Anybody who gets out of line during this weekend’s Electric Football Super Bowl tournament will have to answer to Vance Warren. He’s been in tougher spots.
Electric football, as 30-somethings and their elders should remember, is a miniaturized version of the gridiron sport, played on a metal board that vibrates and causes plastic figures to buzz around in ways that to all but the masters seem random. The game, which was introduced in 1947 as a kids’ pastime, began losing its place in American rec rooms when Pong and other video amusements came along. But electric football is in the midst of a minor renaissance these days, sparked by aging aficionados and the Internet. Many of the best players—or, as they like to call themselves, “coaches”—in the country are scheduled to gather at the Holiday Inn Capitol Hotel in Southwest beginning Friday night in search of the national championship.
Warren, 30, is way into the game. In the basement of his Petworth home, he’s got more than 1,000 electric-football players, little men painted in the home colors of every NFL franchise, with the names and numbers of current stars and those from his youth. “When you play my Bills, I might put Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson in the same backfield,” he says. “And with my Cowboys, I’ll let Roger Staubach in for a few plays, then substitute Troy [Aikman].”
He spends hours with his “guys,” tinkering with their weights and shapes to make their paths more predictable. Before each game, Warren throws every member of whatever team he’s using that day—it’s always the Redskins come tournament time—and turns on the motor to watch them buzz around and to see if they move as he’s molded them to.
“I call it the warmup,” he says. “It doesn’t do anything for my guys, but I like watching them.”
His mini-men have played well under him: Warren is the three-time champion of the Bama Blast, an annual Alabama tournament regarded as one of the more prestigious titles in the game.
Warren is also a front-office man. He founded and served as commissioner of the Metropolitan Electric Football Association, and he harangued officials of Miggle Toys, the Michigan company that now manufactures the version of electric football officially licensed by the NFL, until they agreed to have the big dance here.
“I wanted the Super Bowl in my back yard,” Warren says. “They had originally scheduled the bowl for Baltimore, but I convinced them that would be a mistake.”
In exchange for winning his battle with Miggle over the site of the Super Bowl tournament, Warren agreed to help organize the competition and to serve as referee. He will not, however, be participating as a player. (Ron Spain, an electrician from Bladensburg, will be the local representative, using the Redskins.) Warren now has a loftier purpose: He wants to be an ambassador of electric football, to do what he can to help the analog game survive in the digital age.
The game, after all, has helped him survive.
Away from his game board, Warren is a cop. He’s been with the Metropolitan Police Department for 10 years. In January 1995, on a night when he was moonlighting as a security guard at the Wendy’s on Georgia Avenue in Petworth, a man in a mask and armed with a handgun ambushed Warren, who was in uniform. Warren was shot in the arm, leg, and neck. The assailant fled the scene without giving any indication that he had wanted to rob the restaurant—or that he’d ever seen Warren before.
A week later, while Warren was still in the hospital, another D.C. officer, sitting in his cruiser on 16th Street NW, was shot three times by a masked man. That cop also survived, and ballistics tests showed that the same gun had been used in both assaults. At that point, investigators thought they had a motive, however peculiar: The shooter just didn’t like cops.
That motive was proved tragically accurate in April 1995, when a Prince George’s County cop was shot 11 times as he sat in his marked car outside a liquor store. The string of attacks ended that Memorial Day, when an FBI agent working on the cop-stalker case was killed in his car in Greenbelt, and the gunman, a 29-year-old well-known to police after more than two dozen arrests for much less heinous crimes, such as petty theft and domestic abuse, killed himself with a Beretta he’d stolen from his P.G. County victim.
Though his physical wounds healed nicely, Warren was still struggling emotionally over the randomness of the assault when he went back to work at the 3rd District after about a year of convalescing. He now figures he’ll never understand what happened.
But right around the time of his return to the beat, he saw a local TV station report on an electric footballer from Alexandria who was going for the 1996 Super Bowl title. Warren, who grew up in Petworth, hadn’t “coached” in a decade when he saw that show. But it reminded him of how much he had loved the game in his childhood, and before that day was through, Warren says, he was plotting his return to the game. For a lot less money than Daniel Snyder paid for the Skins, Warren got a board (about $50), a team (about $5), and, eventually, even a stadium: a custom-built replica of FedEx Field that he had made by a Texas artisan ($600). Anything he spends on electric football, he says, is well spent.
“I know people say things like ‘Cops just eat doughnuts and write tickets!’ They don’t think about the other side, the side of the job I see,” he says. “I got shot through a window by some fool who didn’t even know me. That’s my job, and in my job, you really need to find something in your life that gives you great pleasure. I see so many people I work with having hobbies—like building train sets, or having doll collections or some other collections—something that they do for no other reason than because it gives them pleasure. We need these things. I have my family, and I have my basement, where I can go deal with my guys and forget about the stress of my job, of the real world.”
In the Super Bowl tournament’s qualifying rounds, coaches will be given allegedly identical sets of players by Miggle to play with. Tampering is a no-no, so the sort of augmentations that Warren and most other hard-core coaches employ in their basement leagues won’t be permitted.
Warren’s police background is well-known in the electric-football community, and you’d figure cheating would be nonexistent with a cop as referee. Warren’s not going into the tournament with his eyes shut, however.
“You’d be amazed at the tricks people try in this game,” he says. “I know some coaches who will take a new set of guys, run out and boil them in baby oil, and come back a half-hour later with a heavier team that looks just like it did before.”
Heaviness can be a big advantage in electric football, especially in tournament games, where coaches haven’t “scouted” their players to know what direction they’ll head once the buzzing starts. So Warren will be on the lookout for added coats of paint to players’ torsos, and pieces of metal or clay to their bases. He even saw a coach using players made out of cement once.
Cheaters will be tossed out of the competition. Warren hopes he won’t find any. He wants the real world to lay off him ’til he goes back to work.—Dave McKenna
The Electric Football Super Bowl & Convention will be held Friday through Sunday at the Holiday Inn Capitol Hotel, 550 C St. SW. The championship game is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, call (202) 479-4000 or check out www.miggle.com.