MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We turn now to football or something like it. It's a board game invented in 1948 called electric football. And while it's not wildly popular, it does have some remarkably devoted fans. Some of their memorabilia is now on display at an art gallery in downtown Richmond, Virginia. NPR's Chris Benderev went for a look.
CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: Let's just get right to the action. We're in the back of the ADA art gallery on the 20 yard line of a metal football field the size of a small lunch table.
KELVIN LOMAX: All right, come on, let's go. (Unintelligible).
BENDEREV: Kelvin Lomax of Washington, D.C., is facing off against Dru Sparks of Richmond. And for Sparks right now, things do not look very good. It's fourth and long, he's deep in his own half, but he's going for it anyway.
DRU SPARKS: This is what I call my pre-snap read, OK.
BENDEREV: Just like in real football, both teams come to the line of scrimmage, and just like real coaches, Sparks and Lomax start shifting their players around.
SPARKS: We're going to bring my safety back here.
BENDEREV: The difference is, if they want to move a guy, they just pick him up because he's plastic and about two inches tall.
LOMAX: He should be able to block this dude. That's what I'm thinking because...
BENDEREV: When they're finally ready, they turn the board on. It rumbles and vibrates, and that makes all the players shuffle into motion.
SPARKS: Watch him get to that hole, though. Watch him get to that hole. Look at that boy go. Look at that. That's what I'm talking about. That's a well-designed play.
BENDEREV: Dru Sparks gets that huge first down he needed.
SPARKS: Saw it coming, did what we had to do, saw it coming.
BENDEREV: Now, ostensibly, Dru Sparks and Kelvin Lomax and about a half-dozen other electric football fans, they are here in this art gallery today because their work is on display - beautifully re-created stadiums and tiny, hand-painted players. But they're also here for another reason, and that's because if you're a guy like Dru Sparks, most days you just do not get to talk about electric football this much, about how much you love the game, about how even as a teenaged electric football coach you were disciplined.
SPARKS: I practiced for an hour or two every day. I practiced - had two-a-days. Offense in the morning, defense in the evening, especially in the summertime.
BENDEREV: And how'd you do?
SPARKS: I was the best in the neighborhood then, OK. I was pretty good.
BENDEREV: There was one big problem in the old days, though. Those little players were completely unreliable. A tiny Joe Namath might find space to complete a magnificent Hail Mary pass. But on a bad day, he might just spin in circles forever or fall over. Everything changed, though, when fans learned how to tweak the metal prongs on the bottom of each player.
Today, your QB will consistently drop back to pass, and you can pass, seriously.
LOMAX: We can really make a pass here.
BENDEREV: You use the quarterback's springy little arm to slingshot a putty football at your receiver.
SPARKS: It's complete, it's complete.
BENDEREV: Electric football is in its off-season right now. Games start up later this fall, and there will be a real championship ring on the line. Dru Sparks is dead set on winning that ring.
SPARKS: It's a lot of Saturdays sitting in rooms like this.
SPARKS: It's beautiful outside. You know, I got a family, you know what I'm saying? I'm in here playing with plastic men with four other dudes.
SPARKS: That's what I'm doing. Oh, he made the play. He made the play.
BENDEREV: The future of electric football is not clear. In 2007, the NFL dropped its licensing for the game, which meant no more real players and no more real team logos. Everyone here agrees that was a pretty rough year. But at the same time, these guys will be OK. They didn't give up using their boyhood imaginations decades ago, when Madden video games came along and made it a lot easier to re-create the full NFL experience. So why would they give up now? Chris Benderev, NPR News.
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