A Christmas story: Two gifts received long ago that keep on giving
Christmas morning, 1973.
An ocean of presents decorated the downstairs family room, while a pair of exhausted parents sat on the stairs watching with amazement, as the kids they created plowed through a surplus of surprises. The abundance made perfect sense to us. After all, by our own modest accounts, we had been pretty good that year.
Santa held true to form, and tradition. He always knew the difference between our needs and wants and the needs always came first. But this Christmas, after the socks, shirts, pajamas, sugar-coated cereals, and various treats were opened, I was left holding a long, rectangular box with a tag that said, “To Dave, From Santa.”
Not only did I have no idea what was inside, I was also unaware of how it was going to shape the rest of my life. With mom and dad watching closely, I tore the paper away and there it was — the gift of all gifts — an electric football set.
Inside the box was a pair of teams (red and blue), a cardboard scoreboard, and a green metal football field that, when plugged into an outlet, brought everything to life — including a young boy’s imagination.
Each player was clipped onto a green base. Under the base were small plastic spikes. When electricity shot through the board, the spikes would move the player in the direction they were pointed. The game that requires a steady hand, creativity and patience became a transfer portal into a fantasy world that I would one day live out for real.
Shaping the future
Also in the box was a small order form that featured all the NFL teams, in both home and away jerseys. They weren’t cheap, but I wanted them. I wanted enough teams to have my own league, including a “Game of the Week” like we watched on “Monday Night Football” with announcers Frank Gifford, Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
With financing from paper route money, building a collection that started with the Cowboys and Steelers took a couple of years. With some imagination, the NFL teams worked as surrogates for college teams — the Colts for BYU, the Chiefs for the Utes, etc.
On those days when a mail order was expected to arrive, the sprint home from school always seemed longer than usual.
The electric football set was more than entertainment, it was a conduit into a much greater world, one that would someday pay the electric bill.
Growing up studying broadcasters like the “Monday Night Football” group and others, including Pat Summerall, Keith Jackson and Brent Musburger, I felt prepared to handle the broadcasts of my own games.
Notably, I was the play-by-play announcer and the analyst — asking myself questions and answering them. This posed a unique challenge because, at the same time, I was also the crowd, the officials, the players, the band and even the studio host when I would throw it back to New York for imaginary highlights from around the make-believe league.
As the lead groundskeeper, I also controlled the conditions. If the game was in a warm climate, I’d put on a sweater. If I wanted to add a weather element, I would spray a light mist onto the field with a water bottle. Coincidentally, that’s when I also learned that too much water on a metal board that was energized by electricity was a bad idea!
Live and learn.
In addition to all the sights and sounds surrounding the game, I was also the news reporter. After each contest, a story was written in my hieroglyphic-like penmanship and rushed to the lone subscriber in the house — my dad.
This was my briar patch and my poor brother Darin, who I shared a room in the basement with, had to listen to it all — day and night. However, on some occasions, peace would come by way of a road trip.
A neighbor friend, who also had an electric football set, agreed to a home-and-home series of games where I would take my best team and go up the street to play at his house and he would bring his best team to my field. These heated clashes sometimes required parental intervention.
On one occasion, I returned home with a victory and bite marks on my back! I’m not sure, but I think my mom discontinued the series after that.
Then one afternoon, the unimaginable became imaginable.
The refrigerator box
Walking home from Scera Park Elementary in Orem I noticed a neighbor was throwing out a huge cardboard refrigerator box. Pondering the possibilities, I stopped and stared at it for a while.
Then it hit me, just as the idea of an incandescent light bulb must have hit Edison. If I could somehow get this box down into my room, I could create my own dome stadium. The Houston Oilers had the Astrodome, why couldn’t I have the McCanndome?
The more I thought about it, the better the idea became. I dragged the massive box home, took it into the house and finagled it down two flights of stairs and, much to Darin’s bewilderment, I slid it right into our room.
It was huge but had glorious potential. The box ate up half the room, but I managed to keep it all on my side with the promise that it would reduce the noise from my games.
Then I went to work. Laying it on its side, I cut an opening for the field. On the inside walls I taped pictures of crowds and strategically placed a lamp over the field to look like stadium lights. A homemade blimp taped to the ceiling added the final touch.
It was a masterpiece, but it didn’t come without a cost.
Sometimes during those late-night doubleheaders, where the excitement of the moment could not be contained, an earthquake would strike — scaring me to death! That’s when I knew Darin had heard enough and sent one of his pillows across the room and onto the refrigerator box.
It was his way of telling his younger brother that the broadcast day was over.
The iron hoop
Another Christmas brought another life-changing gift in the form of an iron basketball hoop with a bouncy rubber ball. This was next level stuff compared to the flimsy plastic rim and sponge ball that we had been using.
