Halfway through a 215 game in the first round of the Firestone Tournament of Champions in April, Pete Weber strolled over to the bleachers and motioned to his famous father. The spectators surrounding Dick Weber leaned in. What sumptuous tidbits of bowler esoterica were about to come down? Ball lift? Oiling pattern of the lane? Something about "moving five boards" perhaps? "When we get down to the other end," said Pete, "would you bring me a Mountain Dew?"
Dick Weber threw back his head and laughed. Then he slapped Pete on the back. Then he turned to several companions and slapped them on the back. Then he threw back his head and laughed again.
"Did you hear that?" said Weber p√®re. "I'm a gofer." Even the legends of sport, you see, must know their roles.
Few athletes have played their changing roles through the years with more grace and class than Richard Anthony Weber. He has been the Kid and the King, and now he's both the Gracefully Aging Immortal and the Eager Father. Pete, the fourth and youngest child of Dick and Juanita Weber, is the Professional Bowlers Association's second-leading money-winner this year behind Mike Aulby. Many observers feel he has both the talent and the competitive temperament to surpass his father, who won 27 PBA events.
July 14, 1985
"Pete can be a legend," says his doubles partner, Brian Voss. "I don't think there's anyone out here who doesn't believe that."
A qualifier always comes with predictions about Pete. It's always "can be" rather than "will be." That's because from his early teens to March 1984, no one tried harder than Pete Weber to party himself into early oblivion, an effort that culminated in full-scale chemical abuse by 1983. "There are some screwed-up guys on tour," admits Pete, "but I was more screwed up than any of them."
On March 7, 1984 Pete entered White Deer Treatment Center in Lonedell, Mo., ending what his father called "eight years of hell." He stayed 28 days and came out a wiser man and a more competitive bowler. He says he has been off drugs completely since then. But there is still the boy within the man, and the boy likes to party. He admits he has fallen off the wagon "a few times," and there are many around the pro tour with ears cocked for the big thud.
Of all Dick Weber's roles, that of father to his youngest has surely been the most difficult.
Still, he can take pride in being the patriarch of bowling's First Family. Rich, 34, and John, 27, Pete's older brothers, both competed on the pro tour and both still work in bowling, Rich as the regional tournament director for National Amateur Bowlers Inc., and John as assistant manager of A.M.F Dick Weber Lanes, the Florissant, Mo. bowling house in which Dick sold his share to A.M.F. last year. The Webers have what must be a world-record number (50) of sanctioned perfect games by a family—22 by Pete, 20 by Dick, four by John, three by Rich, and one by daughter, Paula, 32, who had a 190 average once. And though Juanita may bowl, as Dick says, "in self-defense," she still averages 170 rolling Pete's old 10-pound ball. Pete's wife, Dee Dee, averaged 160 in NABI competition.
Three centuries ago Ben Jonson wrote, "Greatness of name, in the father, off times helps not forth, but overwhelms the son: they stand too near one another. The shadow kills the growth." And so it was for both Rich and John. "Can you imagine walking around the pro tour with DICK WEBER JR. on your shirt?" asks Rich, who did exactly that from 1968 to '78 with only limited success. But it never bothered Pete, not when he had his skinny fingers stuck in a bowling ball, anyway. He and his father were never close until Pete emerged from treatment last year, and it's only recently that the son has begun to realize and appreciate what the father has meant to the game.
"I know now who was the best," says Pete. "Dad was the best. I've seen polls that said Don Carter, but it was Dad. He's done it the best and the longest. He's 55 now, and it still amazes me when he walks in, rolls a 170 or something, and gets all the attention."
Like most Gracefully Aging Immortals, Dick Weber, the only bowler to win PBA titles over four decades, still feels the magic from time to time, which is why he's back full-time on the summer tour. "I don't think I can win a lot of them," says Dick, "but I can win. I don't want to just be a figurehead out there." Whether he wins or loses, Weber, like Arnold Palmer, will mesmerize the masses. His son has charisma, too, although his is of a different sort.
Pete inherited his father's body—what there is of it. He stands 5'7" and weighs just 135 pounds, seven pounds more than what the 5'10" Dick says was his "fighting weight" 20 years ago. Beyond that, they don't look much like father and son. Still blond of hair, natty of dress and sunny of disposition, Dick has achieved the kind of enviable middle-aged elegance that rates an easy eight or nine on the Donahue scale.
There's a waiflike aspect to Pete. He parts his wavy hair down the middle, wears a wispy mustache, chain-smokes during competition and in general looks like a kid who might follow ZZ Top around the country. While Dick has soft, sparkling, smiling eyes, Pete's are deep, brooding, wintry. The TV cameras love to catch Pete from the front as he stares his big-hooking boomerang ball down the alley. His eyes open wide, almost demonically, "like something out of the weird movies," says Dick.
Pete and Dick seem dissimilar in action, too. Though Dick had what he calls "a bad Dutch-German temper," he usually kept it in check. Pete's temper has been as subtle as a gutter ball, running to swearing, kicking ball racks and shouting at himself. But Juanita says her husband was every bit as intense as Pete is.
"I never saw in Rich and John this kind of burning will," she says. "Their wives and family were important to them. But I can say in all honesty that if it came to a choice between bowling and family, Pete would've given up Dee Dee, just as Dick, as happy as we've been, would've given up Juanita."
