HUNT VALLEY, Md. -- Chris Stringer never murdered anyone over a game of electric football. This is not for a lack of intent.
Over the past decade, the 36-year-old Stringer has played hundreds of contests against good friend Bernard Laster, most lasting several hours, some clear through the night, the two men hunched over a vibrating game board as the morning sun rises over Stringer's home in nearby Clinton and Laster's wife wondering if her husband is seeing someone else.
The games are intense, exhausting, downright consuming. Bragging rights are at stake. League titles hang in the balance. Dynasties rise and fall on fractions of an inch, greatness measured in thumbnail-thin prongs of green plastic.
After one hard-fought match a few years back, Stringer and Laster came dangerously close to fighting for real -- that is, until the latter came to his senses. And not a moment too soon.
"I wanted to kill 'im," Stringer admits.
"I said, 'We can fight,'" Laster recalls. "But don't fight over the board."
Laster laughs, lifting his drink. His breath smells like Jack and Coke. Stringer guffaws, slapping him on the back. Following the near-brawl, Stringer didn't play electric football for two years; today, he's back in the game. And he has come to the right place. One week before the real-life Super Bowl in Detroit, this hotel conference room just north of Baltimore is hosting the Super Bowl of Electric Football, a weekend event that's part jamboree, part Mecca for devotees of the old-school tabletop game.
Enter through the double doors. Take in the scene: Men (mostly), kids (some) and women (more than you'd expect) mill about the room, holding miniature plastic football players between thumb and forefinger. They hail from Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania. States red and blue. To the right is the stuff for sale: tiny uniform decals, vintage game boards reading SELECTRO-MATIC QUARTERBACK and JOE NAMATH FOOTBALL, an inch-high version of Ohio State's 2002 national championship team, hand-detailed down to whisker-thin chinstraps.
Looks left. Quarterfinal games are about to begin. Participants wear football jerseys, Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns. They call each other Coach. They unpack figurines from foam-lined carrying cases, hold them up to the flickering florescent light, squint like grooms in a diamond shop. Some carry hand towels, dabbing their foreheads in the manner of Baptist preachers.
Over the chatter, a familiar noise can be heard, on and off and seemingly constant, the sound of the game and also cicadas.
"I love that sound," says Laster, a Woodbridge, Va., resident who's clad in a dark blue Peyton Manning jersey. "I get a little football man in my hands, and something happens to me."
"You score a touchdown," he says, "and it's almost better than sex."
Stringer, it should be noted, is married. So is Norbert Revels. A 41-year-old from Hamtramck, Mich., Revels met his wife, Valerie, in high school. He was a senior. She was a junior. The first time she visited his house, Norbert was playing electric football with five of his buddies.
Valerie sat. She waited. For eight hours. So when Norbert rediscovered the game in 2003 -- following a two-decade hiatus -- her reaction was predictable.
Oh my God. Not again.
"It's a huge passion for me," Revels says, smiling. "I can't put into words how much I love it."
Revels crosses his arms. His legs twitch. He sits at a table, in front of a game board and across from Walt Davis, a 40-year-old surveyor from Lewisville, N.C.
Davis is competing in his first electric football Super Bowl. He usually plays alone. Revels won last year's tournament, upsetting two-time champ Edgar Downs of Gary, Ind. He usually plays a lot. A dozen-plus spectators crowd around the table, necks craning for a better view.
"He has a physical style of play," onlooker Greg Wheeler says of Revels, his voice tinged with admiration.
A network camera crew sets up near the wall, tangled wires in tow. Revels circles the table. Crouching down, he stares at the far end zone. Stringer and Laster watch his every move.
"I thought I was just about the best player there was," Laster says. "Then I came here and got my butt kicked. These guys are good."
"You have to know every single man on the board," Stinger adds.
Davis lays out his Dallas Cowboys figurines, about two dozen in all. Some play offense and defense. Not so with Revels. His Kansas City Chiefs are specialized -- starters and subs, grouped by type, deployed on the table in phalanx formation. Toy soldiers aren't as orderly.
