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Merry Christmas to all

The Vikings' "Minneapolis Miracle," the Packers locking up Aaron Rodgers, Le'Veon Bell's holdout, and the Eagles' Super Bowl win are among the top 20 NFL stories of 2018.

Christmas morning 2018. Years from now, kids throughout the world will instantly think of Christmas morning 2018 when remembering the best gift they ever received.

Mine was Christmas morning 1975.

The memory remains vivid, a full 43 years later. A 10-year-old who loved pro football craved a way to bring the game into his own small corner of a 1,500-square-foot-at-most two-story brick house built smack dab in a flood plain. Stacks of Topps football cards, held together with rubber bands because the last thing anyone thought of in those days was keeping them in mint condition, would be sorted and drafted into a full offense and a full defense of best players of the era, and I’d arrange them on the shag carpet of the tiny guest room with a fold-out couch that I don’t remember many guests actually ever staying in.

It was a lame endeavor but it was all I had in the early weeks of football season, 1975. Then came the bigger-than-a-phone-book Sears catalog. It always showed up in early September, and this time I flipped straight to the pages that had the expensive toys. The toys that ran on more than batteries. The toys that were special enough to actually plug in to the wall.

And there it was. Tudor electric football. I employed no subtlety or nuance to make sure my mom knew I wanted it. But I also realized that, given its placement in the expensive toy section of the Sears catalog, there was a very good chance that “maybe next year” would be the message.

I still held out hope, wishing the twelfth month of the year away through the milestone dates that always made it feel like Christmas was actually getting closer. December 10, December 15. December 20. December 24.

Christmas morning 1975, I ran down the steps and did an immediate scan of the gift piles. And I knew instantly that nothing under that tree was big enough to be the thing I wanted most. It was a strange feeling, tearing through the collection of things I’d asked for, things I hadn’t, and things I knew I didn’t want but tried to act grateful to receive (tried), all the while dealing with that nagging disappointment that the one big gift had become a “maybe next year” wish, which for a 10-year-old may as well have been a “maybe 100 years from now” pipe dream.

Of course, they fooled me. They always did. While I was messing around with whatever board game or action figure had first drawn my attention after everything was open and it was time to play, my mom or my dad or my sister had snuck out of the room, quietly returned, and placed one last package against the wall to the side of the tree. I eventually looked up and saw a long, thin rectangular box ensconced in the colors of the Sunday comics section and I pounced, pulling it toward the floor while pushing lesser gifts out of the way, ripping away Dagwood and his friend to find what I knew was inside.

I admired the box for a long time before even opening it, looking at the pictures and reading whatever writing was on it. I was too young to understand that I was deliberately savoring the moment, burning it into my brain.

It was a toy that brought equal parts fascination and frustration. It took what seemed like 10 minutes to set up all the players for each snap, only to flip the switch, hear the loud rumblings of the motor that vibrated the board, and watch as, more often than not, chaos ensued.

For every player on top of a green base that managed to move in a straight line, another would instantly launch into a drunken square dance. Ultimately, I didn’t care. It was far better than the football-card alternative, and so I dug in and didn’t let go.

It came with directions and rules, but I realized that, unlike board games that require the structure and order, I could do whatever I wanted in the world of electric football. I came up with what seemed to be more practical allowances for the passing game (the ball was manually thrown from behind the quarterback, with three tries to hit the intended receiver on the fly) for tackling (the ball carrier had to be struck with the front of the defender’s base) for determining the length of a full game (then again, I’m not sure I ever actually finished one).

On balance, I loved it. My version came with the Browns and Steelers but in time I’d send away for more teams (I probably had a dozen in all), along with more of those tiny foam footballs became needles in haystacks once they sunk deep into the carpet.

Within a year or two, I accidentally stepped on the metal board, leaving a large dent in one end zone that, I’d instantly learn, drew the players to that spot like the flat-topped mountain in Close Encounters. So off went Tudor electric football to the place were all outdated toys go to not be played with: The attic.

I’d eventually get another one, but the one seemed a lot smaller and it wasn’t nearly as special as the first one. And at times like this I wonder how much that first one had to do with forging a bond that carried me all these years later into the sport that fills mostly every hour of every day, the job that rarely ever feels like one, the life I wouldn’t trade for anything.

So thanks Mom, wherever you may be, for throwing just the right log onto the fire at what may have been just the right time. Here’s hoping that kids throughout the world have that same thing happen for them on Christmas morning 2018.