Married to the Mallet

Mark Robbins is running a bit late, as usual, and he's in a hurry to suit up. He hates to miss any of the action, even at his age. Still, there is a ritual, and it's important he get it right.

The first order of business is to dull yesterday's pain. It rolls through his joints and tugs at his muscles; it's the price he pays for a lifetime of top-level competition and endless exhibition matches. Robbins reaches into his bulging gym bag and pulls out tubes of Icy Hot ointment and a special herbal rub. He applies both vigorously to his left arm. "I've been playing for 29 years now," he explains, "so I got chronic wrist problems."

The next task is stabilization and protection. He grabs a roll of athletic tape and painstakingly wraps the ring finger on his left hand. He finds a single kneepad and pulls it over his sweats and onto his left leg, then slips into his running shoes.

Robbins rummages through his gear once more, eventually laying his hands on the next piece of essential gear. He winds the Ace bandage carefully around his left wrist. Finally, he grabs a single glove out of his bag. It is mangled, black and old enough to look as though it's been backed over by a semi truck on a hot day. He yanks it onto his left hand.

Ready at last, he shakes his head at the absurdity of it all. "I swear," he says, "it takes me as long to get dressed for air hockey these days as it does for ice hockey."

Oh, well. Everyone's getting older -- even the Man Who Saved Air Hockey. It's time to warm up. Robbins, 51, stands up to his full 5' 5" height and starts bouncing on his toes. The Table waits.

People who do not know any better mistake the Table for just a field of play. But to true players, it is far more than a plateau of forced air. It is a special place. It engages the mind, frees the ego and provokes deep thoughts.

"The Table reveals the degree of one's competitiveness, of one's desire; some contend, even of one's sexual potency," Phil Arnold, co-founder of the game's first national organization, proclaimed in an early issue of Table Talk, an air-hockey newsletter. "But did you know that the Table, through the sport, strips away the illusions beneath which many of you are always hiding?"

Robbins saw the light in 1973, just one year after Brunswick, a firm best known for crafting pool tables, came out with the world's first air-hockey table. Then a college student in Arizona, he was the perfect candidate for the new game. His father had spent a lifetime working in the coin-operated-game industry. Robbins himself had played ice hockey for years.

"It was love at first sight, that sort of thing," he recalls. "I walked into the Tucson student union to play pool and saw the air-hockey table. I put up my quarter, picked up a mallet and won eighteen games in a row."

He played in his first tournament a year later, and he won. In 1975, he wanted to enter a college tourney, but there was a problem: He wasn't in college anymore. Still, guys were going nuts to play. One player, known as Spiderman, had enrolled in a community college just to get into the tournament; he never took a course. So Robbins called a friend at Boulder's Naropa Institute, where he'd studied for a year, filling the time between classes playing air hockey at the Dark Horse Saloon.

In the 1970s, the only thing vaguely resembling athletics at Naropa was recreational sex. "But I told him I had to be a student, and he agreed to it," he recalls. "I showed up at the regional tournament in Phoenix, told them I was from Naropa. I still have a T-shirt with Naropa U. on it." It was becoming clear what was really important in Robbins's life.

"I've had girlfriends complain to me, 'You love air hockey more than me,'" Robbins acknowledges. "Well, yeah. Women come and go. But the Table's been very good to me." Perhaps not surprisingly, he has never married. "Maybe to the Table," he says.

Like All in the Family and World War II, Brunswick's air-hockey table created an enormous legacy in a surprisingly brief period of time. Just as the sport was hitting its stride, though, video games suddenly appeared. Student unions, once filled with the happy sound of plastic pucks being pounded by plastic mallets, began echoing with the cheap beeps and fake explosions of Space Invaders. In 1978, after only six short years, Brunswick ceased production of air-hockey tables.

Robbins's infatuation, however, never dimmed. In 1982, after a few years dabbling in the Indian-art market, he turned his life over to air hockey. It was a dark time for the game. With video games storming the nation, tournament-quality tables were becoming hard to find. The 1981 City Championships in Houston, perhaps the hottest hotbed of air hockey, took place in a contestant's spare bedroom, on a single Brunswick table.

Still, Robbins followed his bliss. He began working for the only company still making tables, U.S. Billiards. He knew the company's model was far inferior to the classic tables of old -- the metal top was viewed as cheesy and slow by top-level competitors -- and he vowed he would get a better table back into production. Little did he know it would become his life's work.