One by one, Revels places figurines on the game board. He flips a switch. Buzz! The faux field vibrates. Priest Holmes moves forward, then veers toward the sideline. Not good. A wide receiver runs a diagonal post route. He should be running a zigzag post corner.
"Uh-uh," Revels mutters, shaking his head. "You lose a lot of energy in those prongs."
Next comes Larry Johnson. Buzz! The tiny running back darts across the metal surface, fast and straight and true. Revels grins.
"He's gonna take over," he says. "People think this is just guys running in circles. But you do this six, seven hours a day, and you learn how it works."
Electric football is just like the childhood game you remember, in the way that the Rolling Stones are the same band that recorded "Let It Bleed."
Mick Jagger can still slither his hips. Keith Richards continues to resemble a ferryman on the river Styx. Introduced in 1947, electric football remains a game in which 22 little plastic men wobble around an oscillating metal board, aimlessly spinning like dradles.
Wait. Scratch the last part.
"When I was a kid, you'd turn on the board and they would go all over," Richard Tubolino says. "Now, it's much more refined, much more fun. Seven out of 10 times I can draw up a play that makes it look like real football."
A 50-year-old from Syracuse, N.Y., Tubolino is less a hardcore coach than a casual collector; like Davis, he mostly plays solitaire. Clad in a Cleveland Browns sweatshirt and cap, he's busy unpacking figurines and game boards, spreading them out across two folding card tables.
Tubolino holds a 1980s Tampa Bay Buccaneers figurine, painted in orange and white, topped off with a tiny helmet decal. He sighs. "It was hellish getting the little pirate guy on there." Next comes a set from the 1950's, a board reading TRU-ACTION GAME. The players are plastic, yellow and red. The linemen squat. Everyone else is frozen in a paleozoic Heisman Trophy pose, stiff-arm out.
Tubolino picks up something that could be mistaken for a mechanical grasshopper, a spring-loaded metal contraption no bigger than his thumb.
"This is supposed to be a quarterback," he says with a laugh. "I don't know how to make it work. And the rest of these guys don't do a damn thing."
Much has changed. At some point between Tru-Action's heyday and now -- no one knows exactly when, or how -- electric footballers discovered that the figurines could move like real players. Go fast. Go straight. Turn at a 90-degree angle. Cover ground in a sweeping semicircle, like a blitzing Lawrence Taylor coming around the corner.
The trick? Manipulating the green plastic bases that sit beneath the figurines. Aficionados call the process "tweaking." It takes tools. Fire. The patience of Barry Bonds at the plate. And when it comes to tweaking, one man is the Ron Wolf of the hobby, the acknowledged master of building championship squads.
"Mike Pratt is the king," says Lenny Hargrave, a 17-year-old from Nicholson, Pa. "Last night, he had a line of guys at his room, halfway out the hallway. He can make the players do anything."
Pratt sits in the main room of his hotel suite. A 44-year-old from Hollidaysburg, Pa., he builds custom computers for a living. He's a born tinkerer. "If it's not broke," he jokes, "I'll fix it."
A half-empty pack of Baby Ruth candy bars rests on the kitchen counter. The dining table is empty, save a bath towel and a game board. Pratt isn't hungry.
"There's not a day of the week that I don't have a table out," he says. "You gotta push the envelope. For me, this is the most fun part of the hobby."
As a teenager, Pratt sprayed his bases with WD-40. Soaked 'em in oil. Stuck 'em in the freezer for hours at a time. Anything, he says, that didn't ignite, or dissolve plastic, or wasn't "completely, ridiculously" dangerous. Today, he has tweaking down to an art. And a science.
Pratt takes a brand-new base out of a bag, attaches a figurine, puts it on the table. He flips a switch. Buzz! The figurine twirls in a circle.
"This is classic," Pratt says, ruefully. "This is why we tweak."
So, can he really make the players do anything?
"Not anything," he says. "But say you're building an offensive line. You can make them strong, like the Hogs, or quick, like the Denver Broncos. It's really up to the coach."
Pratt holds a cigarette lighter. He moves the four plastic prongs at the bottom of the base over the flame, back and forth, five times total. Out come Pratt's pliers, ridgeless and flat. He squeezes the prongs, hard in the back, softer in the front.
