Forget Madden NFL 13. If you’re a boomer, you know that the real deal was Electric Football, a tabletop game introduced back in the late 1940s, long before video games even were a daydream in the mind of Nolan Bushnell. We didn’t need any fancy game consoles to have fun. All we needed was an electrical outlet and a space to set up the vibrating metal playing field. Pretty soon, 22 little plastic football players were jiggling all over the place, moving a little felt football up and down the field in a chaotic frenzy. It didn’t much resemble the actual heroics of Johnny U. or Gayle Sayers, but on a rainy Saturday afternoon, it was the next best thing.
If Electric Football had a Knute Rockne, it was Norman Sas, the New York-based toy maker who invented the game. Sas, who passed away June 26 at age 87 in Vero Beach, Fla., was a U.S. Navy officer during World War II and earned degrees in both mechanical engineering and business from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But his stroke of genius was finding a new use for a novelty invention developed by an employee of his father’s struggling metal products company: a small electrical device that used vibrations to propel figures — at the time, toy cars or plastic horses — across a metal surface. Noting the rising popularity of football, which was starting to be televised in the New York area, Sas got the idea of using the gadget to stage contests between tiny plastic football players.
Over the next couple of decades, Sas kept working to make Electric Football more fun. With the help of industrial designer Lee Payne, he made the figures more realistic, and added little adjustable tabs that enabled the kids playing the game to better control the players’ movements. Sas and Payne also attached a mockup of a football stadium to the vibrating table, for more atmosphere. The National Football League agreed to license the game in 1967, and it soon became a popular item in the Sears Catalog, our childhood’s Amazon.com.
Amazingly, even with the rise of video gaming, Electric Football has remained popular. The website of the Miniature Football Coaches Association lists scores of regional leagues across the nation. There’s even now an iPhone app, Super Shock Football, that strives to simulate Electric Football’s low-tech charm.