Juanita remembers gathering her family around the set to watch Dick in one of his frequent television matches. "Dick might get five in a row, and as soon as he missed a strike Pete would get up and go out. 'Why watch?' he'd say. 'He can't get a 300 now.' " That was Pete—brash, a little arrogant, irresistible. Pete was never afraid to challenge the big boys to two-game matches for sodas at Dick Weber Lanes. Though of hummingbird size, he started using a 16-pound ball when he was 12, after which he rolled his first 300 game. His average climbed from around 185 to about 210. At 16 he debuted in an adult scratch league with a perfect game.
This was Pete, too: running around with older kids, cutting school, chugging beer, smoking some pot, getting into fights, doing almost anything for a couple of laughs and a good time. Pete quit McCluer North Senior High School late in his sophomore year (six months later he earned a general equivalency diploma) because all he ever wanted to do was bowl and party, party and bowl. When the rules were changed to allow high school graduates who had not yet turned 18 to join the tour, Pete became a 17-year-old pro in November 1979. The rule change was proposed, incidentally, by one Dick Weber, an executive board officer.
Pete broke through in 1982, winning two tournaments and a total of $90,540.
And in 1983 he broke down.
Pete says his problems did not begin "for real" until that year. "I turned 21. Bars in every state would have to serve me. I had money. And that was the year I got introduced to a new drug."
From 1982 until March 1984, Pete estimates he blew about $150,000, most of it up his nose, a smaller part on booze and gambling. Cocaine fit his high-energy personality. "From the first line of coke I ever did, I was hooked," he says. "I loved it. I've done weeks when I've gone through an ounce or two, eating nothing but fast food. Plus I was drinking, a fifth of Jack Daniel's a night, easy."
Any number of sobering experiences failed to sober him up. Someone held a gun to his head in a hotel parking lot in Detroit after he refused to turn down the stereo in his van. He rolled the van over four times down an embankment in Syracuse, N.Y. and walked away with just a bloody nose. He ran to the men's room and did lines of coke between games. And then there was a bizarre four-week stretch in 1983 when Pete was competing in body only. "I can't remember anything. Complete blackout."
Once, at the Quaker State Open in Grand Prairie, Texas in January of '84, he spent the afternoon with a friend drinking double Long Island iced teas—a lethal concoction. He reeled in for the evening session and bowled himself from 17th place to sixth, rolling some 280s, 260s and 250s along the way. "I was in a daze," says Pete, "but I was into it."
But, says Pete, "I heard the whispers from the public. 'You're nothing but a drunk, Weber.' 'Look at him, he's all washed-up.' But I didn't care. I didn't believe them. I didn't think I had a problem." Months earlier Dee Dee had left with their infant daughter, Nicole, and a divorce was just a couple of signatures away. Partyin' Pete was wearing thin on some of his competitors, too. One more conduct fine—he had three already—would have resulted in a six-month suspension, and many pros believe that the ax would have fallen had he not been the man with the magic name.
A depressing witches' brew of hurt, anger, shame and guilt bubbled away inside of Dick and Juanita. Drugs were an unknown, but booze had always been around. Indeed, beer and bowling are almost a word-association pair. Dick himself had never met a party he didn't like. Was it their fault? "Pete has seen me drunk," said Dick. "He's seen my friends acting up. The first time he ever got into trouble he stole liquor out of our basement. I couldn't get rid of the guilt."
Dick Evans, bowling writer for The Miami Herald, finally got Pete to talk about his problems in February 1984. Events came to a head at Dick and Juanita's Florissant home on March 6. Pete had drunk a lot of beers and taken some Valium. "I was down so low," says Pete, "I literally couldn't talk." At the time, he and Dee Dee had reconciled, but she was ready to walk out again. They had a terrible argument. Pete went after her physically. Dick stepped in. Pete wanted to fight him. He wanted to fight his mother. He wanted to fight anybody. "He was foaming at the mouth," says Dick. "It was terrible, horrible." When things finally quieted down, Pete and his father went out for cigarettes.
"I need help," Pete told his father in the car. The next day he checked into the $4,500-a-month White Deer center. Dick told everyone Pete had a sore wrist.
Pete's first postrehab tournament was the Greater Hartford Open in Windsor Locks, Conn. On opening day he addressed his fellow bowlers in the locker room. He told them where he had been and asked them not to invite him out for drinks. They gave him a standing ovation. Since then he has won four tournaments, and this year he has a good chance of catching Aulby and even of breaking Earl Anthony's earnings record of $164,735.
Those around the PBA tour watch Weber warily, one admiring eye on his incredible talent, one jaundiced eye on his penchant for messing up. "His problems will never be behind him," says Rich Weber. "Yes, I worry about him. I worry about the people he bums around with. There is some real scum out there."
Even Pete remains skeptical. "There's no way I can say I'll never drink again. There's no way I can say I'll never get high again. But things are the way they should be now. Dee Dee and I are happy. I have a beautiful daughter. I'm closer to my parents than I've ever been. Bowling is my life. It's all I ever wanted to do."
Pete has dreams. He wants to surpass his father's 27, then go after Anthony's record 41 victories. After that he sees himself as a big-time bowling proprietor, just as Dick was.
"I can see the place now," says Pete, sitting on the couch in his modest Florissant home, which is within walking distance of his parents'. "It'll be around St. Louis somewhere. Big. Game room. Maybe a nice restaurant. And the family would run it. Rich, John, Paula, Dad and me. Maybe Dad and I would have to put up most of the money to begin with, but it wouldn't matter. It would be our family. I even have a name for it. Weber's Bowling Palace. How's it sound?"
Sounds nice. Every First Family, after all, should have its own palace.