The idea is simple: The prongs touch the game board. Shape them just so, and the base will move with speed and stability. Pratt works by feel. He puts the tweaked base back on the board, the same figurine attached. Buzz! It scoots in a straight line, gliding from midfield to end zone without a hitch.
"Look, he's actually jumping off the switch," Pratt says. "That will make him tough to cover. He'll bounce off the first hit."
"But I have a shutdown corner that will knock him over."
If a base has "talent," Pratt says, he'll spend up to five hours tweaking it. An entire team takes weeks of pulling and squeezing, testing and re-testing. Other players actually pay Pratt for his work -- three bucks for a base, about $150 for a complete squad.
Not that he's making a fortune.
"I could take a job at McDonald's for two weeks and make more money in the same time," Pratt says. "Besides, I'll run up a $600-700 phone bill once in a while, just giving guys advice. The wife isn't too happy about that."
For the truly committed, tweaking is just the beginning. Aaron Johnson, a 35-year-old freelance videographer from Columbus, Ohio, once drove 17 hours straight to play in an electric football tournament in Dallas. Maryland residents Sean Carter and Rene Smith produce a strategy DVD that they sell online. Volume III is in the works.
Revels devotes an entire spare bedroom to the hobby. He's in there five hours a night, sometimes 'till 2 a.m., drawing up counter-gap plays. No one else is allowed in the room. Not Valerie, not his kids. Al Davis is less paranoid.
"It's tighter than Area 51," Revels says with a grin. "I'm serious, dude."
David Redmond Jr. is serious, too. A 38-year-old mailman from suburban Atlanta, Redmond spent 11 years in the Marines. He served in Desert Storm. Chased drug smugglers in the Florida Keys. Set South American coca fields ablaze. He calls electric football "moving chess."
Like Revels, Redmond once treated the game like a part-time job; now, he's down to five or six hours of play a week. His secret? An index card flipper, thick with formations and game plans.
"I used to keep it all up here," Redmond says, pointing to his head. "Now, I play smarter."
Smarter means scripting his first 15 plays in advance, a la Bill Walsh, so that opponents in his 28-man league back home can't learn his tendencies. Smarter means scouting his Super Bowl opponents. Smarter means running a self-described "vanilla" offense during pre-tournament pickup games, so as not to reveal his best stuff.
"We used to play caveman football, line 'em up 11 on 11 and push," says Patrick Morris, 36, a plastics maker from Akron, Ohio. "Now you have guys sweeping, rolling guards, reverses, zone defense, zone blitzes. The same formations in the NFL, we do in electric football. You can have it all."
Having it all includes -- no joke -- a performance-enhancement crisis. In the mid-1990s, players on the West Coast discovered they could make bases heavier by boiling them in hot water and baby oil. The added weight made players faster. Stronger. On the flip side, boiling also made them more brittle. A base that would normally be good for six years could now wear out in six months. Brian Bosworth, anyone?
The electric football community quickly split into two camps: purists on one side, self-styled "chemists" on the other. Mention boiling to Johnson, a member of the Super Bowl rules committee, and he shakes his head.
"It's like steroids in baseball," he says. "Some leagues allow it. Depends on what area of the country you're from. We've got this whole East Coast-West Coast thing going on."
"People are actually buying plane tickets just to go out and prove which way is better."
Don't get the wrong idea. Kelvin Lomax would really like to use his basement. He has a big-screen TV down there -- perfect for watching sports -- and a pool table, too.
Problem is, the downstairs area of his Silver Spring, Md., home also houses a sprawling electric football collection: 30 game boards, every current NFL team, a half-dozen historic squads currently under construction. Hundreds of figurines, all awaiting paint, decals and tweaking.
The buzz of a game board makes the 43-year-old Lomax sigh. It also means he doesn't play much pool.
"I call it the dungeon," he says, laughing. "But I'm trying to clear space."
So far, mission not accomplished. Lomax stands in the hotel lobby, just outside the conference room. In one hand, he holds a manilla folder stuffed with player decals, including tiny stickers reading RIDDELL; in the other, he has four clear plastic boxes, one labeled 68 DOLPHINS/$65.
