WFL Football 1974
“My one aspiration: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward…I press on toward the goal to win.” – Philippians 3:13

When you think of good, well known gridiron video games, what immediately comes to mind? Madden? Highly likely. NCAA Football? Probably. Tecmo Bowl? Absolutely. How about 4th & Inches? Probably not. With the current American football season now in full swing and 4th & Inches a mere handful of weeks away from celebrating it’s 30th birthday, I felt it an appropriate time to revist one of the true great elders of gridiron video games.

Forget the dreadful NFL Football and Realsports Football for the Mattel Intellivision and Atari 2600 consoles. Even the cheerful 10 Yard Fight that arrived on the Famicom almost 4 years prior cannot hold a candle. If I’ve done my homework correctly, 4th & Inches was the first gridiron video game to incorporate full squad names, long before official NFL naming licenses and their ilk became the norm.

At a time when the likes of Phil Simms, John Elway, Jerry Rice, Dan Marino and the mighty William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry were delighting football fans across the USA and casual Channel 4 bandwagoners across the pond, another band of true gridiron greats legends were whipping up a storm in living rooms, bedrooms and home offices the world over. Advances in broadcast technology had brought America’s game to an even larger world audience, but 4th & Inches was the true video game gridiron don. Here was a game that for the first time allowed proper strategic play calling. Proper offense and defense player control. Quality sound and visuals. A football pitch that scrolled so far it spanned multiple time zones.

Designed and programmed by publisher Accolade’s co-founder Bob Whitehead4th & Inches swept all that came before it and made global superstars out of 26 then unknown men. In the years that passed, the passage of time has been somewhat unkind to 4th & Inches. Swallowed by the enormity of big franchises like NCAA Football and the global phenomenon that is the John Madden series. It is a subject that comes up rarely in retro gaming conversations, and something this here article you are reading will attempt to answer.

What happened to those 26 superstars after the fame died down? Where are they now?

Chambersburg 1985

July 1985, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Then 32, Ellis Page was busy plying his trade for bush league gridiron team the Chambersburg Cardinals. Fresh off the back of a 72 game, 5 perfect seasons run (a feat which has yet to be matched let alone surpassed), the Cardinals were attracting outside interest as well as making headlines. It was at this particular time that Page was asked to be involved with the development of a ‘new and exciting’ sports video game. Today, approaching his twilight years, Page, now a successful businessman, appears content and relaxed whilst reminiscing about his glorious video game past.

“I didn’t know what they really wanted from me at first. We had a good run from ’77 to ’84. Made a few ripples and people start lookin’ at us.” Page states, somewhat firmly. I’m immediately intrigued as to how the Chambersburg Cardinals became involved with an industry still in relative, and fractious infancy. “They approached us after hearing about our (perfect season) story. They were looking to capture player motion, note down some stats, technicals, play ideas, formations. That sort of thing. We were just happy to help.” In a way it makes sense to approach a smaller team for the project, rather than harassing the superstars of the NFL, where time, access and cost would likely all be prohibitive.

All Pros / Champs

All Pros and Champs teams
The 26 eternal legends of 4th & Inches

4th & Inches allows for the control of two great teams. The All Pros and The Champs. 26 players plucked from relative obscurity were digitized in to the living heart and soul of what many deem to be the first proper gridiron video game. “They asked us if they could use our real names. A lot of the guys said no problem, but a couple, myself included, didn’t want it for different reasons” Page recalls with a ruffled shrug. Thus a look at the player roster reveals some interesting names. Rilly Quick, Jerry Attrick and R.M. Pitts (Page) to name but a mere few. A handful of players were brought in from defunct WFL teams. Now long since retired, data was collected on players from the Detroit Wheels, Honolulu Hawaiians, Shreveport Steamer and Philadelphia Bell. Data collection was completed within mere days. “A couple of guys did a video tape. Throwing, running, tackling, that sort of thing” recalls Page. Remember this was 1985 so we’re not talking green screens, unlimited budget and the latest in motion capture technology. With that, and an undisclosed fee paid, they were gone.

So what happened next? Across Pennsylvania word caught on about a new gridiron video game featuring local talent and heroes from the 1970’s. Businesses clamoured for player endorsements, seeing local talent as a way to get more custom. From hairdressers to mini-markets, banks to brasseries, the stars of 4th & Inches were in high demand. Life was good and the living was not easy but relatively comfortable.

