COVER STORY: ONE SPARK 2014

BLIND AMBITION

Southside resident Jim Stanford brings his game table to One Spark — just don’t play him for money

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Jim Stanford has trouble getting out of bed. Not like you and me, lazy or begging for that three-day weekend when there isn’t one. 

Stanford, 57, has been legally blind since he was a child. On his 50th birthday, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “As far as people with disabilities go, I’ve got two or three. I’m a mess,” Stanford says.

Stanford is not a mess.

He talks freely about his disabilities, the surgery that involved drilling into his skull while he lay awake, the 17 pills a day — all of that and more — with a playful Southern charm.

But I just know he’s trying to set me up. We’re about to play mini-bowling on his Shufflebowl 300, and Stanford’s already mentioned we could play for $5.

Keep in mind that he helped design the table and the game, building and rebuilding it over the past two decades.

Keep in mind that he hasn’t lost at this particular game in five years — hundreds, probably thousands of games.

Keep in mind that as a real bowler in the ’70s, he claimed multiple city championships — more than 70 amateur titles — despite the fact that those pins, 60 feet down the lane, were just a white blur.

I’m not playing Jim Stanford on his table for money.

Shufflebowl 300 is a reversible 10-feet-long-by-16-inch-wide table with more than 30 playable games — shuffleboard, mini-bowling and more. The bowling interests Stanford more than any other, and not just because he’s a lifelong kegler.

Blind or in a wheelchair, anyone can play SB300 bowling. Two blind people can play without assistance, because a pinsetter is used to align the pins perfectly.

Stanford says few activities are open to the disabled, and even fewer — maybe no game but his — put sighted and blind players on equal terms.

“Braille indicators,” as Stanford calls them, can be used to set the position of the launch ramp used to roll the European Snooker ball down the lane. It’s to the players’ advantage — even sighted players’ — to use these guides to line up their shots. The table’s contoured surface simulates the curve the pros’ rolls take.

Stanford loves to recount stories of others with disabilities enjoying the game, remembering a girl of about 12 years old, in a wheelchair, who was hesitant to play.

“She was shaking her head, real nervous. But that smile never left her face,” Stanford recalls. The girl came back, and after one shot at mini-bowling, she didn’t want to leave. His voice cracks as he tells it.

Stanford had his own challenges to overcome as a child. He was born with optical atrophy in his right eye and developed it in his left eye by age 8.

“I couldn’t play baseball or football. I’ve never driven a car. I’ve never read a book,” Stanford says.

That’s all true, but remember, Stanford is still trying to get my $5.

Stanford and his wife, Annette, raised two children, and he worked for two decades with Roper’s Paint & Body on Leon Road. His peripheral vision does help at times, but the bodywork was all about feel and the painting was all about the prep work.

“I’ve always been good with my hands. Just ask her,” Stanford says, nodding toward Annette.

When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s seven years ago, he retired and redoubled his efforts on Shufflebowl 300 — his passion project.

He had received the original patent on the product in 1992, but the first company he used to manufacture the board, Playmaster Renaissance, was bought by AMF and his game was lost in the shuffle. (AMF didn’t deliver on an order of 200 tables,
Stanford says.)

After retiring, Stanford turned to a family-owned company based Downtown. Jay and Chris McWilliams of J.C. Manufacturing helped redesign the table, adding a new ball-launch ramp, an automatic ball return, an improved pinsetter and even LED lights down the lane (yes, LED lights, at Stanford’s request).

Stanford has invested more than $70,000 with McWilliams on a handshake deal. 

“Trust someone or don’t trust anyone,” Stanford says. “They’re from New England, but we don’t hold that against them.”

Jay McWilliams, his wife Chris (the company’s owner), their son and grandson built an inventory of 50 Shufflebowl tables. The tables are priced from $1,895 to $2,195, depending on the optional pieces and finishes. So far, they’ve sold eight of the 50 made.

Funds raised at One Spark will be used to keep the table affordable, improve accessories, design a new website and keep the manufacture in the city. Stanford says he might eventually develop a longer table.

Jay McWilliams, a key architect in the SB300 redesign, says he wouldn’t have backed the project as readily if not for Stanford’s intensity. 

“Some people just lay down and die. He doesn’t do that,” McWilliams says. “He’s going at it all day.”

Stanford has shown his game at Florida School for the Deaf & the Blind, ILAB (Independent Living for Adult Blind) at Florida State College at Jacksonville, Jacksonville University, the University of North Florida and the Federation of the Blind.

During One Spark, he’ll set up five tables in the Downtown Main Library for all players.

A couple weeks ago, I took Stanford up on his mini-bowling challenge (sans money). He gave me mulligans on several gutters, but it didn’t matter. I was quickly in the hole. He coached me up, and I finished with four strikes in a row.

I still lost 191-150.

Stanford kicked my ass and made me feel good while he did it. I think that 191 he put up was a sign he’s still angling for my five bucks on the rematch.

He’ll put his unbeaten streak on the line at One Spark, playing blindfolded against all challengers, he tells me (always the showman). The streak, he says, will most likely end this week, on account of his Parkinson’s.

“The cat-like agility is gone. I’m like a bull in a china shop,” he says. “The first thing to go is the nerve.”

More than the wins, his passion is for creating a game that put the sighted and blind on “equal terms.”

“On this one,” he says, “a blind person can eat you alive.”

Tags: one spark, shufflebowl, parkinson's, jacksonville, downtown,
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