Taking Aim: Teen earns a living through paintball

In high school, getting a job is the way to pay for gas, food, and an occasional movie. However, the jobs high school students take aren't usually the most fun or glamorous. The majority of our summers consist of bussing tables, mopping floors and washing dishes.

Not Tyler Harmon's summer.

Tyler is on track to earn $30,000 this year for doing what he loves most -- playing paintball. At 18, he says he is the youngest professional paintballer ever. He started playing when he was 11, and turned pro at 14.

"My uncle took me out when I was 11 and we were just messing around," said Tyler, a 2007 graduate of Modesto's Davis High School. "I bought my own gun and I have been playing ever since, just trying to get better."

While playing on a local team on courses in Modesto and Manteca, Tyler -- who at that time was coached by his father's business partner -- attracted the attention of a well-known paintball coach. That coach was Bob Long, with the professional paintball team the Oakland Assassins.

When Tyler's coach told him about Long's interest in him, Tyler tried out for the Oakland Assassins and made the team.

Some of Tyler's teammates admire his skill.

"What makes Tyler stand out is that he's really level-headed," said Zack Long, one of Tyler's teammates. "He is really smart on the field. He doesn't make dumb mistakes ... and he's a really good shot."

All this is important in paintball, in which players eliminate opponents by hitting them with paintballs shot by compressed gas-powered guns. Teams play on fields, and players wear protective gear such as goggles to keep from getting hurt.

It's a rush for Tyler, who -- before he graduated from high school -- had been featured on ESPN, Spike TV and several magazines such as Paintball 2 Extremes. He is also a character in X-box and PS2 video game Greg Hastings' Tournament Paintball Maxd.

All of this exposure got Tyler some attention at school.

"The paintball kids from my school were tripping out that I was on TV, but they aren't taking pictures of me or asking for my autograph or anything,: he says, "It's kind of normal now."

Tyler and the Oakland Assassins play against teams from throughout the world. They travel often, with airline tickets paid for by the team.

Paintball is a costly hobby. Tyler figures his guns, pants, goggles, shoes, elbow pads, jersey, barrel, tank, and loader are worth about $2,260. The cost is subsidized by coach Long, who makes guns and manufactures some of the other equipment.

When the Assassins play in Europe, they usually win. But wins in America are less common.

"My most memorable competition was Huntington Beach this year," said Tyler. "We took first place at that tournament."

When the team wins, it receives tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the competition. Money is split among the players.

Most kids would spend every last penny, but Tyler chooses to save -- well, he saves most of it.

"It all goes to the bank, so I don't spend," he says. "I did just bought a new flat screen TV, but besides that, it all goes to the bank."

Tyler is attending Modesto Junior College this fall, and plans to continue playing paintball.

"I need to go to college, but I'm definitely going to keep playing for the next four to five years," he said. "I'll see how far I can take it and if I can't make a career out of this, then I'm going to have to get an actual job."

McKenzie Becker is a senior at Oakdale High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.