Tabletop glory beckons students Winning form: Two Bowie State undergrads hope they can flick their paper footballs all the way to the Super Bowl.

January 20, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

BOWIE -- Let's face it, we all go off to college for the same reasons: to get a quality education, to compete in the demanding job market and, of course, to shoot an index finger in the air and scream "We're No. 1!" in tabletop football.

Fine, that last one might not be a high priority with some. But it is for John Copes and Ralph Salter. And today the two Bowie State University students are in sunny Tempe, Ariz., to compete for the national championship in the Ocean Spray Tabletop Football Tournament.

Eight two-man teams, culled from 200 colleges and over 50,000 students, will be competing. And if you think this is some rinky-dink gathering in some bohunk town, get this: The winning team will be awarded a $10,000 scholarship in its name to its school plus two tickets to next Sunday's Super Bowl, which are about as easy to come by as gold bullion.

"We're getting our swim trunks and sunglasses," says Mr. Copes, 21, a criminal justice major from Fort Washington. "We want those Super Bowl tickets."

If the term "tabletop football" throws you, think back to that goofy game you used to play in the school cafeteria, where you folded up a piece of paper and flicked it using your thumb and another finger toward a designated goal line.

It would be nice to report that the game has evolved tremendously since then,but that would be lying. Because with the exception of a handsome green playing board and yellow plastic goal posts -- and some NFL trivia questions thrown in to test mental acuity -- this is basically the same game many of us played as kids, dressed up in an Ocean Spray marketing costume.

But with two Super Bowl tickets going to the winners, the stakes are considerably higher than the Bazooka bubble gum most school kids once played for.

"Ever since I was little, it was a fantasy of mine to sit at the 50-yard line and watch a Super Bowl," says Mr. Salter, 20, a criminal justice major from Capitol Heights. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Of course, Mr. Copes and Mr. Salter recognize there is a delicious irony in two college students jetting off for an all-expenses-paid weekend in the Arizona desert -- to play something so juvenile.

Mr. Salter recalled a recent conversation with his grandfather: "He said: 'We sent you to school to play paper football? And now you're going to Arizona to play paper football?' "

"I'm telling people I'm going to Arizona to do this," laughs Mr. Copes, miming the act of throwing a football to a streaking receiver in the real Super Bowl. "Then they find out why I'm really going."

It would be nice to report that for the Copes-Salter team, the Road to Tempe was a long, arduous one of dedication, self-sacrifice and an indomitable will to win. But that wouldn't quite be true.

Actually, what happened was that they entered Bowie State's first tabletop football tournament on a lark back in November. Neither man had played since grade school -- most people tend to, uh, move on from the game after a certain age.

"I played up to about middle school, and then I guess we outgrew it," says Mr. Copes. "Suddenly it's just not a cool thing to do."

Probably doesn't impress the babes after awhile, either.

"Yeah," says Mr. Copes, "probably not."

But both men wanted a shot at those Super Bowl tickets when they walked into Bowie State's Wise Center that November night. Somehow, they finished first out of 12 teams.

"When we first got there, it was sort of quiet and everything," Mr. Salter recalls of that first tournament. "But then more and more people were playing, and people were high-fiving each other, and I got real nervous."

From there, it was on to the regionals at UMBC, where the tension levels were ratcheted up another few notches.

There, they competed against seven other teams, among them the University of Maryland College Park, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia and Kutztown (Pa.) State.

Again, their newfound skill at the game didn't fail them.

But there were times when each man felt his fingers shaking and the butterflies doing strafing runs in his stomach -- hard as that might be to envision over paper football.

"You start playing this game just for fun," says Mr. Copes.

"But after awhile we got to the semifinals and it got pretty tense. We were screaming after points and I was saying, 'Super Bowl tickets! Super Bowl tickets!' "

In any event, the mantra seemed to work. They pulled out a heart-pounding (if that's the right word) 103-102 victory in the final game.

And suddenly it was on to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe for the final "flick-off" of the "Elite Eight" as the Ocean Spray PR flacks are calling it.

All of which had Mr. Salter shaking his head during a practice session/media photo op the other day.

"You think college is a serious thing, and then something like this happens," he says. "This is so weird."

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