the old days, though: Those little players were completely unreliable.

Your miniature Joe Namath might find space to complete a magnificent Hail Mary pass. But on a bad day, he might just spin in circles forever — or worse, fall over.

Then fans learned how to tweak the metal prongs on the bottom of each player.

Today, your QB will consistently drop back to pass, with a springy little arm throwing a putty football at your receiver. And the receiver — with his metal prongs tweaked appropriately — can run his route and be waiting downfield.

Football Of The Future

Electric football is in its offseason right now. Games start up later this fall, where there will be a real championship ring on the line. And winning that ring is no easy business.

"It's a lot of Saturdays sitting in rooms like this," Sparks says, laughing. "It's beautiful outside. I've got a family, you know? I'm in here playing with plastic men with four other dudes. That's what I'm doing."

The future of electric football is not clear. In 2007, the NFL dropped its licensing for the game, which meant no more NFL players or team logos. Everyone here agrees, that was a pretty rough year.

But these guys can manage. They've seen worse.

"Video games killed electric football," says one of the fans here, Mark Francis. Francis once researched the shoe deals of every player on his 1980s 49ers teams just to make sure no one was wearing Nikes when he should be wearing Reeboks.

"Electric football was hot in the '60s and when I played in the '70s. And in the '80s it died," Francis says.

The men in this room didn't give up using their boyhood imaginations decades ago when Madden video games came along and made it a lot easier to re-create the NFL experience.

They're unlikely to give up now.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We turn now to football or something like it. It's a board game invented in 1948 called electric football. And while it's not wildly popular, it does have some remarkably devoted fans. Some of their memorabilia is now on display at an art gallery in downtown Richmond, Virginia. NPR's Chris Benderev went for a look.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Let's just get right to the action. We're in the back of the ADA art gallery on the 20 yard line of a metal football field the size of a small lunch table.

KELVIN LOMAX: All right, come on, let's go. (Unintelligible).

BENDEREV: Kelvin Lomax of Washington, D.C., is facing off against Dru Sparks of Richmond. And for Sparks right now, things do not look very good. It's fourth and long, he's deep in his own half, but he's going for it anyway.

DRU SPARKS: This is what I call my pre-snap read, OK.

BENDEREV: Just like in real football, both teams come to the line of scrimmage, and just like real coaches, Sparks and Lomax start shifting their players around.

SPARKS: We're going to bring my safety back here.

BENDEREV: The difference is, if they want to move a guy, they just pick him up because he's plastic and about two inches tall.

LOMAX: He should be able to block this dude. That's what I'm thinking because...

BENDEREV: When they're finally ready, they turn the board on. It rumbles and vibrates, and that makes all the players shuffle into motion.

SPARKS: Watch him get to that hole, though. Watch him get to that hole. Look at that boy go. Look at that. That's what I'm talking about. That's a well-designed play.

BENDEREV: Dru Sparks gets that huge first down he needed.

SPARKS: Saw it coming, did what we had to do, saw it coming.

BENDEREV: Now, ostensibly, Dru Sparks and Kelvin Lomax and about a half-dozen other electric football fans, they are here in this art gallery today because their work is on display - beautifully re-created stadiums and tiny, hand-painted players. But they're also here for another reason, and that's because if you're a guy like Dru Sparks, most days you just do not get to talk about electric football this much, about how much you love the game, about how even as a teenaged electric football coach you were disciplined.

SPARKS: I practiced for an hour or two every day. I practiced - had two-a-days. Offense in the morning, defense in the evening, especially in the summertime.

BENDEREV: And how'd you do?

SPARKS: I was the best in the neighborhood then, OK. I was pretty good.

BENDEREV: There was one big problem in the old days, though. Those little players were completely unreliable. A tiny Joe Namath might find space to complete a magnificent Hail Mary pass. But on a bad day, he might just spin in circles forever or fall over. Everything changed, though, when fans learned how to tweak the metal prongs on the bottom of each player.

Today, your QB will consistently drop back to pass, and you can pass, seriously.

LOMAX: We can really make a pass here.

BENDEREV: You use the quarterback's springy little arm to slingshot a putty football at your receiver.

SPARKS: It's complete, it's complete.

BENDEREV: Electric football is in its off-season right now. Games start up later this fall, and there will be a real championship ring on the line. Dru Sparks is dead set on winning that ring.

SPARKS: It's a lot of Saturdays sitting in rooms like this.

(LAUGHTER)

SPARKS: It's beautiful outside. You know, I got a family, you know what I'm saying? I'm in here playing with plastic men with four other dudes.

(LAUGHTER)

SPARKS: That's what I'm doing. Oh, he made the play. He made the play.

BENDEREV: The future of electric football is not clear. In 2007, the NFL dropped its licensing for the game, which meant no more real players and no more real team logos. Everyone here agrees that was a pretty rough year. But at the same time, these guys will be OK. They didn't give up using their boyhood imaginations decades ago, when Madden video games came along and made it a lot easier to re-create the full NFL experience. So why would they give up now? Chris Benderev, NPR News.

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