Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Grayson High School math teacher Mick Winzeler is among a select group of people who have reached the kill screen level on the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong. Winzeler who plays his Nintendo arcade machine frequently has a high score of 874,000.
BUFORD -- Beneath a layer of clear plastic, a man in red overalls dashes up a seven-story construction site. From a lofty perch, a sneering ape hurls barrel after barrel at the dogged protagonist as he makes his way up a series of ladders.
Sound familiar? It's the first level of iconic arcade game "Donkey Kong."
The game's good guy, "Jumpman" -- who later came to be known as Mario -- is on a mission to save his girlfriend, who has been kidnapped by the pixelated primate.
For video game aficionados, it's a prototypical damsel-in-distress story that lends charm to Nintendo's 1981 release. The narrative takes a backseat, however, to what amounts to a mad dash for points. By smashing barrels and grabbing bonus items, players can rack up points until Level 22: the game's unofficial ending.
Few in the world have reached the level. Less than 50 people by most official counts. Among them: a Grayson High School math teacher.
Earlier this year, 32-year-old Mick Winzeler recorded a score of 874,000 on the old-school "Donkey Kong" arcade machine in his Buford home. It's a number he's hoping to top as he prepares for the upcoming "Kong Off" in Denver, Colo.: an annual meeting of the world's best arcade game competitors.
"I've always had video games in my blood," Winzeler said. "I've always enjoyed them from an early age."
While he happens to be a longtime video game lover, it wasn't mere practice that propelled him to a spot among the world's best "Donkey Kong" players. His mania extends beyond the button-punching thrills experienced by the average arcade gaming addict.
His zeal touches on something more primal, setting him apart from the typical 30-something retro junkie reliving childhood, pumping countless quarters into the metal bowels of "Centipede," "Frogger," "Pac-Man" or "Q-Bert" machines.
"Whatever I do, I try to be the best I can," he said. "I can't help it. That's how it is with everything."
As the 2009 lightweight and overall winner of the NaturalMania Naturals, Winzeler took the top prize in what he called "the Super Bowl" of the International Natural Bodybuilding Federation.
Among the video game and cartoon posters, pictures and books in Winzeler's bedroom are half a dozen more bodybuilding trophies he's won.
In his late 20s, bodybuilding was somewhat of an obsession.
"It was all I did," he said. "I kept logs and charts of everything I ate. I had spreadsheets for every meal, every day for five or six years. I took the whole thing to a very extreme level."
His mom remembers it that way, too.
"Anytime he's ever had a desire to do something -- bodybuilding or video games or skateboarding -- he does it 100 percent," said Donna Winzeler of Loganville. "He just does it all the way."
Winzeler said he always tries to harness that level of enthusiasm for his classes at Grayson High School.
Calvin Mapp, a 17-year-old senior in Winzeler's trigonometry class, said the educator "cares about what he does and has an obvious passion for it."
Added Mapp: "There's not a lot of teachers out there who play 'Donkey Kong' and lift weights."
Winzeler has been working at Grayson High for seven years. Along with trigonometry, he teaches precalculus and geometry.
The profession, he said, "gives you the opportunity to make a difference in a kid's life. It's a chance to impact the future. When you have a former student who contacts you after graduating from college and says, 'I enjoyed your class,' that means a lot. Plus, it's just fun working with kids."
Current student Goran Susnjar, 17, thinks Winzeler is "pretty cool ... weird sometimes ... and definitely a nerd."
Susnjar said he's heard that his teacher is "one of the best" at "Donkey Kong." That doesn't surprise him. "He seems like he'd be good at it."
Winzeler said achieving top scores at "Donkey Kong" takes "a math-minded type of person."
He offered to demonstrate, plugging in the arcade cabinet in an empty room of his Buford home. Above the polycarbonate plastic cover, a soft light flickered to life, illuminating the game's title: a backlit marquee above the screen.
Doomsday eight-bit bass chords thumped from the speaker as the ape ascended rails of the digital construction site.
"I've got a 'jump' button and I can go up, down, left, right, and that's it. Real simple," he said. "Beyond that, it's all about pattern recognition. Being a math teacher makes it easier to be able to see and recognize these patterns ... and make super quick decisions. You can probably be good at 'Donkey Kong' and not be good at math, but it helps as far as the pacing."
Winzeler slapped at the joystick and fast-tapped the sherbert-orange "jump" button.
"It's a mental challenge more than anything," he said, breezing through levels. "It's hard to play if you're tired, because your decision-making isn't the best."
He posted the 874,000 score on an early Saturday morning in January: a two-hour game with no breaks.
"It was pretty stressful. After each level, I'd pace around the room while it loaded up, getting my head right."The game is tough, he said. Brutal.
"A lot of people think this game is easy, because of the way it looks. And there is a simplicity to it, but it's also something that in 30-something years people still have not completely mastered."
The average person who steps up to the arcade cabinet won't last longer than a minute and won't beat the first level, he said.
Much less, Level 22.
Known among gamers as the kill screen level, most gaming websites count 50 or fewer people who have made it so far.
According to "the Official Unofficial List of DK Killscreeners" on www.classicarcadegaming.com, Winzeler ranks 36th out of 50 with his score. That's a worldwide ranking.
To keep players straight, those who make a score claim must record the gameplay on camera. The recorded claim is then submitted.
Putting his best efforts up against the world's best "Donkey Kong" players has so far been a thrill.
The idea was born when he suffered an injury last year and couldn't train for bodybuilding. After watching an independent documentary called "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" about neck-and-neck arcade competitors Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, Winzeler figured he'd give it a shot.
"I was dealing with a shoulder injury and an abdomen injury. I thought to myself, 'Maybe I can play some 'Donkey Kong.'' It was a nice, competitive outlet."
Competing on a video game, he said, "is a little more objective, because I have a specific number I have to beat. That's my number. With bodybuilding, it's a little more subjective."
He said there's common ground in the two very different hobbies.
"Bodybuilding and 'Donkey Kong' are both sports where you're competing against others, but the main competition is against yourself."
In Winzeler's life, he's found that such a competitive drive can be a blessing and a curse.
"It's good in that it keeps you going, but it can be a bad thing, too," he said. "If you're always comparing yourself to other people, there's always going to be somebody better than you."
Added Winzeler: "I try to tone it down, but it's in my nature. I can't deny it."
Much like the blocky, pixelated protagonist in red overalls, climbing ladders, dodging barrels and flames, Winzeler is an unshakable force on his way to the top.
It's a battle both he and Jumpman have waged for more than three decades.