More than anything, though, I think I liked football because of the NFL Huddles.
Football teams had mascots since the league’s inception, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the NFL put together a line of plush toys and little rubber figurines called Huddles. Each represented a particular team, some more creatively than others. I’m not sure if they were sold in toy aisles or in the sporting goods section. I suspect they went to both. Huddles were aimed just as much at kids as they were at adults who wanted to festoon every inch of the living room with Chargers or Packers merchandise.
I bought one or two Huddle figures on my own, and my grandmother got me the rest as a birthday present. I suspect she nabbed them on the discount racks, as this was several years after their debut. Indeed, the Huddles didn’t last long, and praise for them is scant even on an Internet that finds nostalgia for Macron-1 and Food Fighters. They seem to have passed through the toy market without much attention, but they’re an adorable pop-culture collision of football and toys.
Just about every Huddle figure envisions the cutest possible mascot. Check out the scarf on the New York Jets icon, who sources tell me is called Jumbo Jet, or the whiskery visage of the Cincinnati Bengals Huddle. The Chicago Bears Huddle has a cocky, just-hanging-out pose, befitting a mascot who was only there to do the Super Bowl Shuffle.
Not every NFL totem is a creature, but the Huddle designers made even the drab human effigies stand out. The most inventive in the bunch is the New York Giants Huddle, who carries a club and a tiny football. The Kansas City Chiefs representative may be the most elaborately dressed, and I like how the Viking looks like an Asterix character. The paint jobs on the figures range from decent to downright sloppy, but let's remember that this was 1983 and the Huddles weren't expected to do Star Wars numbers.
Hailing from the 1980s, the Huddles are now out of date. There is no Carolina Panther or Baltimore Raven, and several Huddles have their old team logos. In fact, the Houston Oilers mascot (Oily Oiler, I guess) no longer exits. His team became the Tennessee Titans in 1999. Something tells me that the Washington Redskins Huddle, or Reddy Redskin, will join the retired group fairly soon.
A close look at my collection reveals that the Denver Broncos Huddle, or Bucky Bronco, has the most wear to his helmet. I played with him the most, as my love for the Broncos made him the obvious leader of the group. Who was the main villain? I don’t remember. Maybe the Giant. He’s the only one who looks remotely mean. Then again, I didn't play with Huddles the same way I enlisted Transformers or Ninja Turtles. I mostly just arranged them in their proper divisions and repositioned them as won/loss records dictated. Then I sulked when the Broncos lost the Super Bowl.
A few of the Huddles go the lazy route. The Cleveland Browns and the New Orleans Saints get identical twins in football gear, with only paint jobs to distinguish them. The Browns have used a dog as their unofficial mascot for as long as I can remember, so I'm not sure why their Huddle didn't follow that lead. The Saint is a tougher call. I’d suggest a papal ferula or a big halo for him, but that might be sacrilegious.
The NFL still makes merchandise for team mascots, but it’s not packaged under the Huddle brand. As far as I can tell, the line burned out in the mid-1980s, leaving only a few toys and some children’s books in which the Huddles battle the sinister machinations of a villain named Charlie Cheater. He didn't become a toy.
Did the NFL forsake the Huddles too soon? With a little work, they might have stuck around long enough to earn a Saturday morning cartoon, a video game, or McDonald’s happy-meal spots. Perhaps they’re just the thing to distract young fans from the NFL’s current spate of scandals, tax-exempt privileges, and disappointed fans. We’re all a little more forgiving of head-injury controversies and losing seasons when they’re paired with a happy little dolphin clutching a football.