If you had to pinpoint the most depressing era of air hockey, a time when it seemed as though the game was on a rocket ride to oblivion, and the glory days of the game's giants -- larger-than-life men like Bob Dubuisson, Robert Hernandez and Jesse Douty -- were destined to vanish in a slow fade into obscurity, it would probably be in late 1983. Writing at the time, Houston's Phil Arnold, another towering figure in the sport, envisioned an apocalyptic future.

"Air hockey would eventually completely disappear from human history: No table, no new growth, no spare parts, mallets, pucks, etc.," he worried. "The only thing we players could do would be to buy up a dozen or so of the existing tables and go underground. We would be a dying breed isolated from the rest of mankind, growing older, wearing out both body and table in garages and houses -- like some despised cult."

Robbins foresaw the same gray future. As he recalled to a trade magazine, "Things looked bleak for the future of air hockey. The popularity of video games was threatening to make everything obsolete. I was faced with the question: Could air hockey be saved? Was it worth any more time, effort and money? Or should I, as a player and organizer, simply buy up a few used tables, wear them out, and then watch the game die?"

Put that way, of course, Robbins's path was clear. He needed to do both.

The first order of business was to head off complete oblivion. No one else felt the personal sense of urgency that Robbins did, so he swung into action alone. "Actually," he recalls, "I asked a couple girlfriends if they'd like to go throw air-hockey tables into the back of a truck in five-degree temperatures. For some reason, none were interested."

He placed an ad in a national trade magazine asking that anyone with an old table to sell contact him. A few months later, he flew to Chicago, took a bus to West Virginia, rented a twenty-foot moving truck and began driving.

Following a line mapped out by the responses to his query, he drove through the Midwest gathering the classic Brunswick tables -- Formica tops, thank you, not metal -- that had inspired half a generation of players. He drove to Ohio and Illinois. In Minnesota, he pulled a table out of a barn; it was still covered with straw. Once in a while, someone would tell him of another table, so he would point the van in that direction and check it out.

"It was a maniacal trip -- sort of like a fever thing," he remembers. He returned to Boulder with fourteen bar-sized tables. "Even if there were no tables left anyplace else," he says, "I still had enough to prevent extinction."

Today, if you want to see them, you must drive to south Boulder, park by the red barn a few miles outside of town, and wait for someone to unlock and then slide open the big wooden door. The tables have been sitting in storage there for sixteen years now -- like rare white rhinos in a zoo or a bookshelf of Rod McKuen poetry -- a hedge against total annihilation, a repository of air-hockey DNA.

A few more tables reside in Robbins's mobile home in north Boulder, along with boxes and crates and shelves of air-hockey arcania -- tournament posters, newsletters, hundreds of videos of important matches, trophies and the small, now-broken television set he won for besting the field in a tournament 23 years ago.

"I had a small mobile home with one air-hockey table in it, but there wasn't enough room," he explains. "So I bought a doublewide for two tables. If this place burned down," he adds, "the entire history of air hockey would be lost."

Leaning up against the far back wall of the barn, gleaming like an Edsel with its odometer still at zero, is a pristine Brunswick, still packed in its box. "It's a virgin," Robbins says. "Never been pucked. It's gonna go into the museum and hall of fame."

There's an air-hockey museum?

"Well, no," he clarifies. "Not yet. I guess this is it."

The second prong of Robbins's plan to save air hockey was more long-term. He convinced U.S. Billiards to manufacture a Formica-topped table that's almost as good as Brunswick's classic model, and then started a company to distribute it. Robbins also began promoting more aggressively, arranging tournaments and demonstrations across the country.

Still, he was not satisfied. U.S. Billiards, he thought, was not doing enough for his beloved game. Besides, he still had a dream of making the perfect table. He started approaching other companies, pitching them on his idea, seducing them with his love. "They were very skeptical," he admits. "In their view, air hockey was a fad that came and went, like Hula-Hoops."

It was a slog; Robbins ran into walls everywhere. "My brother kept telling me that there was no school to go to to be an air-hockey nut. Even my dad was screaming at me to give it up. He said, 'Look, I can get you a good job.' I said, 'You don't understand: I don't care about that. I care about air hockey.' I mean, if I hadn't kept at it, there was nobody else who would."

