MANCHESTER is by all means a sports town.
Parents devote sums that approach college-tuition down payments for endeavors like hockey leagues and summer sports camps.
Local jocks who made good — such as Steve Schubert and Don Sarette — are canonized in city lore. And ballfields and ball courts dot the city, enticing thousands to the lure of a spinning ball and a hard-fought contest.
So it's good to know my favorite high school sport draws a crowd that, while few in number, offers as much rivalry and competitive play as a Monarchs hockey game. Friday night foosball — or table soccer — draws a weekly crowd of devoted amateurs and small-change pros to Jokers, the casino-restaurant-bar located on South Willow Street.
And once a month, organizers hold Saturday night tournaments that offer a few hundred dollars in prize money and a month of bragging rights.
"You're always looking for a hole, and to play off where you think they're not going to defend," said John Davis, a Manchester salesman who is a foosball regular at Jokers. "This is basically pool with defense, but a lot of power, speed and accuracy."
Last Saturday, the New England Foosball Promotions tournament drew about 20 people to Jokers. Some are baby boomers who grew up in foosball's heyday in the '70s and early '80s, when national tournaments offered six-figure purses.
Others are younger, taking up the game during resurgences that have spawned and fizzled over the years. Sean Riley, a self-employed financial adviser and father of three, picked up the game at college in the '90s. He left it for about a decade; now he hosts weekly games in his Bedford house and shows up at Jokers most Friday nights.
"I can come from a stressful week, and come down here on a Friday night, and all of that disappears," Riley said.
Two 20-something MIT students even showed up for the tournament; both have earned national titles in the amateur or rookie categories. Most of Jackie Han's fellow MIT students are techies and devoted to video games, she said. She picked up competitive foosball from her boyfriend.
Does her foosball title — she won the doubles amateur woman category this summer in Dallas — make her an oddball at the Cambridge campus? I ask. "Foosball doesn't get much thought, so there's no categorization," she said.
I tell her about the foosball of my teenage years. Of ashtrays at each table corner and tabletops crammed with beer bottles and Coke cans. Of jukeboxes blaring out Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Of sticky balls and corner ramps on the playing surfaces (modern tables have totally flat surfaces).
She listens politely, then tells me she's heard it all before. (Meaning I've now officially become an old fart who reminisces of the good-ole-days to uninterested youngsters.)
Much has changed since then.
When I put a beer on the table, I am quickly ordered to remove it. Any smoking takes place outside. And the room was quiet for 1 1/2 hours, until someone plugged an iPod into a port, providing background music of Southern rock and Sly and the Family Stone. (Maybe the '70s aren't dead after all.)
Roger Demers, one of the organizers of the tournament, is the biggest advocate of foosball in Manchester. Massachusetts is the only other New England state with a committed foosball following, he said, and Saturday's tournament was the last before a regional tournament in Syracuse next month.
The top prize — for first-place in open doubles category — was $160. The tournament featured three categories in all, and Demers expected it to wrap up before 11 p.m.
Games are intense. Some strap braces to tendon-strained forearms. During breaks, teammates discuss strategy.
There is little friendly banter, except for an occasional comment — "garbage shot" — when a wild ball scores.
Demers rushes outside after getting eliminated in the Draw Your Partner contest.
Perspiration bleeds through the red T-shirt of Stephen Halsey, a semi-retired installer of data and telephone lines. ("It's not exactly aerobic," said Halsey, "but it's the next best thing.") The competition grows in intensity; by early evening, the room smells of beer, tavern food and perspiration.
This isn't just a friendly game.
Riley will talk casually while waiting his match, but he flashes a look of annoyance when someone brushes beside him during a game. Too much is on the line.
Because this is sport, no doubt. It welcomes people of different ages, professions, education levels, home towns and abilities.
They play hard. They find relaxation in exertion, friendship in rivalry.
"Once everyone gets the ball control down, and it's equal, it becomes a creative, mental game," Riley said.
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursday in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He is rusty foosball goalie, and can be reached at email@example.com.