"You want my Carolina?" Lomax asks a passerby. "I'm selling my entire franchise."
No luck. Lomax shakes hands with a fellow collector, a middle-aged guy wearing a white Baltimore Ravens jersey. Shop talk ensues. How do you spot counterfeit figurines? (It's tough). How many 500-series game boards have been produced over the years? (At least 40). How rare is a 1980s board featuring "funky" white borders? (Quite rare, it turns out.)
The conversation turns to swapping.
"So, what you got?"
"I have a Roethlisberger. And a Brady."
Lomax lets out a low whistle.
"Oooh. A Roethlisberger?"
"I'm not even playing in the tournament," Lomax says. "I'm just here selling. But every time I sell stuff, I end up buying more."
Redmond can relate. His basement is a veritable shrine, the Santiago de Compostela of electric football. Think Astroturf carpet. Walls painted Denver Broncos orange and blue. Framed pictures of Rod Smith and John Elway. NFL mini-helmets. NFL wrapping paper. Fifteen championship trophies. Fifteen thousand figurines, including Redmond's retired teams.
Yep. Retired teams.
"Once a team wins a tournament, I retire them," he says. "I don't want to tarnish their legacy."
Redmond has boxes of stuff. Boxes and boxes. Stuff he'll never need. Stuff he'll never use. He had to build a shed to store it all. Over the years, he probably has dropped $30,000 on the hobby. And still he buys more, like exquisitely detailed figurines of LaDainian Tomlinson and Donovan McNabb that go for $20 a pop.
The man is hooked. Happily so.
"You have to get it if it's new," Redmond says with a grin. "Heck, I know a guy in our league who paid $600 for the rights to the Detroit Lions. He wanted them that bad."
That want -- a perfect storm of fandom and nostalgia, competitiveness and the collecting urge -- helps explain electric football's current renaissance. And understand: the game needed a renaissance. In "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey," Keanu Reeves plays electric football against the Grim Reaper. The metaphor is apt. Popular in the 1960s and '70s, electric football was kneecapped by Atari and Colecovision; Tecmo Bowl and Madden nearly delivered the coup de grace.
In 1988, toy manufacturer Michael Landsman bought Tudor Games, the last company making electric football sets. He quickly discovered that the game of his childhood -- a game he used to play on the floor with his brother, a game that once sold millions yearly and was the top item in the Sears catalog -- had fallen on hard times.
"Everybody thought I was nuts," Landsman recalls. "I took a major risk. Volume was way down. But I knew how much I loved the game, and what it did on a personal level. That doesn't go away."
Electric fans were the lost tribe of football gaming. How many were still out there, wandering in the desert? Landsman didn't know. He did have a mailing list, the names and addresses of everyone still ordering figurines and game boards. So in the fall of 1994, he sent out a letter. We're holding a convention. Come join us.
The next January, Landsman rented out the main room at Michael Jordan's Restaurant in Chicago. He put up a banner for his company, Miggle Toys. Called it the Super Bowl of electric football. Landsman hoped to attract two dozen fans. Two hundred and fifty people showed up, all sharing the same slack-jawed sentiment.
I thought I was the only one left.
"We had people from Texas, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota," Landsman recalls. "Everybody was a closet player. Now, people are digging their games out of the closet."
Since then, the electric football Super Bowl has been held in Philadelphia and Memphis, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and at Cleveland Browns training camp. Miggle has expanded its product line to include college teams. Leagues have formed from coast to coast, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
Ironically, the same technology that once threatened to snuff the game for good -- computers -- now spreads the gospel of the buzzing board. Google the term electric football. Nearly 74,000 hits come up. There are figure painters and base tweakers, buyers and sellers, message boards and Web sites devoted to every aspect of the hobby.
Boiling can make a bad base good and a good base great
The best way to understand prongs is to think of them as shock absorbers on a car
Super Bowls IV and V are perhaps the most impressive electric football games ever made
Revels tells a typical story. He sells comic books and baseball cards for a living, and once owned his own store. eBay made that part of the business obsolete. In June of 2003, he was online, putting some Roger Staubach rookie cards up for auction. On a lark, he decided to search for electric football.