The hard work paid off. For more than a year, Robbins had been concentrating his efforts on DynamoCorp., which had hit it big with a new game called foosball. In 1985, he finally convinced the company to start building an air-hockey table -- a good table -- on the cheap, using existing design elements already in production, such as pool-table bases. Robbins would help with design, sales, promotion, quality control -- in short, everything.

He stayed with the company until 1993, putting in fifteen-hour days, not taking a vacation. The first year was dismal -- Dynamo sold about a hundred tables. But sales grew steadily. "By the time I left, they were selling thousands of tables," Robbins says.

The partnership revitalized the game and brought many new tables to the air-hockey-playing public. But the personal union between Robbins and Dynamo ended badly. Robbins says the company stiffed him on royalties. A lawsuit followed, which Robbins says was settled very much in his favor. Thanks to that payoff, and some nagging medical problems, he really hasn't worked since.

In many ways, though, the divorce still pains Robbins. "Every Dynamo table I see, I consider it my child," he says. "If something is wrong, I get inside it and try to fix it. It's like a woman to me: I want to know everything about it, what makes it tick."

And he still dreams of the perfect table. Working with Dynamo was okay, and it accomplished what was necessary at the time. Today, air hockey, while perhaps not exactly in robust health, is at least breathing on its own and holding down a job.

"My mission was to bring air hockey to millions of people who could appreciate it," Robbins says. "And I did. It means one person can make a difference."

The venue tonight is the Broomfield Bowl and Lovin' Oven Restaurant. Most Thursday evenings when Robbins is in town -- he splits his time between Boulder and Chicago -- he and a few of the area's top-ranked players monopolize the single air-hockey table in a small room off the bowling alleys.

Tonight, about a half-dozen guys show up, including a couple of the area's most promising young guns. Keith Fletcher, a thin schoolteacher and tennis coach, wears two kneepads and ties his mallet to his hand with parachute cord. He started playing in 1989 after being coaxed off a pinball table at the Fun Factory in Loveland. Within months, he'd bought his own table and installed it in his house. Today, he is consistently ranked among the top ten in the country.

Mark Nizzi is relative newcomer. A former football player, he is stocky, square-faced and muscular. He chews gum furiously and growls "C'mon, Nizz" whenever he feels his concentration slipping.

Nizzi burst onto the scene four years ago and has been working like a dog to climb into the ranks of the country's elite players. He plays thirty games, twice a week; sometimes when he is alone, he blocks off a goal and hits eight pucks at once to work on his technique. He also studies hours of film of the game's top players.

"I like to watch the movement of their bodies, their follow-throughs, where they're setting up on the defensive," he says.

Like all top players, Nizzi and Fletcher don't hold the mallet by its handle. Rather, they drape their fingertips inside the rounded groove at the base of the handle, which, with proper wrist action, gives the mallet more whip. When struck well, the puck can move at up to eighty miles per hour.

A young man and his girlfriend wander into the room, attracted by the loud smacks of mallet against puck. After they watch for a while, the bartender smiles at them and, nodding toward the table, asks if they'd like to play. "Um, no," the man says, eyeing the blurred puck skittering around the table.

No one here drinks alcohol; it dulls the senses and slows the reflexes. Nizzi, intense and focused, is on tonight, and he holds the table. A spot of sweat appears on his back; soon he is drenched.

"There's something called 'air-hockey endurance,'" Robbins says. "Nizzi here was in great shape from football. But he'd get tired after just a couple of sets."

"It was a breathing problem," Nizzi acknowledges after sitting down. "I'd get tired. And my eyes were bloodshot, too. I'm in a lot better shape now."

"I ride my bike a lot, lift weights -- anything to keep up aerobic capacity," Robbins adds.

As the other players slam the puck, Robbins, who has played 35 of 36 national tournaments (a shoulder injury kept him out in '87), takes a break to reminisce free-form with the others. They discuss different shots, great tournament showdowns, new equipment.

"In the '70s," Robbins says at one point, "when I used a forehand -- or the 'cut shot,' which was developed in the early 1970s, in Texas, or Philly, depending on who you believe. A guy named Jim Carter was a pioneer..."

Robbins pauses. "He died about ten years ago, though. Drinking, drugs. He got away from the Game. That was the problem."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer