Imagine a game where men, women, young and old can compete on an even playing field. Now imagine that it's a game you already know -- a game you haven't played in years, maybe decades. That was Spud Alford's vision. A game for the whole family. A game that anyone can play just about anywhere.
Welcome to the National Finger Football League.
You might know it as paper or tabletop football. No matter what you call it, the game is familiar to anyone who folded a piece of notebook paper into a triangle and had some time to waste in grade school. Alford and his company, Zelosport, have taken it to a whole new level, though. On Jan. 31, just down the street from where the Super Bowl will be played in Indianapolis, one person will be crowned the king of the first-ever White Castle Slider Bowl -- earning $2,500 cash and White Castle hamburgers for life.
But founding Zelosport and launching the NFFL has not been easy. In fact, it's been a test of will, determination and faith for the 56-year old Alford. The Finger Football championship has been 23 years in the making. The struggles and life lessons of perseverance that led to this success, though, began long before that.
One night in 1976, Spud Alford sat alone in his fraternity house at the University of Southern Mississippi, upset that he wasn't doing anything that benefitted his goals. He was floating along.
So he said a little prayer for something bigger that he could tie himself to. The next day, while working at Sears, he watched as Bruce Jenner competed in the Olympics. Not only had Alford never watched the Games before, he'd never even heard the word "decathlon." No matter. He was a natural athlete and had excelled in football and baseball before having to give them up because of a knee injury. So he decided he was going to dedicate his life to winning a gold medal for himself, his family and his country.
"My parents thought I was crazy," Alford says. "But the more we talked, they realized I was serious."
So he withdrew from school and quit his job. He focused all of his energy first on learning the 10 events and then training for them. Alford wouldn't have any idea just how good he was until a competition at the University of Virginia. He set a state record there and brought home the gold, finally believing he had a chance to realize his dream.
But all that would soon come to an end.
After his success, Alford moved west to intensify his preparation for the next Olympic Games to be held in Moscow. At the trials in Eugene, Ore., he was competing in the ninth event of the decathlon when tragedy struck. As he planted his foot to send the javelin down the course, his knee blew out. Alford describes it more as "exploding." As he lay on the ground in front of 30,000 people, he knew it was over.
Although he didn't accomplish his Olympics goal, Alford came away from the experience with a realization: He knew how to focus single-mindedly on something and work to achieve it. And although his quest for Olympic gold was a disappointment, there was another dream waiting.
In 1989, Alford noticed some kids playing the desktop version on television.
"It dawned on me that millions of people already knew the concept," he says. "I wondered why there wasn't a more complex version."
So Alford sat down with a giant piece of paper and a ruler and created the game that night. Admittedly, he didn't know what he was doing; he had the wrong materials and no money. Still, Alford knew he was onto something. Shortly after the invention, he was asked to share the story of his Olympic dreams on The 700 Club. Alford mentioned the game to the producers, who said they probably wouldn't have time for it, but bring it anyway.
"For 60 seconds at the end of the interview we played the earlier version," Alford says. "We flashed a number on the screen and sold out the next day."
But two years later, Alford realized he was spreading himself too thin. He wasn't focused enough on his job or his family, and being a subpar worker and husband was not an option.
"My Dad was gone overseas a lot during the war," he says, "so my brother, Mike, and I were determined to do something really special for our parents."
The opportunity would be there, but it would take another decade for Alford to realize it. One night in 2004, he shot out of bed at three in the morning.
"It was as if someone banged me on the head and I felt like I was supposed to do this finger football thing," he says.
Alford sat his wife down the next morning and laid out his plan. She reminded him that he needed to provide for his family first, so he began a draining schedule working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., coming home for dinner, then developing the game and business in his office until 2 a.m.
After a year of burning the candle at both ends, Alford came to the conclusion that he was once again neglecting his job as a Federal investigator, and more importantly, as a father. Unless someone handed him a pile of cash, he would again have to let his dream die. So Alford decided to tell a longtime friend about the dire straits he and the company were in.
"We were at Applebee's having lunch," says Mike Childs, a pastor in Columbus, Ga. "Spud told me he didn't have the money and was fixing to be done."
But Childs wouldn't hear it. He remembers telling Alford that his destiny was not to be a Federal investigator the rest of his life.
At right around that time, Alford's phone rang.
"It was a very wealthy man in Georgia who said, 'I felt in my heart I have to write you a check for whatever you're up to,'" Alford says.
That benefactor, who prefers to remain anonymous, was also a longtime friend from church. He headed over to join Spud and Mike for lunch. They talked about the game for the rest of the meal. Eventually Childs went back to work, but soon Alford was calling his old friend with good news. The fellow churchgoer wrote him a check for $100,000.
Alford shot straight home and showed the check to his wife. He quit his job and Zelosport was born. Now he had the money and singular focus to develop the game that would help bring families back together, including his own. Alford brought his brother, Mike, in to become the chief operating officer and run the day-to-day business operations. His cousin, Tim, also works alongside him promoting the game.
They launched Finger Football to the public in 2006 and say they have sold nearly 100,000 games to date. Spud and Tim just finished a 90-day road trip across the country. They hosted a dozen regional Finger Football tournaments in White Castle parking lots across 11 states. The winners of each tournament will compete on January 31 at the White Castle Slider Bowl.
"It's huge for us personally and emotionally," Alford says. "We've made a finger print. We're not a big company, but we're in a lot of homes. We believe we're onto something that is going to be a part of America some day."
Zelosport has several other finger sports and hopes to create leagues for them, as well as expand the NFFL tournament in the future. Alford doesn't know exactly how all that will happen, but he's developed a bit of a motto over the years, "When it's a great opportunity, say yes and figure it out along the way."
Thanks to that motto and some important people who also said yes to him, Alford is certainly along the way now.
Spud Alford and Zelosport are offering ThePostGame's readers 20 percent off their games at Zelosport.com. The code is TPG20.
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