The New Mexico state foosball champ walked into the bar as if in slow motion. His measured steps kept cadence with the rap blaring from the credit card operated juke box. His eyes were lidded, his beer gut prominent. He was five-foot something with a balding pate and an embroidered foosball champion’s jacket. He looked around at his competition, the other amassed pros of table sport, while wearing disdain like a visage. The Arizona state champ was in the room as well and the two demigods avoided each other like alpha males are wont to do. I looked up from my table taking it all in; my eyes clearly asked “what the fuck?”
It was Snowdown in Durango Colorado, an annual week-long party in this perfect little mountain town, and I had entered a foosball competition with my friend Adam. I thought I was good enough to at least end up in the top three, and cash was to be won. I have a foosball table at home and I play in bars; I hadn’t lost in the past five years, but to be honest, my stiffest competition was the occasional drunk or my twelve year old daughter. I have the above average hand/eye coordination that comes from being a drummer and I don’t drink; Adam is simply fun to be around, and he had a table at his fraternity, so I thought it’d be an easy night of schooling drunk hipsters.
I arrived early to size up the competition; holy shit. They each came armed with custom grip tape that they’d wrap around the foosball handles for better control. They’d drape the tape over their shoulders like a scarf and walk around the bar for all to see. It was neon pink or orange or green. A few had polo shirts emblazoned with their foosball names; one such pro went by “The Law” and refused to be called anything else. Everybody was wearing sweat bands and matching T shirts and serious expressions. These guys even brought their own oil cans which they used to lube up the tables. Wasn’t foosball supposed to be a bullshit “sport” of drunken revelry? I half expected to see at least one foosball related tattoo on an exposed forearm, maybe the silhouette of one of the plastic men, but then again, maybe this level of foosball mastery is best left hidden.
Adam arrived and we sat down. We watched our competitors practice. He drank a beer. We knew we were going to lose, so we settled in to have fun. It was our only option. Our first two opponents sauntered up to the other side of “table three.” They were both well into their forties. Each had a cordon of fat around their middle. One had a special glove on his left hand. They gave us the evil eye and slowly started wrapping grip tape around their handles. I laughed and said “we’re gunna get our asses handed to us,” to which one of them responded, with a suspicious smirk, “are you a hustler?” I cocked my eyebrow and slowly shook my head. I’d like to think I live in a reality where foosball hustlers don’t exist.
We scored three goals to their fifteen. We celebrated our goals with cheers and shit talking. They didn’t even mention theirs. Their ball control was ridiculous. They passed it forward and back, left and right, without a single bobble. They’d kick it forward, hold it, time their shot, and shoot with blurring speed and linear accuracy. These dudes were badasses, if one can truly be a badass at something as trivial as foosball, but they weren’t having fun. After they handed us our asses as I foretold, they extended their hands across the table with hollow repetitions of “good game.” Adam and I sat down, he had another beer, and we waited patiently for our next ass kicking.
Paige, Adam’s wife, showed up still dressed in her nurse’s scrubs. As I said earlier, Adam is fun to be around. So is Paige. But when you get the two of them together, things get awesome. They feed off of each other’s personalities and amplify any social experience. They’re two of my favorite people. Paige listened as we related our experience thus far and made astute observations like “maybe these guys would be in better shape if they tried a real sport instead of a pretend one.” She too wondered if any of these foos fools had tattoos. We laughed at the similarities in our thought process. As it turned out, Paige had a permanent marker in her purse, and that’s when shit got real. I had her write “FOOS4LIF” across my knuckles in huge block letters; she wrote “GOOOOALL” across Adam’s. We held our fists together like a couple of OGs. Baller.
