The Ballad of Johnny Foosball

AP Photo/Ed Reinke

This is the story of a boy and a dream, a dream that started small and kept on getting bigger, a dream that grew up so tall amid the sun-baked hill country of South Central Texas that by the end it was just about the highest peak in Kerr County. It’s the story of America, too, the timeless America of crisp fall nights and colorful letterman jackets and the rattle of chrome-plated rotating bars and the muffled crack of a lacquered foosman ricocheting a shiny ball off a table’s cherry-laminate side wall. But mostly it’s the story of a boy and a dream and how, together, they rose so high there was nothing left to do but fall. Maybe all the best American stories are like that. Come to think of it, maybe all the best stories are, too.

This is the story of a boy and a dream.

This is the story of Johnny Foosball.

Part 1: Birth of a Legend

In the beginning — before the scandals, before the sports cars, before the investigations, before the awards, before even the fame — there was The Table.

It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time before Jonathan Saul Franziel was the most cursed and celebrated collegiate table soccer player in this or any other country. A time before Johnny Foosball even existed. A time when little Jon F., as he’d sign his geography homework in Mrs. Pendleton’s third-grade class, was an 8-year-old on tiptoes, struggling to see over the side of the new Carroway LeisureKing 59-inch foosball table his father, Chuck, had just installed in the basement.

“We had no idea,” Chuck told me last weekend over a post-church fajita skillet at the Tylerville Applebee’s. “I mean, we knew Johnny was gifted from a hand-eye perspective and what have you. Anything that involved flicking the wrists. I thought maybe a Ping-Pong scholarship, maybe croquet if he grew into the right body for it. But foosball? That was never on my mind. I just bought that table to spend money on something, pretty much.”

As heir of the old Montgomery copper wire fortune, Chuck knew a thing or two about spending money. Johnny was raised in what Bruce Springsteen might have called the “mansion on the hill” — everything a boy could want, including Jacuzzi bathtubs, upgraded granite countertops, and a custom-built paddock out back where mom Darlene kept her 17 breeding pairs of alpacas. It was the classic, all-American childhood, right down to the apple pie cooling in the window and the alpaca-wool throw rug draped over the arm of the sofa. Church every Sunday. Alpaca stew for dinner Tuesday nights. Chuck knew all about that. But what Chuck didn’t know, what not even the Boss could have told him, was how to raise a future foosball star.

“I was scared of him,” Chuck confessed at Applebee’s. “Once he discovered that game, it was like, boom. That was all he wanted to do. We got out the unabridged dictionary for him to stand on so he could see, and it was just, all day, every day, spinning those handles. Yelling at the foosmen. ‘Score the ball, you fat crock of shit,’ he’d scream. Little 8-, 9-year-old kid. He’d kick the table like he was trying to move a stubborn ’paca. I wound up hiding a lot. Playing doubles with him was a truly alarming experience.”

Here’s one word you could have found in that dictionary little Jon was standing on: tempestuous.

Here’s another word: genius.

“I tell you what.” Johnny’s best friend, Mark “Piff” Hounslow, known within the Franziel inner circle as Cousin Mack, is an unassuming kid, tousle-haired and gangly. You’d call him innocent if not for the tiny lines of worry, born of years spent as the unofficial consigliere to the world’s most embattled manipulator of handle-controlled miniature soccer players, that crinkle around his eyes. When he talks about Johnny’s early days, though, the lines smooth out and in their place comes a look of pure, open-hearted wonder. “I tell you what, he wasn’t just better than all the kids in the neighborhood. After a couple of weeks, he was better than the dads. He won every junior-level tournament he entered. Every damn one. He started to build a name, first in Kerr County, then in Kerr and Kimble Counties, then really in the whole tri-county area. And — well, shoot, mister, you know what foosball means in Texas.”

He wasn’t Johnny Foosball yet. But if you believe that fate is written out in advance, that what you do one day sets into motion an unbreakable chain of events that plays out the next day and the next day and the next, inexorably, then Johnny Foosball was already inevitable. It was only a matter of time.

Part 2: Seizing the Crown

Skip ahead to another link in the chain: Texas A&M vs. no. 1 Alabama, Bryant-Denny Stadium, November 10, 2012. We both know how this one goes, but you can’t tell the story of a legend and leave out the most legendary part.

