Rockford — On any given lunch break at the Rockford Freshman Center, it’s impossible to miss the sound of bars spinning, pull shots being taken and shoes thumping on the floorboards as throngs of students rush the foosball tables.
The game has become a way of life for Freshman Center students, and Assistant Principal Derek Dillon is hoping to capitalize on that by spreading the foosball fever to other schools in an effort to drum up some friendly competition.
“I’ve been calling other schools and saying, ‘I’ve got tables to give you,’” Dillon said over the din of students convening around Rockford’s tables.
Dillon introduced the first foosball table to the ninth-grade building two years ago, after noticing that students’ interpersonal skills were lagging post-pandemic.
“Students were spending most of their free time during lunch on their phones,” he said.
Dillon found a cheap foosball table online and brought it to the school. He was surprised by the enthusiastic response.
“We have about 100 students playing foosball every day — students who didn’t have connections to their peers or just wanted something fun to do after school,” he said.
‘I think this is the beginning of something long term, and it’s going to spread like wildfire.’— Mike Stahl, executive director, Foosball Clubs USA
He started an informal foosball team that meets every Tuesday to learn the basics, work on technique and host mini tournaments, during which students can vie for a top spot among single players or doubles.
“It’s fluid,” Dillon said. “You don’t have to ‘make the team;’ everyone makes the team. If you don’t make it for one practice, it’s fine.”
But he’d like to see the program grow into something bigger — a sport that involves multiple school districts and spurs more competition.
What Students are Saying
“(I love) the competitiveness, and that it’s not that hard of a sport to learn,” said Isaac Peplinski.
Isaac plays just about every day, and he said it’s a more socially and physically rewarding activity than playing with a smartphone.
Lucas Engle concurred. “It’s competitive,” he said, “but you don’t have to win — it’s about getting better.”
Aiden Davis likes the fact that, at its heart, the game just inspires joy.
“Honestly, I love that it’s just all about having fun, getting better — just overall having fun.”
Israel Loser, while locked in a heated match, said the game is a “good time-waster.” He prefers it to staring at a phone screen, but that’s partly because Israel, somewhat shockingly, doesn’t have a phone.
Logan VanValkenburg is more spectator than player, but he’s fascinated by the game and the skill required to excel at it.
“It’s so competitive yet so simple. It’s just interesting,” Logan said. “It seems pretty difficult to get good at it, and kids here are just, like, really good.”
Each student agreed that, given the choice between foosball and phones, it’s foosball.
“Phones just kind of ruin your brain a little bit,” Logan said. “This — it’s all over the place. It improves your hand-eye coordination.”
Hearing From a Pro
The freshmen support Dillon’s dream of establishing competition at other schools, and world champion player Mike Stahl is eager to help.
Stahl is the executive director of Foosball Clubs USA, a nonprofit organization that works to get tables in schools with the goal of using the socialization and focus the game requires to make a positive impact on students’ lives.
Stahl paid a recent visit to the Freshman Center to talk to students about the benefits of the sport, and to brainstorm with Dillon about how to establish a foosball network between schools.
Being introduced to the game in high school was life-changing for Stahl, he said, and he’d like to pay that positivity forward.
“Foosball gave me a lot of structure,” Stahl said, adding that he had a troubled childhood and was on a “bad trajectory” before he found the game.
“But I turned into a respectable young man, and foosball gave me that. That’s why I want to continue this type of thing for other kids, and just build structure around it and really reach the youth that way,” he said.
Stahl is eyeing Rockford to be a pilot program for an effort to get Kent County schools invested in the game, and he thinks the chances are good that it’ll take off.
“I think this is the beginning of something long term, and it’s going to spread like wildfire,” he said.
Dillon would love for foosball to become a formal sport, with tryouts and A and B teams, but that’s a ways off.
For now, he just wants to spread the joy he’s seen at Rockford.
“If other schools see how valuable it is and how many kids love playing it versus being on their phones … hopefully they’ll catch on and want to play against us,” Dillon said. “That’s what our kids really want.”
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