We waited for our next match. It was a double elimination tournament. And as Adam and Paige sat together, comfortable in their marriage, it hit me: none of our competitors were wearing wedding rings. How could they be? Their level of expertise bespoke of hours in a darkened basement with nothing but the click and clack of a foosball table for companionship. Maybe they even named their home tables, something feminine of course, to further personify their obsession. I pictured shady back-alley foosball matches held behind locked doors with peepholes and secret passwords. I pictured these men at work, sweating over a grill or mopping up aisle three, as they waited for quitting time so they could go home to “Bethany” or “Alice” and practice until their wrists got sore. I had a wife at home, and two daughters. I had a career. I had prospects and a healthy hobby and a low body fat percentage. I was going to lose at foos that night, but I’d be winning at life. I was comfortable in that truth.
Our next competitors were a couple of twenty-something college kids who had come to El Rancho, the bar in downtown Durango which held the tournament, with fifteen of their friends. They were good, but not “The Law” good. They came to have fun. Everybody cheered and talked shit. There was drinking and gratuitous high fives. The players at the other tables gave us dirty looks to which we’d respond with raised fists. FOOS FOR LIFE MUTHA FUCKA! We won that match and actually meant it when we said “good game” while shaking hands across the table. We had fun, made friends, and played that table sport as it was meant to be played. Our little group of three morphed into to a rowdy posse of twenty.
We stood around spouting puerile insults as we awaited our next match. You know, like “you might be better at foosball, but I know what boobs look like” or “everybody knows why your wrists are so strong.” Nobody responded. I guess witty rejoinders are in short supply when so much focus is wasted on the little plastic men dancing back and forth in front of you. Adam and I walked over to look at the brackets to see where we stood; our next match was to be against none other than the New Mexico state champ and his partner. Our short conversation went thusly:
Me: “This is gunna be quick.”
Adam: “With that attitude it will be.”
Me: “There’s no way in hell we’re going to beat the New Mexico state champions.”
Adam: “We’ve got to get in their heads. We need to walk up to the table, bump chests, shout ‘foos for life,’ and show them our fists.”
We walked over to “table two” with our posse/impromptu cheerleaders. Our opponents stood across from us and ignored our idiocy as they wrapped grip tape around their handles. Of course we showed them our knuckles as our cheerleaders roared their approval. The guy across from me asked if they were “real or just henna.” My mind exploded. This guy thought that tattooing “FOOS4LIF” across your knuckles was a viable life choice, something that someone might actually do, and he thought I might be that somebody. Jesus. I replied “No. No no no. It’s Sharpie.” He looked disappointed.
The game began and Adam began his incessant shit talking. They scored three times, we scored two. They’d put the ball back in immediately after a goal, we’d wait while Adam took a celebratory drink of beer. We’d shout triumphantly at our mini victory, as would our cheerleaders, and enjoy the moment. Our opponents probably ranked in the top fifty nationally, so we made our goals count. And oddly, Adam’s plan began to work. The New Mexico state foosball champ, with his custom jacket and grip tape and embroidered polo, started to get pissed. He started to miss. He shouted something at our posse like “you guys need to be quiet because you’re a distraction” to which they responded with something like “ha ha ha ha ha.” His partner tried to calm him, realizing that they were at a bar facing actual men instead of at a tournament facing other troglodytes. The champ caught on, and went back to the game.
Game point came quickly despite the champ’s frustration. He had control of the ball; all he had to do was shoot it past Adam and into the goal. He lined up his shot, juked left and right with some fancy bullshit… and then Adam reached over and grabbed the champ’s bar so he couldn’t shoot. Boom. Our cheerleaders exploded in a chorus of approval. The champ started shaking with rage and lifted his face with wide eyes to see our twin smirks, and two sets of raised fists. Foos. For. Life. Again, his partner calmed him knowing that foosball was that singular thing at which they could beat us. He went back to the game, took his shot, and won. He even shook hands afterward with the meaningless platitude. “Good game.”
I said my goodbyes to Adam and Paige and our posse as they all melted into the crowd to finish the night. I drove home to my family through a chill darkness. I gripped my steering wheel with my Sharpie covered knuckles and laughed. I made it home and told my daughter that I lost; it boosted my ego a bit to see her look of disbelief. But in the story I told my wife, it was obvious that I left El Rancho as the winner.