Deep into the match, 9-8 Bama. In the cauldron of that stadium, below 100,000 fans, in a roar that sounded like a hurricane — like a literal Crimson Tide — there was The Table. Lit from above, it resembled nothing so much as an emerald, a brilliant green jewel. It was hard to believe, Johnny may have thought, holding tight to his eight-sided ash-wood handle, that such a small machine could make the citizens of two proud states so completely lose their minds.

Or maybe he thought, This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is my whole life, right here, right now, this moment. Every 6 a.m. wrist-curling session, every high school match against some outclassed bozo who didn’t belong at the same tiny MDF field as me. All those times as a 12-year-old when I made dad take me to the Riverside Ballroom to foos against the adults. It’s not just me down here, it’s my family, it’s Cousin Mack, it’s the alpacas, it’s my whole community, everyone who lifted me on their shoulders to make me the player I am today.

Or maybe he just thought, Score the ball, you fat crock of shit.

The Bama crowd chanted “Foos Tide” till the stadium rang with it. The Bama players were big and strong and mean, because aren’t they always. Johnny was down there alone, going one-on-two, because that was his style, and no matter how many beat writers wailed that Aggies coach Kevin Frumlin was validating heroball, Frumlin knew greatness when he saw it. Even if greatness happened to appear in the form of a freshman stick-jockey whom none of the armchair foosball experts that populate every drive-time talk-radio show in the SEC corridor thought could win it.

A freshman who, at that moment, was losing.

“Finish him!” wailed the red-wigged frat boys. Right on cue, Bama keepsman Demarcus Wordsworth spun a 720-degree power whip — legal under the NCAA’s controversial new rule set, adopted in 2010, that was designed to reward offensive play — that went hard off-bumper and into the path of flicksman Wade Walker’s devastating angled shot. It was a move they’d practiced a thousand times, a thousand times a thousand, and it worked. Johnny, manning both keep and flick, missed with two blocks simultaneously, and the ball rocketed into the goal. 10-8 Bama. Match point.

Foos Tide, indeed.

Only here’s another word from the Franziels’ old Webster’s: indomitable.

It’s been less than a year, but what happened next is already the stuff of lore. “You have to understand,” noted foosball aficionado George F. Will told me recently over a steaming mug of chai caramel latte at McDonald’s. “Of the three major American sports, one, snooker, is primarily mental, and another, lawn bowls, is primarily physical. In either, it’s possible to come back from a losing position simply by applying a quality the game typically neglects. The reason foosball is beloved by so many writers is that it’s mental and physical. There’s a classic link between table soccer and the American ideals of pragmatism and self-reliance. On the mean sticks, as Grantland Rice famously called them, mere survival takes everything a man has. Which is simply a long-winded way of saying that you don’t come back from match point often. Not against an SEC school.”

Johnny got possession at 10-8 and used a reverse-plink, forward-plink maneuver to work the ball up the left flank before smashing a heavy-topspin shot from the left attack position. Goal. 10-9.

Then Johnny played a back-pass to his keeper, rolled the ball forward to the defense row, and — his foosmen flashing, almost invisible with speed — wove a dizzyingly intricate four-corners attack that left Walker and Wordsworth spinning at the empty air. “It was one of the finest goals I’ve seen in my 87 years as a foos fan,” Will said simply. 10-10.

The sound in the stadium got louder.

Bama controlled the next point. Wordsworth took the shot from midfield, a power spinner that looked good until Walker inadvertently blocked it with his own foosman. Johnny pounced on the mistake and drilled home another goal. 11-10 A&M. Match point, Johnny Foosball.

The sound got louder again.

The next point is one you’ve seen a thousand times on ESPN, so often you can probably describe it in your sleep. How Wordsworth slipped the ball to Walker’s attack row down the center channel. How Walker lined up and took a can’t-miss shot with Johnny’s keeper out of position. How Johnny then pulled off the cheekiest move in the foosball repertoire: the 1-2 double-tap block-shot, stuffing the ball with the keeper and then instantly whacking it as hard as his not inconsiderable wrist strength would allow. As the ball ripped forward past one missed block after another, he must have seen it all in his mind, all of America, everyone watching the match in person or on TV, the crying cheerleaders, the insurance salesmen doing slo-mo off-the-couch-and-spill-the-popcorn leaps in Peoria, the 8-year-old boys dreaming of their own future selves and seeing in Johnny the embodiment of all that was truest in their worlds. He must have looked down on this nation like an angel and understood how much, how very much, was riding on the path of this gleaming metal ball.

