They were some of the best the game has ever seen, these guys from small-town Minnesota.
They could make the ball dance like a puppet before — wham! — slamming it into the back of the goal.
They had stone-cold killer instincts and the ability to handle the pressure when thousands of dollars of prize money were on the line. They were world champions and hall of famers known to their fans by their nicknames: Wiz, Fur, Gummy. They even had songs written about their exploits.
They were foosballers.
The world of professional foosball — yes, the table soccer game you used to play at the student union — was recently told in a feature-length documentary now available on iTunes and Vimeo on Demand.
Similar to movies like “Spellbound” (about a high-stakes spelling bee), or “The King of Kong” (about setting the Donkey Kong record), “Foosballers” focuses on the single-minded obsession that it takes to be the very best in a weird corner of human endeavor.
“It was sort of mind-blowing to me,” said Joe Heslinga, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker who made the documentary. “They’re athletes dedicated to playing a sport no one knows exists, that no one cares about.”
Heslinga’s film (which won the “Golden Whistle Award” for best film at the Kicking + Screening Soccer Film Festival last year) tracks a quirky group of elite level players — a retired cop, a cannabis grower, a former backup dancer for Marky Mark — gunning to win a world championship tournament.
The film also looks back at what has been described as foosball’s golden age, the pre-video game era of the 1970s when big-money tournaments sprang up and there was a million-dollar pro foosball circuit.
That’s where the Minnesotans come in.
Table soccer games with players mounted on rotating rods had existed in Europe since the early 20th century. But the game didn’t start showing up in the United States until after World War II when GIs serving overseas were exposed to the game.
In 1974, a couple of Iron Range teenagers, Doug Furry and Jim Wiswell, saw foosball for the first time when the hockey arena in Hoyt Lakes got a table. They immediately became hooked.
“We can be the best in northern Minnesota if we really tried,” Furry remembers thinking.
He was right. The two-player team took second place in a tournament for high schoolers called “The Great Nut Goodie Foosball Tourney.” They won a state championship. Then they turned their sights on tournaments outside Minnesota.
“As we got better, the money got better,” said Furry.
Fueled by foosball
The day after Furry and Wiswell graduated from high school in 1976, they hit the road in a 1953 Chevy with the dream of becoming professional foosball players.
“We did nothing but travel around the country for four or five years, playing foosball,” Furry said.
By then, foosball tables could be found in practically every bar, bowling alley and fraternity house in the country. Kids used to line up their quarters, waiting to play foosball in game arcades. A Seattle-based foosball company named Tournament Soccer sponsored a big-money championship tour to promote its tables.
That’s how Furry ended up winning a Porsche. Then Furry and Wiswell won matching Corvettes. Then Furry won a Ford.
“Every time they gave a car away, I won it,” he said.
At another tournament, Furry and Wiswell split a $30,000 check (worth about $100,000 in today’s money) when they won a doubles championship.
“To this day, it’s the biggest prize ever given in foosball,” Furry said.
In 1978, a tally of foosball money winners put Furry at the top with $22,105 and Wiswell in second place at $20,430.
Furry, Wiswell and a couple of other contemporaries from Minnesota — Mike Belz and Brent Bednar — were “like the gods of foosball,” said Kathy Brainard, co-author of a 708-page “World Table Soccer Almanac,” which includes a foreword by actor and sometimes foosball player Woody Harrelson. “I call them the Minnesota dynasty.”
They were so good, they even had songs written about them.
“I did a Wiswell song,” said Gary Paulak, a touring foosball player and singer/songwriter from Minnesota, who became a sort of foosball troubadour.
Paulak sang ballads about great players and wrote anthems for big matches that he would perform at tournaments: “Partner, the Minnesotans are good, Ooo yeah, they love to put holes in the wood. ... ”
Paulak even recorded an album of foosball songs, issued on cassette and eight-track. His foosball music landed him in the United States Table Soccer Hall of Fame.
Willing themselves to win
At the elite level, foosball can be a game of freakish virtuosity requiring a pool shark’s eye for shot geometry, the reflexes of a rattlesnake and a card player’s ability to read and outwit an opponent.
“You can feel the shots reverberating in your chest, it’s so fast, so hard,” Heslinga said.
Still, it’s difficult for foosball players to be considered legitimate athletes.
“It’s hard to get respect,” Brainard said. “We argue that if pingpong is in the Olympics, foosball should be in the Olympics.”
In their heyday, Furry and Wiswell looked and acted like pros. They had a sponsor that dressed them in matching jeans and polo shirts. Before a big tournament, they would spend a couple of weeks sequestered in a cabin in Minnesota in a makeshift foosball training camp, according to a 1980 Los Angeles Times story about them.
Furry said part of his training included running to give him the endurance to play for hours in multiday tournaments.
Locked in competition a few feet away from their opponents, Furry said, “you’ve got to will yourself to win.”
“It’s a very aggressive game,” he said. “If you are a little afraid, they can sense that.”
“Wiz and Fur were the Kobe and Shaq of ’70s foosball,” said Skip Schmall, a Twin Cities foosball promoter and league director.
“It was a crazy adventure,” said Furry. “Never dreamed it would end up the way it did.”
A drop from the top
The end came swiftly, when coin-operated video games hit the market in about 1980.
Video games made more money, were easier to maintain and took up less space than foosball tables. Table soccer sales plummeted. Tournament Soccer went out of business and the big-money foosball tour went with it.
Furry said the worst blow came when Wiswell, his best friend, killed himself.
“It went from really good, to really, really bad,” Furry said.
Wiswell had other problems in his life, according to Furry. But the end of their foosball career didn’t help.
“It went from being the best team in the world, to all of a sudden the tour is over, and there we are, like, ‘Now what the hell do we do?’ ” Furry said. “It’s hard to understand. You come from a small town, and there’s not a lot of hope, and all of a sudden you’ve done something that’s totally bizarre and you feel so good about yourself, and you’re on top of the world thinking, ‘Hey, this isn’t going to end.’ And all of a sudden, one day, it’s over.”
Although other foosball table makers created new championships, they weren’t as big or as lucrative as the Tournament Soccer events. Without his longtime friend and teammate, Furry lost his passion for the game. He soon retired from foosball.
“The money wasn’t any good anymore. So I thought time to move on and get a job and grow up,” he said.
Furry, now 61 and living in Ham Lake, became an electrician.
“The rest of my life was pretty normal,” he said. “I haven’t played more than 10 games in the last 20 years.”
Paulak, now 68 and living in Hopkins, remembered that he found work as a technician fixing electronic dart boards after his gigs as a foosball musician came to an end. “I also wrote dart songs,” he said.
But some Minnesotans kept playing.
Dave “Gummy” Gummeson, 57, of Minneapolis, picked up where Furry and Wiswell left off.
He’s won national and world championships in singles, doubles and mixed doubles play from the 1980s through the 2010s. He was a team captain on U.S. teams that won table soccer World Cup titles in soccer-loving Europe, where the game remains more popular than it is here.
For the past 15 years, there’s been a weekly tournament at Mortimer’s, a longtime hangout for the foosball faithful in Minneapolis. It’s organized by Jason Coleman, a foosball-playing pharmacist who bought a house near the bar.
“I like to be within walking distance of foosball,” he said.
Foosball “is its own little subculture,” said Gummeson, who has a day job as a Target store manager. “It becomes part of who you are a little bit.”
But, he added, “you can’t make a living at it.”