One of the surprising parts of getting older is the stupid things you get nostalgic about. When I was a kid, I used to think about this whenever someone older would get weepy-eyed over a ridiculous thing, like their junky first car or some terrible song like "Alley Oop" or some impossibly outdated thing like black-and-white television. That just seemed dumb to me. Color television was BETTER than black-and-white television. This seemed immutable. You know, I could understand feeling nostalgic about when the Beatles came to America or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon or Muhammad Ali stopped Sonny Liston. But it never made any sense to me when people felt wistful about indisputably inferior things like those terrible Superman shows where, as several comedians have pointed out, Superman would stand steady and cocky against the bullets but duck when the bad guy threw the gun.
What you can't really understand when you're young, I guess, is that you don't get to pick the timing of your childhood. You don't get to choose what's cool about it, what's dumb about it, what memories linger and how absurd they might seem to the kids who weren't born yet. The kids who were born before indoor plumbing caught a bad break. But I’ll bet, against all logic, they were nostalgic about the outhouses.
For instance, I have tried to explain again and again to young people (with no luck) why we loved Electronic Football. To be clear, I'm not talking about “Electric Football,” that game with the tiny football players you would line up on this cafeteria-tray-sized aluminum field and then watch them "play" as the field vibrated. Nobody I grew up with actually liked “Electric Football.” That was horribly outdated even when we were kids.
There are two anecdotes that explain how we felt about “Electric Football.” My buddy Vac tells this great story about the time he saw “Electric Football” in a store (might have been a yard sale) and he begged his father for it, pleaded for it, just like many of us did, because “Electric Football” was the best-looking game in the history of the world when it was still in the box. Mike's father was a great man, a musician, a math whiz, a genius at all card games and calculating the odds, and he KNEW that it would be only a matter of minutes until Mike watched those little figures fall down and congregate in the corner and go in circles and gave up on the whole thing.
Still, he bought the game for Mike. And, as was inevitable, the erratic and bewildering movements of little pieces of plastic on a vibrating aluminum board held Mike’s attention for about 32 seconds before he gave up and started flipping baseball cards. His father was ready.
"PLAY THE GAME!" his father ordered. "I DID NOT SPEND MY HARD-EARNED MONEY SO YOU COULD GIVE UP. YOU ARE GOING TO SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW AND PLAY IT!"
After hearing that story, we have sometimes called Mike's father the Mutt Mantle of “Electric Football.” But that's really what the game was about. Unless your father made you play it, you did not.
The second story is more of a tip, offered to us back then by a sage “Electric Football” expert. The tip went like this: If your “Electric Football” game breaks, that's OK, just put it on top of your clothes dryer when it's running, and the game will act precisely the same. That was a sobering realization that eliminated even the slightest possibility of magic within the game.
But “Electronic Football,” well, that was a wholly different thing. There was all sorts of magic in it. “Electronic Football” was a handheld game -- most famously made by Mattel and Coleco -- with tiny hyphens of light that were meant to represent football players. In the most basic version, one hyphen was a little bolder red than the others. This was the hyphen with the ball. His job (or her job -- the red hyphens seemed gender-neutral) was to elude four other hyphens that were defenders. His ability to elude these four defenders was limited by:
1. The narrowness of the field, which only had three open slots for the runner to move.
2. The uncomfortable detail that after going a few yards, the runner magically found himself BACK WHERE HE STARTED so that he had to then beat the exact same four defenders for another few yards, until he once again reappeared back in the same spot.
3. The fact that, within a few days of buying “Electronic Football,” one of the arrow buttons would stick and not work properly.
It should be added, though, that the ball carrier’s ability to elude the defense was enhanced by the simple fact that the four hyphenated defenders were clearly in the remedial punctuation class and seemed only to have a vague idea of what their role in the game was. So this is how we spent our time … having our red LED hyphen dodge four rather vapid hyphens and pretending that somehow this, in any way shape or form, represented football. You would actually hear people yelling, as they played, “Walter Payton spins, he cuts back, he’s got a chance to go all the way,” while the little red light clicked to the next open space and the next and the next.
And it was AWESOME. Let me make that clear: Awesome. In time there was a passing element added to “Electronic Football” and a blocking element and there was a kicking element that nobody ever used, and remarkably these modifications somehow made the game even less realistic. But we would play this game nonstop, night and day, in class and out -- in the middle of classes, very often you would hear the little six-note bugle call (da-da-da-DA-da-DA) that signaled a touchdown in the game and … I’ve lost you, haven’t I? I lost you a while back, I guess.
But this is the thing. Of course these games were horrible. We live in a time when video football games are more realistic and vivid and alive than the real thing -- or at least the Minnesota Vikings. So how can anyone our age possibly feel nostalgia for handheld games featuring blips of light?
