- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

Electric football may have been cutting edge decades ago, but in these days of video games and computer graphics, it's about as low-tech as an abacus.

But don't put the game down around the folks who attended the Electric Football Super Bowl and Convention this weekend at the Holiday Inn Capitol Hotel in Southwest, Washington, D.C. More than 2,000 people showed up to take part in the three-day exhibition dedicated to little plastic men vibrating across a metal gridiron.

"I was nostalgic. It brought back some memories," said Jose McMillan, 29, who works at the hotel and came to see his favorite Miami Dolphins play in the Electric Football League (EFL) Super Bowl. And he saw a little Dan Marino run 34 yards for the winning touchdown yesterday afternoon in a game against the New York Giants.

"I can't believe how intense this thing is. This is like a part-time job for these guys."

The tabletop game is played with 22 1-inch-high players painted in the familiar colors of pro and college teams. The little men vibrate along the 3-foot gridiron. None ever runs straight or remotely close to the desired direction of their "coaches."

More than 2,000 players and fans came out this weekend to display their collectibles ranging from hand-painted players to antique game boards and compete for the championship trophy.

They got the chance to show their expertise at play-calling and control of their players meticulously setting up each tiny player for every play. It takes a lot of patience and practice to get players to do what you want.

"You don't see the seamless NFL-type plays until you get to league play," said James Crews, from Harrisburg, Pa. "It takes a lot of practice."

Electric football started in 1947 and was big on children's Christmas lists for decades, until the rise of arcade and video games in the late '70s and the later onslaught of more-sophisticated computer games. But all around the country, grown men and women have held on to their games, waiting for the game to make a comeback.

"I just had a feeling I'd play again," said 2000 EFL Super Bowl champion Ron Bell. "I've just been collecting. I've never thrown anything away."

Mr. Bell, 31, is an assistant district attorney in New Orleans and found out about the league recently after his brother bought a new game for Mr. Bell's nephew. Mr. Bell went on line and got reunited with his childhood game.

He won his trip to the competition via a videotape contest the league held, in which players taped their best offensive and defensive plays.

"I went nuts. I caught the fire," Mr. Bell said. "I've put in a lot of time these past couple of months."

The convention started more than six years ago, after Michael Landsman, the president of Miggle Toys, acquired the rights to the game. Mr. Landsman received phone calls from customers around the Midwest, including one call from Toledo, Ohio.

"Nobody knew there was anyone out there who still played electric football," Mr. Landsman said. "Everyone said the same thing: They thought they were the only ones who were still playing the game."

Six years ago, Mr. Landsman and his wife decided to host a get-together for their interested customers at Michael Jordan's restaurant in Chicago.

More than 300 people showed up.

The following year they created a newsletter and the next convention had more than 1,000 participants. This weekend's convention drew more than 2,000 fans and players.

"It just keeps growing and growing," Mr. Landsman said. "This room was so full [Saturday] you couldn't move."

They come from all over the country, from as far away as San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas. Forty-eight coaches brought their teams to vie for the EFL trophy.

Mr. Crews, 28, has played sporadically for 20 years and travels from his Harrisburg, Va., home every other week to coach his Giants team in the Philadelphia Electric Football League.

Mr. Crews lost in the last two EFL Super Bowls, including a 20-16 loss to Mr. Bell's Dolphins yesterday. But the computer technician is determined to win the big game eventually, and will continue to put in an hour every night on perfecting his plays.

"It seems the Giants can't win the big game, but we'll be back," Mr. Crews said. "I don't want to be the Buffalo Bills of electric football."

But this game is about more than winning and losing. It's also about camaraderie, fellowship and meeting new friends who share the same fascination with a game they have played since childhood.

"When I was little and didn't have any money, I wished I had every team," said John Lewis, 35, a newspaper reporter from New Jersey, who owns every NFL team and hand-painted the players.

For Mr. Lewis, electric football is a family affair. He used to lose to his brother as a child, and now the game helps him spend quality time with his sons, Aaron, 8, and Alex, 7.

"For two hours, you have your child's attention," Mr. Lewis said.

The five teams of the Metropolitan Electric Football league are in the middle of their inaugural season in the District.

"We're looking to expand. We had 30 people sign up this weekend alone," said Vance Warren, a D.C. police officer who serves as commissioner of the local league.

"We want dedicated coaches," Officer Warren said, adding that several games used in this weekend's competition were donated to their league for another fledgling project.

"We're going to set up some youth leagues in the area," he said.

For information about the Metropolitan Electric Football League, call 202/607-3088.

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