Married to the Mallet

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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."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer