Married to the Mallet

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"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