The century-old sport of table soccer is played by millions worldwide, yet no player has exceeded the standard of excellence set the past four decades by Birmingham native Cindy Head.
She’s won 50 world championships (more than 70 major titles) and “many, many” local, state, regional and national tournaments stemming from the day Head first turned a steel rod on a foosball table in Woodlawn. She’s won playing alone, teaming with men, teaming with women, often representing the United States and always representing Alabama.
“Cindy makes a very strong case for being the best player the entire world has ever seen,” said Jim Stevens, a member of the Foosball Hall of Fame and editor of Inside Foos magazine, who is the sole commentator for foosball broadcasts.
When she was a 16-year-old Banks High School student, Head teamed with a Tuscaloosa man to win a national mixed doubles tournament as she played forward against a male, marking the first time that feat had been accomplished. Four years later, she won her first world championship in Chicago. That was during the height of American foosball popularity, when there was a $1 million professional tour with a new Porsche going to the champion. It was the eighth biggest sport in the U.S., but foosball was getting pushed by video games by the time Head joined the pro circuit that went under after 1981.
Although Head never got in on the riches won by foosball’s early stars, she rose to the top nonetheless. She won nine straight women’s singles championships and eight doubles titles from 1986 to 1994. At the 1986 Tornado/Dynamo World Championships, she won six championships in one weekend, three each on the nation’s two most popular foosball tables that gave the tournament its name.
“You know she’s really made it because they stopped talking about her gender and started talking about her legacy,” said Kristin Grogan of USA Foosball. “She’s someone we can all look up to as a friend and admire as the most decorated in the sport.”
The governing bodies of the sport aren’t sure how many championships the 59-year-old has captured, much less do they have the slightest guess at how many career matches Head has won. Her most recent world championship came in 2015 playing with a repaired right thumb that had nearly been ripped off when she broke up a dog fight. She was inducted into the Foosball Hall of Fame in 2006 and the USA Table Soccer Hall of Fame in 2016.
When Joe Heslinga began filming the award-winning documentary “Foosballers,” he was following the top five American males as they prepared for the world championships. He phoned Head, who thanked him for his interest but said she wasn’t interested. She’d been burned by previous interviews, but it was news to Heslinga, who’d had no trouble convincing the guys to go on camera: “I think he was a little stunned,” Head said.
“So about a month later, he calls me back and says, ‘Listen, all the guys are telling me that you have to be in it or it’s not going to be complete,’” Head said of their second conversation in 2016. She turned him down again. Heslinga later called a third time, asking Head to meet him and talk it over. She did and in 2020 Head was the star of the Sidewalk Film Festival premiere of the movie that was soon nationally broadcast on ESPN.
That was high cotton for Head, who’d grown up in a poor household on the wrong side of the tracks. She said her father “was not a positive influence.” When she started playing foosball at the Someplace Else game room in Woodlawn, the sport became a saving grace for a kid who had to stand on wooden crates to play. She went most every afternoon for an hour or so after finishing her homework. She would take on all comers, looking for any chance to play foosball.
“These three guys came in one day and I thought, ‘Oh boy, I can go play a game with them,’” she recalled. “So, I go running up and was like, ‘Hey, you guys need somebody to play?’ And I’ll never forget, this one guy looks at me and says, ‘Uh, not this time, sweetheart. We need somebody just a little bit better.’ And it just crushed me, I mean it just hurt my heart. And I remember looking up at him and thinking, ‘Mister, one day you will not be able to say that to me,’ and from that moment on I was determined to become a good player, and I did.”
Head’s mother eventually bought a foosball table to practice on at home. Soon, she didn’t have to bring any quarters to put in the game room machines, since winners don’t pay to play. After graduating from school, she worked eight years at a printing business and then 21 years as a Birmingham Police officer, continuing to play professional foosball tournaments around her work schedule when possible.
“You don’t win a lot of money for the women’s tournaments; it’s more about the glory,” Head said of a career where her top winning prize was $2,200 and most championships earned her in the $500 range. “But, I have traveled. I got to go to Europe and play on the USA Team. I’ve been to Italy.”
During her first six years as a police officer, it was difficult for Head to take time off for more than a tournament or two annually. Often, the competitors she faced in the world championships were practicing and playing year-round.
“It was very hard to go and win some of those times,” she said. “I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I’m just saying it’s not an easy feat to do.”
But win she did. In a sport with European leagues that boast thousands of players, Head’s in-game shout of “Boom Baby!” became familiar to all as she kept winning world championships. Head was known as one of foosball’s fiercest competitors. She would watch the movie “Rocky” to get fired up and, like the fictional boxer Balboa, Head would be set to “go out and conquer the world.”
“She’s a beast,” foosball pro Tracy McMillin said in the documentary. “I’ve seen her make women cry in competition. I’ve seen her whip up on some guys, too. She’s fierce: That’s my favorite word for her.” She may have made some women weep in 1996 world championship doubles with partner Dawn Duquette in Italy. It remains one of her favorite memories.
“When you go over there to these international tournaments, they have several different styles of tables and it goes back and forth between tables,” Head said. “We were the underdogs because we’d never played on some of those tables. But we went over and won women’s doubles and singles and I’ll never forget that because it was amazing we pulled that off.”
In “Foosballers,” she’s shown in front of 16th Street Baptist Church, next to the Hugo Black U.S. Courthouse and walking her old police beat along Fourth Avenue North, where she was known as “Annie Oakley.” Despite being small in stature, Head got the nickname from street people “because I would have no problem drawing my gun and tackling the biggest guys.” She suffered a broken left arm on the job that required a metal plate to repair before retiring from the force in 2011.
Head was later diagnosed with Lyme disease, which prompted a move in 2019 to recuperate in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the first time she’s ever lived outside Alabama.
Head is feeling better nowadays, playing on a cheaper foosball table at home while contemplating buying an $1,800 Tornado table when she is settled into the Rocky Mountains. After 40 years of foosball, she believes she’s established a championship record that won’t be surpassed, at least in her lifetime. Head has won twice as many world championships as pro Todd Loffredo, the most successful men’s player in history.
While Head admits she’s easily the most successful women’s player in history – many experts say she’s the most successful player regardless of sex – she admits that her last world championship six years ago may be her final victory on the world foosball playing stage.
“I’m still a good competitor, and never count me out, that’s for sure. I’m not anything like I used to be, but I still love to play,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong: I can still go to the local tournaments and beat the guys. I do it all the time. But am I a top competitor that goes to the tournaments and beats all the women? No, not anymore. You have to realize I’m a little older now.”
Throughout March, Alabama NewsCenter is recognizing Alabama women of distinction, past and present, in celebration of Women’s History Month.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)