FACETIME- Paintball wizard: How one Wahoo got paid to play

Eric Prum

Growing up around Charlottesville, Eric Prum had the usual assortment of teenager jobs: lawn care, food prep, and playing in a rock band (keyboards for "Sparky's Flaw"). Today Prum earns his pay by grabbing a gun and goggles. He plays paintball. Professionally.

The 21-year-old UVA student has a web-based fan club. He signs autographs. And with a full academic load, he has to juggle Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday classes to accommodate weekend flights to southern California for practice. Or to Florida for competition. Or to Boston for a photo shoot. Sunday usually means a red-eye flight back to Charlottesville. 

"I lead a double life," Prum admits, not thinking so much about being on track to graduate in May, but of the apartment his team, Infamous, keeps for him in San Diego. 

At 5' 4," Prum makes a compact target on a playing field where the marble-sized plastic paint pellets whiz by faster than you can say Sherwin Williams. Way faster. Paintball guns fire 15 paintballs per second at speeds of up to 200 mph, or 300 feet per second. 

"I'm a front player, playing far up the field, diving under and over streams of paint," he says, explaining tactics that have earned him notoriety for "playing the snake" and "mowing faces like crazyness." Another online admirer notes: "Eric Prum was made for paint ball. Short, fast, aggressive, and full of heart." 

Teams in the two professional leagues– National Professional Paintball League (NPPL) and National X-ball League (NXL)– are filling their ranks with players of Prum's build and musculature, according to Owen Peterson, manager of Rudy's Paintball, the local paintball supplier in Shopper's World. Prum worked at Rudy's in high school, and his jerseys still hang prominently on the walls.

But it's not all about size. "To be competitive, you have to be fit, strong, and think instinctively: it's half physical, half shooting skills," says Peterson.

Unlike recreational paintball– often played in the woods or country fields – professional paintball is played on a prepared surface scattered with inflated canvas "bunkers." Prum compares it to "capture the flag" with guns; Peterson describes it as "a cross between dodge ball and chess."

With dark hair and chocolate eyes, Prum's good looks make him a shoe-in to promote gear for franchises like Empire, Infamous, and Monkey with a Gun. His mother, author Debby Prum, isn't sure about her son (who's double-majoring in sociology and politics) being featured in glossy slicks that sell out at 7-Elevens. But then consider what his dad must think: Bruce Prum is an eye surgeon.

The doctor's son is quick to admit that paintballs will "shoot your eye out" if you play without a facemask. Getting hit and marked by the flying paint spheres doesn't just knock you out of the game; it also hurts. "You bleed, you bruise. I have little half moon scars where I've been hit," says the second of three Prum boys.

His parents have yet to see him play professionally, but "I think they're proud of me– now. In the beginning, I remember hiding equipment under my bed, and being grounded when they found it. 

"I'm a total anomaly, honestly," Prum says, noting his teammates tend to come from warm-weather states like Florida or Texas where play is year-round. For a Virginian to be playing paintball at the professional level is "like the NFL recruiting a player from Finland."