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Foosball isn't what it used to be

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The memories are usually fuzzy, clouded by decades of other diversions or simply by the fact that, even back then, you'd already forgotten by the next day that you'd played.

Once thought to be the beer pong of its time, foosball is now more hardcore than fraternity chic, more a competitive sport than simply a reason to hoist a few.

For those who play the game professionally, it is their life, if not quite their livelihood. For those looking to rediscover the game, this is not your father's (or mother's) foosball.

It has been around for nearly a century, founded by an Englishman who wanted to recreate the play of his favorite local soccer team, Tottenham Hotspurs, in the comfort of his home. Harold Thornton patented the game in 1923 and four years later, after a London visit, Thornton's uncle, Louis, brought it back with him the United States.

Still more popular in Europe, where last month's Table Soccer World Cup was televised live in several countries (and shown in the U.S. on ESPN3), foosball lost an entire generation of potential American players with the popularity of video games — and, to some extent, drinking games. But slowly, those little spinning figures lined up three across and attached by a metal rod are making a comeback.

"We don't get younger, newer players as much," said Kristin Grogan of Jessup, ranked among the top 50 female players in the world. "The game rooms are gone. A lot of players were playing in bowling alleys and skating rinks and game rooms. And that has changed dramatically. It's usually bar settings now, 21 and older. You've got to get hooked when you're much younger, because you have the energy, the time, the motivation."

Grogan, 42, started playing when she was in high school outside Denver, Colo., considered one of foosball's hotbeds in the U.S. Though she stopped playing for more than a decade after moving to California in her early 20s, Grogan picked it back up and started competing both nationally and internationally when she moved to Northern Virginia and eventually to Maryland a decade ago.

"It's a pretty tight-knit group. There's not a tremendous amount of players. We all know each other and consider each other a foosball family," said Grogan, a technical writer for Sprint Nextel. "Now we have second-generation players from all of the great players of the '70s and '80s. That's where we get a lot of the newer players from."

Two of the the game's current stars — Tony Spredeman, 28, and Ryan Moore, 23 — are among the 150 or so competitors who came to Jessup this week for the 2013 Maryland State Foosball Championships. The tournament, with roots that go back to a single-table tournament at the nearby Three Nines Tavern in the 1980s, is part of a foosball circuit that crisscrosses the country.

Spredeman, who has been playing professionally since he was 11, said that he took the game for granted until he broke two vertebrae in his back five years ago after falling 20 feet while working as a pipefitter in his native Milwaukee. Three months after the accident, Spredeman won a big tournament in Las Vegas playing with a different attitude.

"There was a point when I wasn't enjoying playing foosball, it was more like work," Spredeman said Saturday. "But after what happened and working all those days in freezing weather, I realized, 'This is not so bad.' "

Spredeman's third-round match Saturday attracted a pretty good crowd when his opponent, 58-year-old former part-time professional Clint Coyne, split their first four games in a best-of-five format.

After Coyne erased a 3-0 deficit in the fourth game to force a fifth game, Spredeman's competitive edge began to kick in when he knocked in the two goals to win the match.

"That would have been considered a major, major upset," said Spredeman, whose last big upset came when he got knocked out of a big European tournament seven years ago by a journeyman pro. "It's a different kind of pressure. This isn't that big of a tounament, but this is still how I provide for myself. I want to win just because I want to play [more matches]."

Said Coyne: "He's the best in the world. It's always fun to match your skills against someone like that."

Dawa Sherpa, a 32-year-old New Yorker who said he has been playing seriously for five years, said that when he saw he was going to be matched against Moore on Saturday, "I thought it was going to be interesting."

Unlike Coyne, whose expert level is a couple of notches below Spredeman's status as one of 22 Master foosball players in the world, Sherpa was nearly as much a spectator as those watching Moore.

Just in warmups, Moore whipped what he calls his "slingshot" — a shot where one of his back line players hits the ball against the side wall and then rockets a blur into the opponent's goal.

Moore, who was able to use the shot a few times during the three-game match, said the speed of that shot has been estimated at traveling the equivalent of 30 miles an hour.

Moore is one of those second-generation players Grogan discussed.

His mother, Mary, used to play foosball tournaments all over the country and now helps run them. Her son said he has been playing "since I could see over the top of the table" and has also been playing professionally since he was 11, when he beat one of the top players in the country.

"I smoked him," Moore said with a laugh. "That's when I thought I could do this for a living."

Admittedly, neither Spredeman or Moore expect to get rich playing foosball, but both said it was "cool" to travel around the world doing it. Unlike tennis, more of the money is in doubles — both are among the top doubles players as well — and on big paydays they usually don't pocket more than $5,000.

Given that many of the big tournaments include playing up to 15 matches a day for four or five straight days, "It's takes a lot out of you mentally and physically," Moore said.

Moore's regular doubles partner, 52-year-old Todd Loffredo, estimates he has won "about 25" world championships and 80 major titles since taking his first event as a 17-year-old in 1977. Loffredo, who was also playing singles and mixed doubles (with Grogan, a longtime friend) at the Holiday Inn Columbia this weekend said the game has changed over the years.

"It's a smarter game now. It used to be a little more bar-style and not so disciplined. Now it's more passing, taking your time, a lot more structure," said Loffredo, who was inducted into the Foosball Hall of Fame in 2005. "It's more speed. This game takes some speed, it helps. A lot of coodination, so it takes a lot of practice."

Loffredo said he used to practice "six, seven hours a day," but now can get away with an "hour or two, kind of keeping sharp." He said experience counts, "but it helps to be young with reactive speed."

Loffredo used to be neighbors in Columbus, Ohio, with a nine-ball pool champion, and they used to try to hustle each other in their respective sports.

"You can't hustle like in 'The Hustler'," Loffredo said.

Watching Moore manipulate the side handle — hint, it's all in the wrists — the ball moves back and forth as if it were on the feet of the players on Spain's World Cup-winning soccer team.

Suddenly, it disappears as he registers another goal that can be heard, but not quite seen.

The only thing that's blurred these days are the shots.

This is not your father's foosball.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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