Goosebumps. Revels ran around his house, hooting and hollering.
"Dad. Dad, what's wrong?"
"Go look at the computer screen! Go look at the screen!"
"The Internet saved our life," Landsman says. "If not for it, I don't know where we'd be."
Kobe Bryant ghosts across the screen, a television mounted above the hotel bar. The caption is fawning: After 81: how many points will he score tonight?
No one pays attention. Not the guy in the Clinton Portis jersey. Not the guy in the Wilt Chamberlain throwback. At the end of the bar, a patron sips his beer, chatting with a server.
"Electric football. It vibrates."
"But how does it work?"
"I don't know."
Wrong answer. Tomorrow, the electric football Super Bowl begins; tonight, participants have gathered for a banquet. But first, beer and popcorn. Sodas for the kids. A veggie platter that goes largely untouched. There are handshakes and high fives, hugs and hellos.
Chris Hebert opens a plastic case. Inside are mascot figurines, Philadelphia's Swoop and Dallas' Rowdy. Hebert sculpts them by hand. A 26-year-old Boston resident, he wears a New England Patriots jersey. So does his older brother, Alan. The two drove down last night. A small crowd gathers 'round. Forget "Cheers." This is where everybody knows your name.
"It's like a big family reunion ever year," Hargrave says.
Hargrave isn't joking: last summer, he attended Chris Hebert's wedding. At a table by the bar, Keith Chalmers sits with his sons, Robert, 14, and William, 11. Electric football runs in the family. Robert is a junior champion; Keith will go on to win this year's Super Bowl.
Dad is explaining the nuances of passing, a tricky proposition involving a specialized figurine called the "triple threat quarterback." Long story short, it's akin to flinging spitballs at a target the size of a quarter.
"You have to have a good eye," says Chalmers, a 43-year-old resident of Washington, D.C. "And a lot of practice."
Chalmers pauses. He points at Larry Stoner, standing by the adjacent table.
"Guys like this will get next to you and blow in your ear, in your hand."
Stoner shoots Chalmers a look of mock horror. Both men laugh. A 37-year-old from Glen Burnie, Md., Stoner is here with his wife, Kelly, and their six children.
"I have six kids and I owe it all to Miggle," Stoner says. "The oldest is 12. This is my 12th year [at the Super Bowl]. We're the first family of Miggle."
Kelly rolls her eyes. She's nestled in a padded booth, chin in hand, watching the kids. Larry chews a lollipop stick, nursing his beer. He's been playing electric football since he was seven, never got rid of his toys. The little plastic men, he says, were his children before he had children.
"When I got married, they came with me," he says. "And when she bought a set for my son, I got back into it. Now my son plays as much as I do."
"He wins a lot more than you do," she cracks.
"That's true," Larry concedes.
Don Smith and Jimbo Dunagan stand nearby. They met five years ago at the Hall of Fame tournament. Dunagan helped Smith's son advance to the junior championship game. The trio stayed up 'til 3 a.m., bonding and talking strategy. Today, both men wear caps reading M-F-U. The script is short for Miniature Footballers United, a group of 20-plus guys from around the country, brought together by their love of electric football.
"We're like fraternity brothers now," says Dunagan, a self-proclaimed "thirty-something" from Aurora, Ill.
"Our friendship has grown every year," adds Smith, a 41-year-old resident of Portsmouth, Va. "It's not always about the game. We care about each other as people."
Morris concurs. When he moved back to his hometown of Akron in 1998, it wasn't nostalgia that rekindled his interest in electric football. It was the camaraderie and community of the local league, the tournaments and cookouts that could last an entire weekend.
Morris adjusts his MFU cap. The back reads MR. OHIO. Thanks to the game, Morris says, he has friends in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Maryland and New Jersey. He has visited Smith's home almost a dozen times.
"My cousin used to make fun of me for playing," Morris says. "But I have friends all over the country who I can call and say, 'Hey, I'm coming to town.' And the first thing they'll say is 'You're staying with me. Because we're playing electric football.' "
Morris and Smith are black. Dunagan is white. So is Paul Bartels, also known as "Raiderman," a 31-year-old from Harrisburg, Pa. He stands near the snack spread, munching popcorn, keeping an eye on his three children.
