Paintball appeal seems to be spreading


July 02, 1999|By Lourdes Sullivan | Lourdes Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SKULKING THROUGH the bunkers, weapon at the ready, an armed figure advances. His goal -- the enemy's flag -- is just ahead.

Suddenly, his comrades create a diversion. It is his moment and he breaks into a skittering run, firing randomly.

Then, the explosion.

A yellow splotch creeps across his chest, staining his camouflage shirt. He's down -- and out of the game.

That's paintball.

It's the high-tech version of childhood shoot-'em-up play. Instead of the declaration "Bang, bang, you're dead," there's a colorful splotch on the victim's body. The remaining players are left to capture the flag.

Guns or "markers" -- the preferred word among players -- are used to shoot pellets of paint at the opposing team in an area roughly the size of a hockey field.

The purpose is to capture the opposing team's flag. Players who are shot are out of the game.

It's a growing sport, with tournaments across the country directed by the National Professional Paintball League and shown on ESPN. There are several venues in our area where players can rent equipment and play a supervised game.

Savage native Tom Cole, 30, is a rising paintball entrepreneur. He owns two stores that sell paintball supplies -- the Company Store on Main Street in Laurel and another by the same name in Germantown. This year, Cole will open stores in Annapolis and the Hunt Valley Mall.

Cole began playing at age 16 as a student at Laurel High School. As the sport grew, adding professional divisions for organized competition, Cole became a competent player. He says younger players have flocked to the game. His partner in the Annapolis store, Virginia resident Chris Ramuzzi, 21, agrees.

"When I started at 16, I was the youngest player," Ramuzzi says. "Most of the guys were 25 or 30. Now most of the players are my age or younger."

"When I started playing," Cole says, "people asked me what I did. When I said I played paintball, they'd say, `What's that?' Now they say, `Oh, yeah!' "

Ramuzzi notes that the sport has seen its greatest growth among 16- to 21-year-olds as the cost of equipment has gone down. An item that used to cost $400 now costs about $100, the men say.

Cole is riding the wave of burgeoning interest in the sport.

At age 25, he opened his Laurel store with $25,000 in seed money from paintball manufacturers.

At first, the store was open from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. while Cole worked construction jobs during the day. Eventually, he was able to quit his day job and devote himself to the business.

Last year, he opened the Germantown store with Laurel resident Dave Grey as manager.

Cole is opening the other stores with his uncle, Dennis Cole of Martinsburg, Va., Ramuzzi, John Bosley of Laurel, and Peter Lupo of Upper Marlboro as partners.

Most investors are also players, and it's a young people's sport. Tom and Dennis Cole are the elder investors.

Grey plays on an amateur team -- Extreme Rage -- that Tom sponsors.

Tom now plays at a professional level. His team, Bad Company, recently returned from playing nine games in Chicago. The 10-man team came in eighth in a field of 62. Ramuzzi is also on the team.

In addition to selling equipment, the Company Store offers scheduled games on a field in downtown Laurel that is owned by the Laurel chapter of the American Legion, of which Tom Cole is a member. Groups of six or more can play on weekends, with referees and equipment supplied by The Company Store.

And play they do. Executives, office workers and veterans, as well as teen-agers, enjoy the sport. Ramuzzi recalls a game played by 25 Navy dentists who politely addressed each other as "doctor" as they fired their markers.

As yet, the Company Store does not offer "walk-on" games.

Ramuzzi strongly discourages "outlaw" play -- games held in unsupervised settings. Referees are essential, he says, to ensure that safety precautions such as wearing goggles are enforced.

And he points out that insurance companies have allowed paintball organizers to lower the minimum age for players to 10, as a result of the sport's good safety record.

Another venue, the Anne Arundel Paintball Park in Jessup, offers continuous play from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Owner Bruce Gilbert, 30, is a player. His business sponsors Team Diesel in local tournaments.

Gilbert fell in love with the sport the first time he tried it. He was in his late teens. His family had introduced him to archery and competitive shooting, but these sports did not have the lure for him that paintball did.

Even competing in archery couldn't provide the adrenalin rush paintball does, Gilbert says.

"It's different when your target can shoot back, and the whipping of the paintballs by your ears is kinda fun," Gilbert said.

He was playing for a now-defunct Maryland tournament team -- Bad Boys of Maryland -- when one of his suppliers offered him the job of running the Jessup paintball park. He accepted. When the supplier was ready to sell the business, Gilbert bought it.

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