Last November, John Balash was given 2,000 plastic bricks and 45 minutes to convince Lego honchos he was their guy. Then a junior at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Balash had been obsessed with the famous interlocking blocks since childhood.
"I am the youngest of four and all the kids above me, even though they're all girls, all had Legos," he explains. "They all sort of fell onto me."
Balash's obsession even led to his selection by the Ohio University Governor's Scholarship to take part in a course on Lego robotics during his senior year in high school. He was such a natural that he was invited back the next year to serve as a teacher's aide.
"It was then that I realized there was a possibility this could go a lot farther," Balash recalls. "That's what really sealed the deal. I knew there could be a career out there, whether it be directly working for Lego or through education."
So, when Lego announced a competition for an actual job at Legoland, the company's California theme park, Balash jumped at the chance to take part in a preliminary round held in Washington, D.C., last November.
"They played a couple mind games with us," Balash says. "If you made the grade, they pulled you in for a second interview right after you built and told you, 'We don't do this for everyone, but good job. You're on to the next step. I'll call you at the end of the day.' I was just hanging out in Washington waiting for a call."
Later that day, Balash received the call confirming that he and two others from the D.C. tryout would travel to California for the finals. Though admittedly "Lego-ed out," Balash prepared furiously, often asking his friends to hand him a haphazard assortment of bricks and spit out a random theme for him to build upon.
Then, in January, Balash jetted to Lego's California theme park to face off against 27 others for an open slot on the park's elite "Master Model Building Team." Each finalist was asked to build a creation that reflected the theme "Legoland, California." Many builders opted to re-create rides from the park. Balash constructed a "classic little Lego guy" holding a map and camera with a shoulder bag overflowing with items representing Legoland attractions.
Unfortunately, the trip west didn't win Balash his dream job. But that doesn't mean the soon-to-be college senior was unhappy with his performance.
"I think they were going for someone older," he says. "I'm still in college and I don't think they wanted to be responsible for me dropping out of school. Otherwise, the finalists were sort of weird in my opinion."
Since then, it's been back to the books for Balash, who is pursuing a triple major in art, education and graphic design. He also teaches an evening class with "Mindstorms" — a high-end robotic Lego block set outfitted with a microprocessor that can be programmed with a personal computer — for a company called After School Discoveries.
Balash still sets aside some time for his favorite pastime, though he notes that the realities of growing up have made it far less than before.
"In high school, it used to be a couple hours every night," he says wistfully. "In college, you squeeze a half an hour here and half an hour there, so you get two or three hours in a week."