Doug Wolter: Foosball is no longer a craze, but fanatics are still out there – The Globe

When I was a teen-ager growing up in Allendorf, Iowa, we went to the bowling alley in Sibley to play foosball. I wasn’t very good at it, but my best friend, Mark Hawkins, could flick his wrists so fast and send that ball whizzing past my plastic defenders that it made my head spin.

I never got the hang of the wrist shot, so I left the game to others with more dexterity than I.

This is going to be a column about foosball, because this week I happened to discover a fascinating movie-length television documentary on the subject, which specifically followed the lives of several foosball fanatics who’ve built their existence around the game — or sport — whichever description you prefer.

Yesterday, I had planned to write this about the “woke” US women’s soccer team and its embarrassing setbacks at the Tokyo Olympics because, well, like the Canadians who beat them on Monday, I wanted to run my own victory lap. Like millions of others, I saw the loss as just comeuppance for a team so obsessed with insulting its own country that it forgot how to compete.

But the foosball subject is more uplifting, so I’m going with it.

Watching the foosball film, I became amused upon hearing about these men and women who’d become so fascinated with the game that they could want nothing more out of life than to play. But as I watched further, I came to admire them.

Until then, to me — and to probably everyone else I’d watched play foosball at any time in my life — I thought table soccer (another name foosball is known as) was just something to do between your next turn at bowling.

Imagine yourself as a teen-ager, and all you want to do in life is play foosball. Your parents think you’re wasting your life, and they want you to go to college and make something of yourself.

Mike Bowers was hooked in the 1970s. His father disapproved, of course, but changed his mind in 1974 when Bowers won the first world foosball tournament in 1974. Suddenly, Mike explained in the documentary, his dad looked at him differently. He didn’t see him as a disappointment, but as “a champion.”

Bowers, now an old man himself, had tears in his eyes when he recalled the story.

I think there may be a lesson in foosball. No, I think there may be several lessons.

The game was definitely a craze in the ’70s, and huge payouts could be had in the biggest national tournaments. Then, from out of left field, came the video game era. By 1980, sales of foosball tables plummeted, foosball tournament participation tanked, and the payouts did, too. The very best players — those who lived for foosball and practically nothing else — were devastated. Some of them felt that they had nothing else to live for.

Many quit. Others pressed on. What else could they do? Robert Mares, one of the very best in the world, explained why he doubled down during the hard times.

“This sounds kind of deep,” he said, “but I feel like I have a gift, and if I wasn’t playing I would be wasting it. I feel like it’s a responsibility.”

Foosball survived the video game disaster, but not all the way. The craze is no longer a craze. It’s just a thing. And the tournaments will never be as big as they once were.

But I suppose it doesn’t really matter. And instead of chuckling at those few fanatics who’ve made a life out of foosball, we should tip our hats to them. I, for one, am far less likely to belittle those extraordinary individualists who compete in every cornhole tournament, or Madden football tournament, with the crazy dream of being the best ever. What about you? What about me? Can any of us ever claim to be, or even claim to putting in the time to be, the best at anything?

Heck, my life today mostly consists of trying to remember to put out the trash each Tuesday morning. So raise a frothy glass to the dreamers.

I smiled as I listened to multiple world champion foosball player Tony Spredeman describe the reactions of people who ask what he does for a living. “I’m a professional foosball player,” he’d say, and the reactions he’d get were laughter.

Spredeman smiled at his own story. He knows that he is a real champion, and the others are not.

Like his peers whose parents were aghast at their kids’ obsession with foosball, Spredeman had a father who once considered him a foolish dreamer. Now, as Tony travels the country from tournament to tournament in his customized motorhome, his father often travels with him.

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