Up comes Ty Ware, a doctor from Washington, D.C. The two exchange a high-five.
"Sorry I'm late," says Ware, who is black. "I had to drive up. I have family. I was dealing with pull-up diapers."
Electric football draws a mixed crowd -- different races, ages, social classes. For that, Spencer Wilkinson is grateful. A retired police officer from Colonial Heights, Va., he sits at a table in the conference room.
Wilkinson wears a Winston Cup NASCAR jacket. His T-shirt reads: GROWING OLD IS MANDATORY. GROWING UP IS OPTIONAL.
"The actual competition is great," he says. "But the ability to B.S. with people of different age groups, different ethnicities, different beliefs, to me it's the most enjoyable part of the hobby. At 58, I can still learn."
Wilkinson is white. He describes his political leanings as slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. He says that until about 15 years ago, his hometown was "one of the last all-Caucasian places" in Virginia.
No matter. Wilkinson is good friends with Smith, has known Smith's son since he was knee-high. He plays in mostly black leagues in Washington, D.C., making the two-hour drive from Colonial Heights.
"We talk about football, we talk about world politics," he says. "We might not agree. But you find out we all have the same wishes, desires and fears."
Almost on cue, Johnson approaches the table. He wants to speak to a reporter. Wilkinson smiles.
"I'll let you kick me to the back of the bus," he says.
"Hey there," replies Johnson, who is black. "It's a role reversal, man."
Both men laugh, and slap hands. Everyone knows Johnson. Everyone calls him "A.J." A former Marine medic, he's something of an electric football evangelist. Four years ago, he held his first tournament, a 16-man event that drew participants from 10 different states; two years later, 36 people showed up.
Johnson wants to film an electric football documentary, maybe even get the game on television.
"If they can put poker on TV, spelling bees, the Battle Bots, then this format can work, too," he says. "We could have the same appeal."
As a child, Johnson spent summer afternoons playing electric football with his younger brother, Adam. He learned the game from his father. He taught it to his 18-year-old son, Aaron Jr., and is eager to indoctrinate his youngest boy, Aric.
The only problem? Aric is only four months old.
"I'll probably wait until he's 6," Johnson says, laughing. "But I let him hold the men every now and then. He looks at them like they're his pacifier. He just wants to suck on them."
Tubolino grins, holding the grasshopper-looking mechanical quarterback aloft. He doesn't want to suck on it. He could gash his tongue.
"He does work!" he says. "A guy showed me how!"
"The scary thing is, I still can't figure it out."
At the other end of the conference room, tournament play is under way. Redmond faces Stoner, his Denver Broncos against Stoner's Houston Oilers. Redmond leans over the table, hands on his thighs. The Broncos have the ball.
A pass play. Figurines scoot across the game board. Redmond flips a switch. Movement stops. He replaces mini-Jake Plummer with a bright yellow triple-threat quarterback. Rod Smith is open downfield.
What could possibly go wrong?
"People will lean on the board when they pass," Stoner says, a hint of hope in his voice. "Then you turn it back on and it pops up. All the men scatter."
Redmond loads the triple-threat quarterback with a tiny felt football. The ball hits Smith in the numbers. No leaning, no pop. This counts as a completed pass. Stoner adjusts his defensive backs, pointing them upfield. He dabs a towel to his brow.
"Nice pass," he says. "Now fall down. Fall down!"
Buzz! The board quivers. Smith glides to the 30-yard-line. The nearest defender is 10 yards behind the play. Daylight to the end zone. Revels watches from behind the table. He turns to Stoner's children.
"Hey, you kids want some ice cream?"
Smith crosses the 25. The 20. A touchdown seems assured. Then, something odd: the figurine begins to veer, furiously wobbling toward the left sideline.
"Go!" screams Stoner. "Go!"
"No!" yells Redmond. "No!"
Smith wobbles out of bounds, five yards short of the goal line, completely untouched. Stoner giggles. Redmond shakes his head. Electric football is still electric football. Some things just can't be tweaked.
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2.