September 12th, 1987. 4th & Inches megastars Slim Dixon and Flash Darling had been booked to open a new car dealership in Fayetteville, a short distance from Chambersburg. The local news station was broadcasting the opening live, so to ‘glam the event up a bit’ a helicopter was hired to give the two stars a somewhat grand entrance. Local authorities were reluctant to close roads in order to facilitate what they deemed to see as something of an extravagance and thus the decision was made to land the helicopter on the roof of the dealership.

Upon making a perfect landing, Dixon exited the chopper on to the building roof to greet the crowds below before making his way towards the door to the stairwell. Darling, whom it was later revealed was under the influence of alcohol, methamphetamine and a speedball, exited the helicopter somewhat exuberantly and waved to the crowds gathered below. It was at this fatefully perfect moment that the rotor pylon malfunctioned causing the blades to violently drop. At the very moment Flash Darling climbed out of the helicopter, he was decapitated. Such was the force, and speed, of the blade auto-rotation, Darling’s skull hurtled through the air akin to a speeding bullet, hitting Slim Dixon in the temple causing him to spasm before killing him instantly. The pilot, three photographers and the company mascot all suffered horrific injuries. Sadly none of them survived the horrors of that fateful day.

Now & Then

Although the tragedy was ruled as an accident, the families of Slim Dixon and Flash Darling successfully sued after the cause was determined to be a faulty rotor pylon component that should have been spotted during scheduled maintenance.

Time, however, is always moving on. As the years passed and the once roaring flames that licked the torch of fame had died down to mere cinders, life had painted an array of portraits for the remaining 24 stars. Late nights and early mornings at Studio 54 eventually gave way to early mornings and late nights trying to make a living.  It wasn’t  all doom and gloom; while the bright lights began to fade for many of the players, some were given trials in the big leagues. Mack Truck, Animal Green and Merlin Jones all signed lucrative contracts. Tyrone Harris pursued what would turn out to be a very successful college coaching career. Sadly Merlin Jones passed away in 1994 in a paddle board accident off the coast of the Bahamas. More shockingly, a bankrupt Ox Smersh was jailed and sectioned for life in 1993 after a bank heist went tragically wrong. Smersh, strung out on angel dust would later go on record stating he had no recollection of the events at all.

“We had a good time. Some more than others. That’s how it goes. We took the opportunities as we were given them. We were care free. Given a chance. I’m so thankful for that. I just wish some of the other guys were still around to reflect and appreciate just what we had.” recalls a very misty-eyed Ellis Page. No truer a word could be said about a group of gridiron minnows who were thrust in to the limelight and lived each moment to it’s fullest. Moments in time also tinged with sadness in that three of the players would never live to see how revered 4th & Inches is three decades on.

Game On

4th and Inches gameplay
Ready, set, go!

I find it hard to believe that 4th & Inches is three decades old. Thirty years. I remember as a young boy, leafing through my Orbis World Cup ’90 magazines and stickers, I turned the page to find a photo of Sir Bobby Moore and Pele swapping shirts at the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. That photo had a huge impact on me. Not just because of what it came to represent from a sporting angle, but that it made me struggle to comprehend that 20 years prior, this event took place. To me that seemed like a lifetime ago. I couldn’t even begin to register the enormity of how much time had passed. I get that feeling again, unable to comprehend that 4th & Inches is thirty years old. Around two thirds of my entire life. Yet it remains, in mine, and (just look around the Internet) plenty of other peoples opinion that 4th & Inches is one of the true greats. One of the very absolute best.

Sure it’s incredibly dated in all aspects. But at the time it was groundbreaking. Here was the little Commodore 64 (the version I played) performing miracles. Play selections, substitutions, strategies, ‘lifelike’ animations and sprite designs for their time. This game had it by the bucketload. Yet it is easy for many to forget, elders gobbled up by flashy AAA Madden titles et al. Youngsters not even born who have and probably will never experience the sheer joy that this little sports game brings, even to non-gridiron enthusiasts.

As 4th & Inches approaches it’s thirtieth birthday, perhaps take a moment to reflect, fire up an emulator or an actual C64 if you have one and give the game a try. Perhaps you may have younger children or teenagers close to you who may like to try too? And as you punt, pass and kick your way through each quarter, take a moment and think about those 26 minnows who, just for a moment, made the big time.

DISLAIMER: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

This article was first published at Retro Collect on October 16, 2016.