The answer, I have come to believe, is that we’re not nostalgic for things. We’re nostalgic for our time, a time when our knees didn’t hurt before rainstorms, when chocolate cake didn’t add 10 pounds by morning, when we knew the names of the coolest bands, when we could play pickup basketball without three succeeding days of pain. Someday in the not-so-distant future -- when iPads are implanted inside our eyelids and virtual football games will include actual doctors to repair your ACL, when “Madden 13” will look like “Pong” -- the kids of today will think back to this time period with nostalgia. And the kids of tomorrow will go, “Give me a break with your talk about how in your day not every plane had Wi-Fi and you had to wade through 30-second commercials on Hulu.”
* * *
The NFL season begins this week -- well, it began on Wednesday, another sign of the times -- and I find myself thinking about this incredibly dumb but surprisingly universal bit of nostalgia from the 1970s and 1980s. I think about the “60 Minutes” lead-in. I’ve written about this before in small ways, and every time I do I will get a stunning number of people writing in to say: “Oh man, you too? That’s EXACTLY how I felt.” Well, it was our time.
See, when we were young, pro football was played on Sundays. That’s it. Yes, there was a Monday Night Football game, but in those days it was like its own thing, kind of a spinoff from the rest of the NFL, like “Laverne & Shirley” to “Happy Days” (oh yes, it’s 1970s references from here on out). The games were played on Sundays.
The AFC games were played on NBC, and there was a certain color to those games -- I don’t mean color in the “shade of meaning” sort of way, no, I mean actual colors. I always thought the colors were bolder on NBC, like the Tide clothes in the “Tide vs. the Leading Brand” commercials. The Jets' green, the Browns' orange, the Patriots' red, the Raiders' silver, they seemed to pop more on NBC. Meanwhile, the NFC games were played on CBS, and I always thought those games were a bit more muted, a bit more serious. The games were played at 1 p.m. ET and 4 p.m. ET, and there was no Sunday night game, no Thursday night game (except two afternoon games on Thanksgiving), no football at all until the next Sunday, when it would start all over again.
This wasn’t BETTER, of course. If we had been given a choice for more NFL football throughout the week, we would have jumped at it. But nobody gave us that choice. We got Sundays. And so Sundays, in my memory, were the BIGGEST DAYS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. I mean, I don’t want to overstate it. I guess the day the Wright brothers took flight was kind of important. But Sunday was huge. It wasn’t just that this was the only day for football. It was also that our weekend was almost over, that school would begin bright and early Monday morning, that we would then be facing another long week before football came around again. For this and a hundred other reasons, every single moment of football on Sundays felt monumental, because every moment brought us a notch closer to the end of the day, to the panicked last stages of homework, to the start of another seemingly unending school week.
And I remember that sinking feeling when the 1 p.m. games would end … ugh, we were that much closer. The 4 p.m. games, though, were worse. Every marker of that game brought the end perilously close -- it was like being in one of those arch-villain torture machines that they showed at the end of the old Batman television shows (which were just as dumb as Superman, but more of my time). Halftime, oh no, just one half left.
The “Alcoa Fantastic Finishes” commercial -- which was regularly played during the two-minute warning -- was devastating. And the second-worst thing was when they started rolling the credits and Dick Enberg or Pat Summerall or Don Criqui would say, “The executive producer of …” I used to hate that so much. Sometimes, when the game was close, they would start rolling those credits, and a part of my brain would scream, “No, wait! This game might still go into overtime. This game might go on. No, take back the credits. I don’t want to know that Don Ohlmeyer is executive producer, no, stop!”
But the worst, by far, was the ticking stopwatch that led into “60 Minutes.” That was the executioner’s song. When that started ticking, you knew: There was going to be no reprieve from the governor and no more chance to hold off the night and, inevitably, the morning. Staubach was gone. Swann and Stallworth were gone. Payton and Gastineau and Singletary and Greene were gone. The math test you didn’t study for, the Nathaniel Hawthorne you didn’t read, the essay on the Incas you didn’t finish, these were all that remained.
And you literally could hear the clock ticking.
Some of that feeling is gone now, I guess. Oh, I’m sure kids still dread Sunday nights before having to go back to school -- mine do. But it’s certainly different in football. Sunday Night Football has become the biggest thing in the game. There are TWO Monday Night Games this week, which is kind of ridiculous, but hey, who can argue with more football? There’s a Thursday night game every week this year. The season feels more spread out, the gaps are shorter -- these are all good things for us NFL fans.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could be nostalgic for a worse time, when you watched football through static, on 16-inch screens, only once a week. Well, it’s hard to imagine unless you were young then.