Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Football Years

Okay, so it wasn’t quite like that. But since what I am about to discuss involves a group of knucklehead teenage males obsessed with a football board game played with dice and statistically-based player cards, I thought a photograph that depicted “fantasy football” could at least gain your attention. After all, even Ehlers on Everything is not beyond the shameless exploitation of sex to increase readership. In reality, Strat-O-Matic Pro Football, which helped define and influence the autumns of my youth, involved a geek-like devotion to statistics, strategy, and play calling; more fact than fantasy.

Having discovered Strat-O-Matic Baseball and its statistical realism a year earlier, my brother Steve and I decided to give the football version a try following the 1970 NFL season. Hal Richman and the Strat-O-Matic Game Company came out with the first edition of the football game in 1968, following the NFL season that featured Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers as Super Bowl champions. My interest in pro football developed a year or so later, when Joe Namath and the New York Jets upset Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. Unlike Strat-O-Matic Baseball, which I played alone, the football version involved head-to-head matchups between testosterone-driven teenagers whose pride and emotional well-being depended on winning a game that was determined in part by the luck of a dice roll.

Intrigued by the notion of friendly competition, Steve and I recruited three of our best friends from the neighborhood and formed a five-team league. Mark Erson, a Lutheran minister’s son from across the street whose family hailed from New York, picked the Vikings, while his older brother Tim chose the New York Giants. Mike Dennehy, my lifelong friend who loved Detroit teams for reasons possibly less rational than my love of St. Louis teams, coached the Detroit Lions. I naturally picked the St. Louis football Cardinals that first season, while Steve chose the Philadelphia Eagles. In the first year of play, we each coached just one team, though in subsequent years we expanded to three teams each. After the first season, Mark and Tim would drop out and we would be joined by Joe Sbarra, the oldest of five siblings from a rambunctious, sports-crazed family up the street, and Phil Zirkle, another resident of our block, whose family originated from Baltimore. Phil reminded me of our dog Peppy, a bit moody and surly around the edges, but whose bark was worse than his bite.

The games were intense, the desire to win palpable. I recall more than a few closed-door pep talks to a stack of player cards before the scheduled kickoffs as the “coaches” defined offensive and defensive strategies and anticipated how to out-maneuver the opponent. I know most of you reading this cannot likely relate. But for those who ever played Strat-O-Matic Football, there exists a mutual understanding from shared experiences, when bonds and friendships are formed. “Friendship,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

As with all Strat-O-Matic games, the statistical realism of the football version is unmatched, as each player and team performs consistent with real-life abilities. But it was the head-to-head competition in the football version that made playing Strat-O-Matic Football such a uniquely intense experience. As Hal Richman has said, “Head-to-head, Strat-O-Matic Football is the best sports game ever invented.” We engaged in a battle of wits, constantly trying to outguess the other side. After a close game, the winner was elated, the loser emotionally spent. This profound desire to win undoubtedly contributed to the creative assortment of profanities frequently uttered on the sidelines during each game. It was not unheard of for occasional inanimate objects to be thrown. Visitors entered the room of play at their own risk. Parents did their best to ignore us, and we wisely played most games in the basement, protected by distance and built-in concrete sound barriers, but every so often an adult would yell, “Settle down!” or “Watch your language!” usually to little effect.

Similar to Strat-O-Matic Baseball (see Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Baseball Years), the outcome of each play was determined by a roll of the dice – one white and two red. The white die determined whether to look on the offensive cards (1, 2, 3) or defensive cards (4, 5, 6), while the red die (totaling between 2 and 12) determined where in that column to look. The offense could choose to run (linebuck, off-tackle, or end run) or pass (flat pass, short pass, and long pass), directing each play to a particular running back or receiver. Some running backs, like O.J. Simpson (my favorite player before I discovered he was a homicidal maniac), was particularly dangerous on the end run and off tackle, while fullbacks like Larry Csonka were solid and almost unstoppable on inside runs. Fumbles and interceptions were always a concern, and you learned to minimize the risks where possible. On passing plays, the flat pass was the easiest to complete but often yielded short yardage. A short pass was designed to gain at least ten or more yards, but you needed a really good quarterback to complete a high percentage of these passes without getting sacked or throwing an interception. And the deep route, or long pass, involved substantial risks (more interceptions and sacks), but offered potentially great rewards (long gains and touchdowns).

Coaching and play calling was particularly important in the football version because the outcome of each play was greatly affected by whether the defensive team “guessed” right or wrong in defending against the run or pass. As the offensive player cards were divided between “right” and “wrong” columns, guessing correctly on defense could make the difference between stopping the offense or giving up substantial yardage. The defensive coach could also key on a particular running back or double team a receiver. A successful double team could shut down a team’s offense and unsettle the opposing team’s coach, but if you guessed wrong, you risked giving up a big play.

