Northeast Times

Electric-football league keeps players forever young

Ben Daniels lines up his pass as his op­pon­ent Corey John­son watches, Sat­urday at the May­fair Com­munity Cen­ter.

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On Sat­urday af­ter­noon at the May­fair Com­munity Cen­ter, the main gym­nas­i­um was filled with young chil­dren hap­pily play­ing a game of bas­ket­ball.

Just down the hall, a com­mon room in­side the cen­ter was filled with an­oth­er group of kids; only this time around, the “young­sters” were in the 30-to-40-year-old range.

From Feb­ru­ary un­til June, these grown men spend their Sat­urdays and Sundays play­ing a game with the same level of en­thu­si­asm as a child sit­ting on Santa’s lap at Christ­mas­time. They are the mem­bers of the North­east Elec­tric Foot­ball League (NE­FL), and they don’t care about the odd looks they get from out­siders who don’t un­der­stand their pas­sion. No, they just tell folks to look at how much fun they have, which makes all of the puzzled ex­pres­sions worth it.

“We wouldn’t give up this time we have to­geth­er for any­thing,” said NE­FL com­mis­sion­er Corey John­son, a con­struc­tion work­er in his mid-40s. “At the end of the day we’re just a fra­tern­ity of broth­ers. Elec­tric foot­ball brought us to­geth­er, and the friend­ships we’ve formed have kept us to­geth­er.”

With the pop­ular­ity of iPhones, fantasy foot­ball and high-defin­i­tion John Mad­den video games, an old-school, hands-on game like elec­tric foot­ball had be­come lost in the shuffle as tech­no­logy con­tin­ued to evolve. It’s the same tab­letop game that first gained main­stream pop­ular­ity in the 1960s, around the same time that the Na­tion­al Foot­ball League (NFL) was mov­ing in­to its so-called golden era of pop­ular­ity.

The elec­tric game prides it­self on mir­ror­ing the pro game. There are 32 teams — same as in the NFL — and each league mem­ber is as­signed a pro­fes­sion­al fran­chise that he coaches. The NE­FL also fol­lows the 16-game sched­ule of the NFL, fol­lowed by three rounds of play­offs and cul­min­at­ing with the Su­per Bowl.

In the elec­tric ver­sion of the game, mini­ature plastic play­ers, moun­ted on plastic bases, are ar­ranged in pro form­a­tions on a 2-foot-by-3-foot met­al board painted to rep­lic­ate an NFL field. (mid­field and end zone lo­gos in­cluded). The play be­gins when an elec­tric­al switch is pressed, thus trans­mit­ting vi­bra­tions through the met­al board, which in turn sends the mini­ature play­ers in­to mo­tion.

The ball-car­ri­er is “tackled” when his plastic base makes con­tact with an op­pos­ing play­er’s. A pass play is as ar­cha­ic today as it was 40 years ago — a tiny foam foot­ball is at­tached to the passing hand of a spe­cial plastic quar­ter­back, you flick his arm to re­lease the ball, and if it hits the re­ceiv­er you’re aim­ing for, it’s a com­pleted pass.

“People look at me like I’m crazy when I try to ex­plain it, but it really is just like an NFL foot­ball game that you’d watch on TV,” said An­drew Stew­art, a mar­ried ac­count­ant who has been part of the NE­FL for five years. “You need strong tight ends, fast re­ceiv­ers and guys on the board that will take a hit to open up a hole for a big run. You need to have a strong of­fens­ive line to pro­tect your quar­ter­back … the com­pet­it­ive nature of it really is second to none.”

Al­though the NE­FL’s pop­ular­ity has re­mained stead­fast for years (there is a wait­ing list to ac­quire a team), the biggest chal­lenge fa­cing elec­tric foot­ball is at­tract­ing a young­er gen­er­a­tion. Ad­vances in the tech­no­logy of video games, not to men­tion re­mark­able graph­ics, con­tin­ue to push elec­tric foot­ball to­ward ir­rel­ev­ance. The NE­FL also has a chil­dren’s league (called “The Deuce”), but the num­ber of teams has shrunk from a dozen to four or five. In this day and age, keep­ing kids away from the com­puter or tele­vi­sion is one of the biggest chal­lenges for par­ents.

“I like to play be­cause, to me, it’s like a real-life video game,” said 14-year-old Eph­raim Daniels, reign­ing cham­pi­on of The Deuce. “I still play video games like any oth­er kid my age, but this gets me out of the house and doesn’t kill my brain cells. It’s like a mov­ing chess game in that it en­hances your strategy and re­flexes. If oth­er kids gave it a chance, I know they would love it.”

Ad­ded 13-year-old Na­feis Robin­son, who, like Daniels, star­ted play­ing be­cause of his fath­er’s in­volve­ment in the NE­FL: “There’s no luck in­volved in this game. It really gets you think­ing, but I guess a lot of kids don’t like to think when they aren’t in school. My friends def­in­itely don’t un­der­stand it. I feel a re­spons­ib­il­ity to keep it go­ing, and my selling points are usu­ally that there’s no bul­ly­ing, and the ca­marader­ie is great.”

Oth­er leagues ex­ist in such cit­ies as New York, Bal­timore, Wash­ing­ton, Los Angeles and De­troit. Every Janu­ary the hobby holds the “Wiggle Con­ven­tion,” where play­ers from around the coun­try gath­er in one city to cel­eb­rate the broth­er­hood of elec­tric foot­ball.

ldquo;I turned down over­time at my job today to come spend time with these guys,” said John­son, the NE­FL com­mis­sion­er who has earned the nick­name “Na­tion­al” be­cause of his en­thu­si­asm to travel around the coun­try and pro­mote elec­tric foot­ball. “I don’t know if it keeps us young, but it brings back the memor­ies of when we were young and played the game for the first time.”

Mo­ments be­fore he sat down to talk, John­son’s San Fran­cisco 49ers de­feated the In­di­ana­pol­is Colts, 21-14, to move his team to 4-1 on the sea­son. One of his her­oes, Hall of Fame re­ceiv­er Jerry Rice, is a wide re­ceiv­er on John­son’s team; al­though the re­tired Rice no longer plays in the NFL, his status in the NE­FL re­mains act­ive, which al­lows the league par­ti­cipants to “live through these play­ers,” as John­son put it.

Thanks to the oth­er leagues, es­tim­ates are that the game boasts a few hun­dred act­ive com­pet­it­ive play­ers around the coun­try.

“We prob­ably know two-to-three-hun­dred people in­volved in the hobby, dir­ectly or in­dir­ectly,” said Ed Scott, who donned a purple Ad­ri­an Peterson jer­sey as he coached his Min­nesota Vik­ings on Sat­urday. “As you grow older as a man, your life­style changes and you fall out of touch with high school and col­lege friends. Elec­tric foot­ball al­lows us to ex­pand our sphere of friend­ships. What mo­tiv­ates us is that next per­son who walks in the door to join our broth­er­hood.”

And, un­like pro­fes­sion­al foot­ball, all you need to play is a genu­ine in­terest. And even if tech­no­logy has been a threat, it also has been a god­send in some ways — for ex­ample, the league uses so­cial-me­dia sites like Face­book to spread the word.

“It’s so hands on, and you can’t get that from a video game,” John­son said. “It’s com­pet­it­ive … it’s good people hav­ing a good time. I couldn’t be hap­pi­er to be here.” ••

To learn more about the league and how to get in­volved, find it on Face­book at “Philly NE­FL.”

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You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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