In most cases, one major drawback of experiencing sudden fame is all the old ‘friends’ who suddenly start coming out of the woodwork looking for a spot in the limelight. For Ed Hall, though, this was never much of a concern as his support base has been with him from day one.
Last Thursday evening, about 250 people, ranging from former students to competitors on the basketball court, packed the Living Word Christian Center on Roosevelt Road to watch Hall compete as one of four finalists on the season finale of the new ABC realit y show American Inventor.
The crowd cheered wildly as Hall, inventor of the electronic word game Word Ace, outlasted two of his three competitors before succumbing to Janusz Liberkowski, who took first place with an innovative child safety seat.
“America voted, and it’s just like political elections, when America votes and the vote is certified. You have to accept it and just appreciate the journey,” said Hall, who resided in Forest Park until recently but said he did not want to disclose his current location.
Though Hall took the defeat in stride, there is still a sense of personal disappointment evident in his voice.
“I promised my mother when I was seven that I’d buy her a home and move her out her basement apartment [in Austin],” he said. “Until I do that, I’ll always feel like I failed.”
American Inventor wasn’t Hall’s first brush with fame. As a high school All American basketball star in Columbus, Georgia, he seemed on the fast track for a lucrative career in the NBA.
“Ed is just an intense guy. You can tell on the show, but you really need to see him on the basketball court to understand,” said Larry Merritt, who plays ball with Hall every week at the River Forest Community Center.
A case of homesickness led Hall to take a risk by returning home to Chicago for college, passing up offers from several higher profile schools to play for UIC.
After a stellar freshman year, Hall said, a new coach was brought in who benched him in favor of several recruits from the Chicago Public League who had been promised starting jobs on the team.
“After my junior year he said you’re not my player…if you stay for your senior season you won’t be happy. You don’t belong on anybody’s bench, you’re too good,” said Hall, 40.
Though his coach advised him to transfer to a school where he’d get more playing time, Hall decided to finish what he started and completed his college career at UIC. He tried to play professional ball in Europe after graduating, “but everywhere I went they wanted to see game tapes, and I had to explain that all the tape I had was two years old,” he said.
He returned to Chicago and began a teaching career, teaching everything from physical education to music at Chicago schools including Lowell Elementary School and Orr High School.
He was inspired by his students to create a card game to promote interest in reading and vocabulary, which over time evolved into Word Ace, which now features an electronic interface and can be played by one to six players at various levels of difficulty.
Two years ago, Hall quit teaching to focus full time on developing the game.
“Teaching was fine but then there was the commitment to grading papers, and I needed that time for the game,” he said.
He began testing new versions of Word Ace with focus groups made up of former students and promoting the game at toy shows nationwide, garnering rave reviews from children and toy professionals alike.
“We just liked it so much we got hooked on it and wanted to play it over and over again,” said Simedar Jackson, 11, a former focus group member who came to Living Word to watch Hall compete for the show’s million dollar first prize last week.
One of the biggest confidence builders for Hall was an enthusiastic endorsement from a three-time national Scrabble champion at a toy show in New York two years ago.
“When she was done playing she asked me ‘do you have units I can buy now?’ Then she told me ‘when this comes out, I’ll never play Scrabble again,” said Hall.
Though he missed out on first place on American Inventor, Hall did walk away with a hefty consolation prize, a meeting with Mike Hurdle, a vice president of research and development with leading toy company Hasbro Games.
During the competition, he was given a $15,000 budget to improve his product, allowing him to enhance its electronic interface, develop a carrying case for the game, and add a Spanish option.
Though the upgrade the game received during the show will help, friends say the key to Word Ace’s future success will be the man behind the game.
Close friend and fellow teacher Jean Gibson described Hall as a “creative genius.” The two met while standing in line at the Illinois Board of Education office, and instantly hit it off.
“We were both very creative people ” he was writing screenplays and I was doing music, so we were talking about collaborating,” she said.
Gibson said that Hall, who is now her son’s godfather, inspired her with his strong willed approach to life.
“This is a man that says ‘I will not fail.’ He has never lost focus on bringing everything he could bring to the world,” she said.
Hall’s focus is especially impressive in light of the hardships he has endured, say those close to him.
William “Pierre” Spencer attended the screening at Living Word on behalf of his brother Wade, a childhood friend of Hall’s who passed away last year.
“Ed spoke some very charming words about role models and making the right choices at my brother’s funeral,” said Spencer.
“He had a lot of negative images he could have followed but he stuck with his dreams, and everyone’s very proud of him today,” he said.