Once it was attached to the wall, it transformed an unfinished room in the basement into the Boston Garden, or the Marriott Center or the Thomas & Mack Center and I became the Celtics, the Cougars or the Runnin’ Rebels.
For player rosters, I searched the daily paper and cut out the box scores. Even while elementary school math was challenging for me, I studied the numbers to determine who was scoring the most points. From the roster, I would build a starting five for two teams and play as if I were them. Afterward, dad would get a detailed handwritten game report.
As with the electric football set, I tipped off my fantasy world of basement basketball as the players, the coaches, the play-by-play announcer, the crowd and the band. It was nothing short of a five-alarm circus that repeated itself every night — and sometimes included doubleheaders.
On occasion, Uncle Stan would stand in as the opponent and we would duke it out like gladiators until we were both drenched in sweat and my voice was worn out from announcing the game. This went on for years.
Fantasy meets reality
Fast forward to March 2, 1996. UNLV is playing at Utah State and as I prepared to make my television play-by-play debut with former Rebels star Glen Gondrezick, I realized that this was the same Glen Gondrezick who I had spent hours pretending to be on my basement basketball court as a young kid.
Not only that, as tipoff approached, it also dawned on me that while this was my first “real” play-by-play experience, I had been preparing for this day since opening that Christmas gift in 1973 and received that iron hoop a short time later.
This is where fantasy meets reality.
Sitting in the refrigerator box and consumed by imagination, I called games in all the iconic places, including Michigan Stadium, Notre Dame Stadium, the Rose Bowl, L.A. Coliseum, Neyland Stadium, Texas Memorial Stadium, Cougar Stadium and in just about every NFL stadium. Basement basketball also took me into every major arena to face the nation’s most hostile crowds.
In reality, my out-of-the-box, grown-up profession has done the same, with broadcast assignments around the world in venues such as 2014 Sochi Olympics, the Rose Bowl (1991), Jack Murphy/Qualcomm Stadium (various), Neyland Stadium (1996), L.A. Coliseum (1997), Texas Memorial Stadium (2004), Aloha Stadium (various), Camp Randall Stadium (various), Notre Dame Stadium (2013), Michigan Stadium (2015), Arrowhead Stadium (2015), FedEx Field (2016), University of Phoenix Stadium (2016), New Orleans Superdome (2017), Allegiant Stadium (2021), Cougar Stadium/LaVell Edwards Stadium (various) and U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (Super Bowl LII).
The Christmas gift connection between fantasy and reality includes people, too.
I showcased the legendary Walter Payton and the Bears on my electric football set. Years later, he and I sat next to each other at a football luncheon in Las Vegas. I was the emcee. He was the keynote speaker.
Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw scored a lot of touchdowns in my refrigerator box. Decades later, he and I shared the stage at an event where again, I was the emcee, and he was the keynote speaker.
Legendary coach John Robinson won a national championship at USC. His teams won a lot of games on my field too (Washington’s red and yellow color scheme looked a lot like the Trojans). Years later, I was Robinson’s play-by-play announcer at UNLV.
Cougars greats Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon and Steve Young all went undefeated on my field, and each has become a friend as we’ve grown older.
Basketball is no different. I announced thousands of BYU games (as Paul James) in the basement long before I accepted my own play-by-play assignments for the Cougars with the Blue & White Network, SportsWest and BYUtv and for several years with UNLV.
There were days in 1979 when I spent the afternoon pretending to be Danny Ainge on my floor before going to his floor at the Marriott Center to rebound for him during warmups as one of the ball boys.
The memories are a genuine blend of fantasy and reality — that’s the link between walking down the steps of the Marriott Center and running down the steps into the basement. My greatest Christmas wish is that our dad, the late Cougar Club executive director, Dale R. McCann, was alive to take it all in.
He was there on the day I received the electric football set. He was there the day I dragged a refrigerator box into the house, and he was there when the iron hoop went up on the wall. “Keep the noise down!” is something he probably told me a million times and to his credit, he read all my game reports (or at least pretended to).
I’m still writing stories that I wish he could read — like this one.
Gift giving warms the heart and gift receiving can sometimes change a life in the most unexpected ways. It’s the magic of the season where good will is propagated by how good the giver and receiver are at willingly and frequently swapping roles.
Everything I have been fortunate to do in my profession, which currently includes writing for the Deseret News, co-hosting the weekly “Y’s Guys” livestream/podcast and filling a variety of broadcasting roles at BYUtv, can be traced back to Christmas morning, 1973.
Unwrapping that long, rectangle box gave me a gift that shaped my life. To some, it was just a toy. But to me, along with the iron hoop, it turned play time into a tutorial.
Not to be lost in all the ensuing adventures is gratitude for the source from where they came. While Santa still gets credit for the delivery, I owe just about everything I am to those two exhausted parents sitting over on the stairs — watching me tear the wrapping paper away from a present that would have so much to do with my future.