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Every year around Christmas I have an urge to celebrate the rituals of the past, especially those of childhood, which is why I have been thinking about Electric Football lately. The game was one of the constants of my boyhood, a gift that I or one of my friends always received on Christmas morning. It was given to us annually because, perhaps by design, it was inevitably in disarray after a year's time.

My first urge was to buy one of the new Electric Football games, which are still put out by Tudor Games of Brooklyn, but I found the cost to be, as they say in government, "prohibitive," particularly if I chose the "NFL Super Bowl Electric Football" for about $32. For $22 I could get the "NFL Electric Football" game and then pretend it's the Super Bowl, but I'd only be fooling myself. For $17.96 I could get plain old Electric Football without any NFL designation, but the thought of turning on the switch without the sanction of Pete Rozelle depressed me.

So I decided to settle for just playing a game or two on an old set—a rite of sentimentality akin to listening to old 45s—and tried to find somebody who had an old Electric Football. One friend thought his game was at his mother's house but called later to say, "She threw it out."

Then I found a guy who still had the game and I rushed over to his house. His set was broken. Now that's not news, because most things purchased 15 years ago are broken—except that Electric Football never worked quite right, even when you'd just taken it out of the box. It was part of the game's charm.

For the uninitiated, Electric Football is played with two teams of plastic statuettes of players, one team red and one yellow, on a metal football-field board. You plugged the game in, flicked a switch and the field vibrated; the vibration set in motion the players, who were mounted on little "runners." Each team had a few backs molded in the classic running pose—one leg up, ball cradled against the chest, other arm straight out to straight-arm defenders, like some Lilliputian Red Grange. There were also interior linemen in the three-point stance.

Now you're ready. You lined up your men so that your back had plenty of "blocking," slipped the ball (a tiny piece of felt) under the runner's arm and turned the game on. At this point one of several things happened:

(1) There was a massive pileup at the line of scrimmage—something like the old flying wedge play that led Teddy Roosevelt to threaten to ban football—from which your back simply couldn't extricate himself.

(2) Your back took off like a bat out of hell...toward the wrong goal line, something like Roy Riegels in the 1929 Rose Bowl.

(3) A strange tropical disease suddenly beset your back and he began moving in a circle, around and around, joined, perhaps, by two or three linemen eager for any break from the tedious routine of blocking.

(4) Nothing.

When your ground game was stopped by factors out of your control, your only option was to take to the air. For this you would need your 12th player, a sort of spring-loaded quarterback who, at least in theory, could propel the piece of felt at one of your receivers. If springman hit the receiver, it was a completion; if he hit a defensive player, it was an interception; if he hit the television set in an adjoining room, which is usually what happened, it was an incompletion and you could ship him back to the Philadelphia Bulldogs. You couldn't be too hasty with that move, however, because springman was also your punter. If you think he couldn't pass, you should've seen him kick.

After a scoreless half hour or so, you became a little tired of the game and stopped it to do something constructive—like taking the wings off moths and placing them on the vibrating field. You could turn the vibrating to high, for example, which would make a horrible loud noise guaranteed to drive your mother to distraction. Or you could line up the players and have races, confirming your suspicion that the linemen were actually the fastest and straightest runners. In the throes of a deep adolescent ennui, I once placed kernels of corn on the field and just watched them jump around. There wasn't much to do in those days.

A young friend who has one of the 1980 Tudor Electric Football games tells me the technology is much improved. Roy Riegelses are the exception rather than the rule, and dancing linemen are considered flakes who can be replaced. Further, the "runners" are interchangeable, so if a lineman has a "good bottom," as my young friend says, he may be obliged to lend it to a running back, a bit of bionic surgery that seems to go against the rules of the game. One thing that hasn't improved, though, is springman; my friend says that he leans toward running plays even on third and 25 because springman's passing is still so erratic.

Though Electric Football sales are still brisk, according to Tudor, the game is no longer the rage it was 20 years ago. Computer football, it seems, has taken over. But I'll take the oldtime Electric Football over some newfangled computer game every time. There's something vaguely sinister about using computers to play football, whereas with Electric Football you just have good ol' cheapo technology breaking down.