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Two little words.... - Blather. Rants. Repeat.
A Møøse once bit my sister ...
captainsblog
captainsblog
Two little words....
....randomly spoken, while I was barely paying attention, opened a bizarre little rabbit hole in my brain that took me back almost 50 years, then forward to last summer, to a totally different (but even more familiar) time and place.

I spent most of yesterday afternoon erranding round the house- emptying catboxes, cleaning the fish tank, splitting BigAss™ bags of shredded cheese into eight-ounce ziplocs.  For most of it, I had the Bills game on the radio through headphones- and out of all the chatter that came from those three hours of generally ugly-sounding football, either Murph or Mark mentioned two words that come up occasionally in the sport, which I'd no doubt heard dozens of times in my 35 autumns of following this team and however many of the Jets before them:

"Off Tackle."

Somehow, that phrase instantly triggered a memory that probably was dormant since the early 1970s- a Platform 9¾ that suddenly opened to me and transported me to a friend's house in a simpler time and to a game older even than PacMan or Pong:

Electric football.

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I've posted here before about the nerdy games that friends and I either played or made up in those years- variants on Stratomatic ancestors of current fantasy sports leagues, but this was a real game with a real plug that went into a real wall.  Mike, my friend from church on the other side of East Meadow, got one and I came over to learn how it worked. 

What I remember of it is, well, not much.  The game board was maybe five feet across by three feet wide.  You placed your eleven players on a plugged-in metal board, and your opponent lined his eleven up against you. Then you'd run your play, by pushing one of four secret buttons that supposedly your opponent couldn't see from five feet away (his side having the identical four buttons in the identical order).  Pushing down would complete the circuit, the board would vibrate, and your players would begin to move, more or less toward the opposite end of the field.  The four choices, in theory, would cause slightly different vibration of the board and a slightly different result.  Plain as day, I can remember that the second of the four, left to right, was a call for "OFF TACKLE" (the play, or move-in-a-play, that opened this whole can of memories for me); just as plainly, I can remember that the rightmost of the buttons said "TRICK PLAY." 

I have no idea whatsoever what the first or third ones said or did.  Must've sucked at those.

Everything else from here is either pure speculation or the result of my having looked into this in the past day:  Presumably, the idea was to get one designated "player" to vibrate his way across the opposite goal line, or pass or kick the "ball" (likely a piece of felt- this shit predated the common use of Velcro), which you were allowed to manipulate by hand into the hand or in front of the foot of a player once the vibration got going.  Your opponent picked one of his four buttons to make his players move toward your players and your goal in order to slow down your forward progress.

If it worked like our other geekouts did, we would have named the teams and the players, called our own penalties, kept score and had extended standings.  I remember absolutely nothing of any of that.

Also, if it worked like other shit we did, we likely got bored of it, or the board broke.  It disappeared completely from my consciousness until somebody on the Bills went "off tackle" yesterday and either Murph or Kelso used the words.

But, as the late but still-legendary Bills broadcaster Van Miller always put it after the second quarter, "That's only the half of it!"

----

As the above shows, I remember nothing of the details other than those two out of four plays- the game name, manufacturer, even the words "electric football" were completely absent from my brain. My best guess was that "electronic football" would have been the generic, but that was likely anachronistic for the early 1970s- we still spoke of "transistors" and "solid-state" when referring to space-age stuff back then, and "electronic," in its early etymology, referred mainly to electrons- how electrons behave in vacuums, gas, semi-conductors, etc.

Still. It was close enough for Google to educate me, and I started finding familiar and unfamilar brand names for "electric" football, as it was christened even back in its earliest incarnations in the 1940s. Coleco was the only name I recognized, mainly for later Christmas-craze toys they manufactured; there was also Gotham, and Eagle from Canada, but the granddaddy was a company called Tudor, which still exists and will still sell you metal boards with tiny players and, from the look of it, somewhat more sophisticated controls than our four stupid buttons.

Most of these memories led to one site: theunforgettablebuzz.com.  And it was through their posts that I discovered a later, further and yet much closer-to-now-home connection to this game- residing in the annals of ESPN sports and the basement of a family in the northern reaches of the City of Rochester, New York.

----

Even if you don't do any sportsing, ESPN's "30 for 30" documentaries are amazing and worthy of viewing.  They have given Oscar and Emmy-award winning directors the chance to look at unusual angles of games, athletes and contests, old and new.  I've never watched as many as I should, but some I have include one about Goats in Baseball- how Bill Buckner and Steve Bartman became hated figures connected with the two oldest curses on MLB teams and how Buckner found redemption after the Red Sox broke the curse. (It may produce an update on Bartman now that the Cubs have slain their goat of a curse.) Another, focusing on this same era of my youth, was about the American Basketball Association's ultimate merger into the NBA and how a owners of a single franchise took the Lords of Hoops to the cleaners over the ensuing almost 40 years.  Yet another close-to-former-home one was about the New York Islanders, and how a con man became an NHL owner with no due diligence, no money, and no prospects.

The one relevant to this, I missed completely. It's from last June, and was done by Errol Morris, a much-decorated documentarian probably most famous for The Thin Blue Line, the true tale of a wrongly-accused defendant which is now the most common term for the silence and conspiratorial acts of law enforcement when they're determined to "get their man."  These few minutes are much lighter: they literally go into the basement, or as the title of the episode terms it, to the Subterranean Stadium, where a group of guys have been playing these games in league format since the early 1980s....

in Charlotte, New York.

That's pronounced Char-LOT, thank you very much. Once a separate village on Lake Ontario's shore where the Genesee finishes its south-to-north route, it was long ago annexed by the once-smaller and still-souther City of Rochester, where it still retains some of its own identity through its pier, custard shop and watering holes.  It's also the home to the DiCarlos, where father, son and grandson still carry on the metal-board tradition- and then some.

This is a mancave on steroids.  John, his relatives and longtime friends not only play these games and keep score, but painstakingly paint the generic players from the board boxes into "real" player jerseys and uniform numbers, and gather all kinds of merch for both their "teams" and the CEFL- the Charlotte Electric Football League.

Words do not do any of this justice. Watch, on the ESPN site.  But I'll end with two sidenotes that take this as close to home (or rather work) as anything ever could:

Just short of eight minutes in, we meet the grieving football widow. She turns out to own a place called Skip's Meat Market, as much an institution in modern Rochester as the Amerks or the garbage plate.  Heard of it, never met her in my life. But still on the subject of meat, a few moments later, Morris introduces another member of the League of Extraordinarily Nerdy Gentleman: Peter "The Hotman" Dietz, a high school friend of her husband who's still at this game.  The name originally got tagged to him because he "used to always get hot under the collar," but he turned it around into the plural of "hot"- another Rochester tradition of street meat, red hots and white hots, almost always Zweigles brand, sold from street carts throughout downtown and in other high-traffic areas.

His is in front of the state courthouse in downtown Rochester.  I've passed him literally hundreds of times in my comings and goings there.  I recognized him when he showed up on the ESPN screen:



And next time I head over there for court at or near lunchtime, I am going to give him a copy of this post- and ask him to PLEASE tell me what the other two buttons were.
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