To protect the integrity of the play calling, we cut out the ends of shoe boxes, which when placed upside down formed an enclosed shelter that shielded the play-calling cards on each side of the game board. The offensive coach secretly chose a play – say, short pass-flanker – by placing a penny over the markers for “short pass” and “flanker”. Meanwhile, the defensive coach placed a penny over the marker depicting either “run” or “pass”. If he was particularly daring, he might also double team or key on a running back or receiver (but keying the wrong player automatically resulted in a “wrong” defensive formation). When the offensive coach announced the play, the defensive coach would respond “right”, “wrong”, or “keyed”. Although we mostly operated under an honor system, there were times when the defensive coach guessed right several plays in a row and the offensive coach would demand proof. The defensive coach would then have to reveal the placement of his penny by lifting the shoe box shelter. Sadly, even in these pre-Watergate days of American innocence, an opponent was occasionally caught with the penny lingering somewhere in-between the run and pass markers. Richard Nixon’s lament, “I am not a crook,” fell on deaf ears. Tell it to the judge. At such times, bad feelings ensued and proof was thereafter demanded after every play, restoring truth and justice to the American gridiron.

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” So said David Sarnoff, founder of the RCA Corporation. Never was this more so than in our Strat-O-Matic Football league, where displays of poor character and unhinged emotional breakdowns were common occurrences. You see, however realistic Strat-O-Matic board games are – and the statistical realism is unmatched with each team playing to its abilities over the course of fourteen or sixteen games – the outcome of each play, each field goal attempt, each pass or run, is still determined in the end by luck and a roll of the dice.

Thus, there was the time when Mike’s Detroit Lions lost to my Kansas City Chiefs on a last second field goal. Although these final points occurred as the result of clever play calling that put my team within field goal range with fifteen seconds left on the clock, followed by a skillful roll of the dice, Mike failed to see it that way. As I quietly celebrated a 40-yard kick by Jan Stenerud and waited for the customary handshake and “good game” exchange, Mike slammed his fist and overturned the card table. Player cards and dice immediately became airborne as the game board landed on my lap. Mike stormed up the stairs and out of the basement as I gently lifted the card table from my thighs and picked up the scattered dice and player cards from the basement floor. As Mike reached the top of the basement steps, I seem to recall that his last remarks involved references to “luck” and the son of a female canine.

Years later, when Mike went off to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, he and a group of classmates formed their own Strat-O-Matic Football league.  Following one particularly frustrating loss, Mike is reported to have tossed a copy of The Lives of Saints through his dorm window.  A few minutes later, his roommate, who was nearly struck by the flying book while returning from the library, entered the room, looked at the disheveled state of affairs and the shattered glass and said, "I guess Mike lost."  Mike now makes his living as a guidance counselor and coach of the women’s softball team at a public high school in New Jersey, molding the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

Then there was the time Roy Shivers, my prize halfback for the Cardinals who averaged 4.7 yards per carry, fumbled the ball, not once but twice, while inside the opposing team’s ten yard line, each time resulting in a stomach churning turnover. After the second fumble I may have experienced a temporary blackout. In the words of Jimmy Hoffa before a Senate Rackets Committee hearing, “My memory fails to recall my recollection.” A string of profanities and end-of-the-world prophecies were likely exclaimed. It is possible that an old wooden chair was broken after an unfortunate collision with the basement floor (sorry Dad, it was me after all) and, much to my regret, Shivers’ player card was crumpled beyond recognition. Later in the game, realizing I still needed Shivers in the backfield, I sheepishly picked him up off the floor, un-crumpled his card, and attempted to iron out his wrinkles. He remained a wounded warrior the rest of the season.

Rumor has it that Phil once kicked a hole in the kitchen wall of the Sbarra residence following the second of two blocked punts by Joe’s Green Bay Packers. I am told that the Sbarra-version of Lambeau Field was thereafter moved to an undisclosed location. A few years later, Phil was hired as a security guard, responsible for protecting property. Fortunately, his background check failed to disclose his past act of vandalism and expulsion from the Sbarra household.

I would like to tell you that playing Strat-O-Matic football brought with it a certain stature in life, a series of lessons that built character and developed a sense of manhood. While slightly older and braver young men went off to war and fought valiantly in the jungles of Vietnam, the five of us battled over a game board, player cards, and the statistical probabilities of dice rolls. It was a test of wills between an eclectic group of neighborhood friends in central New Jersey, each seeking bragging rights in what seemed at the time a very important matter.

With the passing of time comes perspective. “There are no days more full, than those we go back to,” wrote Colum McCann. There are days still when I long for the simple joys of playing a game with impractical seriousness. I have traveled far from the zany days of my youth, when life’s successes and failures were measured in part by a football board game, player cards, and a roll of the dice. It seems silly now, but I treasure the memories. Whenever I speak with or visit my former Strat football opponents, we inevitably re-live the controversial, funny, and heart wrenching moments of past games. I am forever grateful to Strat-O-Matic for allowing me to have been irrational and passionate about something so insignificant, yet which seemed at the time so momentous. “What was our life like?” ponders Richard Ford in The Sportswriter. “I almost don’t remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly.”

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