Goal.

The stadium fell silent. Outside the stadium, the wide world erupted in a roar.

Part 3: From a Great Height

Big-time sport is a business in America. And business is booming.

In the aftermath of the Bama game, Texas A&M sold $5 million in licensed Johnny Franziel gear within four months. The figure only increased after Johnny was named as the winner of the 2012 Freisman Award for the nation’s best table soccer player, the first freshman ever to be so honored. ESPN has earned untold millions hawking Johnny Foosball to its viewers. Magazines have put him on their covers: Johnny in a suit, Johnny in his pads, Johnny kissing an alpaca. Being a legend is a business in America, and business is booming.

Unless, of course, you’re the legend himself. As an NCAA athlete, Johnny is prohibited from earning one thin dime from his own image, an image that’s making other people rich faster than you can say pöytäjalkapallo (the Finnish word for foosball). Wherever you stand on the issue of amateur vs. professional athletics, one thing is clear: Johnny may be a foosball star, but to the powers that be, he’s just another foosman on a chrome-plated shaft, to be spun as and when they say.

Is it any wonder if he’s going a little crazy?

Because make no mistake: Johnny’s whole world went stark raving mad the second the last shot against Bama rolled in. Maybe you’ve seen the pictures from this summer: Johnny in a black suit, Johnny partying with D’Angelo, Johnny with front-row seats at the Columbus Centaurs’ polo match. Johnny and Cousin Mack can’t go out without bodyguards any more, not since — in a “boys will be boys” stunt that was widely misinterpreted — they got drunk on Goldschläger and joined a secretive murder cult known only as “Children of Keo.” After Johnny tweeted in June that College Station “was not so fucking foosball,” someone keyed his car, the Kia Sedona, the one Chuck bought him because he wouldn’t stop begging for it. Johnny loved that Kia. More than anything, the post-Keo Kia keying brought home just how powerless Johnny is at the center of his own life.

“To be famous is one thing,” Will told me. “To be a folk hero, as Johnny is, and as I am, is different. You live in the eye of a hurricane. You’re safe, more or less, but your whole world is devastated, everywhere you go. And you don’t decide which way the hurricane travels.” In November, it traveled toward glory. Now, perhaps, it’s traveling toward a fall.

“He comes home a lot,” Chuck said at Applebee’s. “I just hide in the attic. We have this old crate he usually forgets to look in. Technically it was Darlene’s hope chest. If I curl up in there, he sometimes won’t find me for two, three days at a time.”

If you’re reading for an answer to the million-dollar question of the moment — did Johnny Foosball sell game-worn wrist warmers to a sports-memorabilia company in return for $1,100 worth of Bitcoin — I don’t have an answer. What I can tell you is that Jonathan Saul Franziel is 20 years old, a pawn in a game he never knew he was playing, and that nothing makes sense any more. He has no perspective, everything to lose, and a chip on his shoulder the size of South Central Texas.

“This is America,” Chuck said, tears swimming in his eyes. “Why doesn’t he love me?”

Here’s the thing about the American dream: It’s rigged. You think you can be great at something, win a game, and be rewarded, but in truth, the same forces that build you up will tear you down without blinking. It’s never simple, not anymore. Or perhaps it’s simple in one place and one place only — and that’s why the voices saying that Johnny’s redemption awaits during the foosball season may not be far wrong.

It’s simple at The Table. Johnny Foosball’s whole life has turned upside down, but as long as he still has foosball, he still has a chance. A chance to find himself again. A chance to quiet the hurricane. A chance to be a kid again, an 8-year-old with an squadron of polished foosmen and a dream as big as the sky.

As the writers will tell you, foosball is a cruel game, a game deeply enmeshed in the texture of American cruelty. And in foosball, as in life, sometimes the dream is a nightmare.

But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s just a dream.

And here’s another word from that old dictionary. Hope.

Filed Under: Brian Phillips, Bruce Springsteen

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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