Great athletes, to quote the poet Dylan Thomas, often “do not go gentle into that good night.”
Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to a championship after a two-year retirement. Monica Seles stayed away from tennis just as long, and then came back to win the Australian Open. George Foreman had two comebacks, one after a 10-year retirement, and reclaimed the heavyweight title both times.
It’s a long list. Professional sports not only offers its best practioners fame and fortune, but also hooks them on adulation and endorphins. That’s why a percentage of retired athletes will forever attempt to overcome age, adversity, or injury for a second shot at glory.
Roy Munson, professional bowling sensation of the 70’s, is currently trying for his third.
Four decades ago, Munson, as any pro bowling historian worth a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon will tell you, was bowling’s equivalent of the “Breck Girl.” He was beautiful to watch, a blonde, All American youthful symbol of grace – and a veritable Heifetz with his Brunswick thirteen-pounder.
Then there was the accident, the inconceivable loss of his bowling hand, and Roy Munson dropped off the bowling grid, disappearing into a twenty-year alcohol-and-complimentary-buffalo-wings-fueled haze. Incredibly, in 1996, a newly-sober Munson came back to the PBA scene—first as coach to a young Amish protégée, Ishmael Borg, and then, after Borg’s injury during the USB Reno Open, as a competitor himself. Munson was brilliant in Reno, nearly defeating his top-seated rival, Ernie McCracken. But in the end, due to a technical problem with his new rubber bowling hand (it came off), victory eluded him.
Munson disappeared a second time after that comeback attempt. He resurfaced just last week, calling a press conference in the parking lot of a Los Angeles Der Wienershnitzel Restaurant to once again announce his return to professional bowling. After the announcement, I sat down with him to learn more about his plans.
SI: You look good, Roy. I take it you're still sober?
Munson: Absolutely. I quit drinking in 1996 and haven't once fallen off the wagon. I take care of my body. That’s why I’m able to physically compete again on the professional circuit. Everything I eat is 100% organic.
But right now you’re eating a bacon-wrapped chili cheese dog.
You a sports writer or a nutritionist? A guy in my position needs some professional endorsements, so I’m offering the exclusive Munson brand to a select few corporations that exemplify my commitment to high dietary standards. So [raises voice] if the good folks at Der Wienershnitzel are listening, I’m willing to eat this breakfast of champions seven days a week, up to three times a day if the dinero is right. [Voice returns to normal.] Charmin’s already signed on to Team Munson—it’s a perfect corporate fit.
After your comeback game in Reno in ‘96, you disappeared again. What happened?
In 1996 I wanted to prove to myself that I still had what it takes to compete professionally. I did what I set out to do, so I moved on to other personal challenges, like establishing the Roy Munson Global Foundation.
Never heard of it. Care to explain?
The web site is temporarily shut down because of a misunderstanding with the U.S. Postal Service, The Better Business Bureau, and the Justice Department, but it’s a wonderful charity that I’m quite proud of. We bring bowling education to needy kids in the Third World. There are plenty of charities out there schlepping fresh water, computers, and medical supplies into the bush, but nobody’s taking bowling pins and balls. Let guys like Bill Gates feed the hungry. I can teach ‘em how to make a 7-10 split. By the way, any donation checks should be made out to Roy Munson, personally. I like to forward them to the foundation myself.
Have you devoted yourself to any other projects?
I had some heat after I competed in ’96, and Hollywood came knocking. Technically, it was Bollywood, but it was still the entertainment business. I went to Mumbai and hosted a cooking show, Bowling and Baba Ghanoush, where I prepared my favorite dishes in between frames of matches. Great burgers, steaks, ribs. Delicious-sounding, right? Not to these people. They have this crazy idea that cows are like rock stars or something. Who knew? So, I came back to the States and found God. Confessed all my sins on one of those religious TV channels. I had done a fair amount of living, so it ended up being a three-night special. After that I became a church recruiter for a while, but I was handing in too many lunch receipts, so they let me go.
There’s a rumor on the street that you worked in the adult industry under an assumed name. Care to comment?
Look, I don’t want to call the Octomom a liar, and she may believe that the person she worked with was me, but I definitely did not star in an adult movie. I’ve never even paid for an adult movie in a hotel room. If you tell the desk clerk you only watched three minutes or less and then changed the channel, they'll take it off your bill.
Keep in touch with Ishmael Borg?
Yes. But it’s not easy. He’s Amish. No phone or e-mail. So we communicate by billboard. If I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll spray paint a “hello” over one of those giant highway “great pea soup in 50 miles” signs, and if he sees it when he goes by in his buggy, he’ll spray back. Ish doesn’t bowl anymore. He thinks it leads to “moral dilemmas.” Which is ridiculous. I’ve never had a moral dilemma in my life.
Why are you going back to professional bowling after a 17 year layoff?
For the love of the game. It’s not about the money, the fame, the endorsements, the celebrity perks like not having to pay your gas bill in person every month, or the groupies, who sometimes forget that I'm always registered at hotels under Roy E. Munson. No, to me, the sound of bowling pins flying is like the singing of angels. Though, if the folks at Der Wienershnitzel act fast, it could be like the joyous cooing of someone who just bit into a bacon-wrapped chili cheese dog.
Author’s note: One week after this interview, Roy Munson was made a spokesman for a North Korean energy drink and dropped out of the PBA tour. He is currently looking for an apartment in Pyongyang with Dennis Rodman.
Writer-director Mort Nathan is currently developing a TV series for 20th Century Fox.
While the SI magazine editors were busy catching up with for-real former players, we turned our attention to those athletes of yesteryear who actually made an impact on the world: the fictional ones. Over the next week Extra Mustard will learn the whereabouts of six other iconic sports-movie protagonists, as told by those characters' creators. Here's who's coming soon.
Wednesday, July 3: Adam McKay on Ricky Bobby, from Talladega Nights (2006)
Friday, July 5: Sam Harper on Henry Rowengartner, from Rookie of the Year (1993)
Monday, July 8: Mort Nathan on Roy Munson, from Kingpin (1996)
Tuesday, July 9: Gurinder Chadha on Jess Bhamra, from Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Wednesday, July 10: Aaron Mendelsohn on Buddy, from Air Bud 1-5 (1997-2003)