THE REMARKABLE STORY OF TOM SMALLWOOD could be told as a modern fairy tale, so maybe we should begin with a brave wooden soldier: a 10-pin that wobbles but stands tall after a bowling ball slams into his mates and sends them scurrying. The violence of the crash (not to mention the infernal racket) might make lesser pins faint, but not this one, all 15 lathed inches of him.
You see, sometimes a legend can rest on nothing more substantial than the base of a bowling pin. If a swaying 10-pin topples on Wes Malott's first ball in the 10th frame 12 days before Christmas—and if Smallwood does not throw four late consecutive strikes to close out the PBA World Championship—an unemployed General Motors factory worker never becomes a bowling prince.
Now there are perfectly good reasons why someone who 355 days earlier had been laid off from a $16-an-hour job installing seat belts in Chevy Silverados would upset the reigning PBA Player of the Year to win the big title, $50,000 and a two-year tour exemption. Smallwood was out of work—this is indisputable—but he also had spent a season on the pro tour five years earlier and had continued to pursue a relatively lucrative career as an "amateur bowler" before requalifying for the 2009--10 tour. On Dec. 13 he did not simply finish a series in his men's league, gulp a light beer, amble over to lanes 23 and 24 and beat Malott, the Big Nasty, in one of bowling's four majors; this was not, Malott drily notes, Smallwood's first rodeo. So the headlines that dragged a modest man to the margins of the national sporting conversation, all variations on UNEMPLOYED AUTO WORKER IN BOWLING SHOCKER, should, in the interest of accuracy, have read EXPERT BOWLER WHO FOUND SOME UNSCHEDULED PRACTICE TIME WINS CHAMPIONSHIP. The real tale of Tom Smallwood (a plucky name that does sound as if it were lifted from a bedtime story) does not so much suspend disbelief as bench it for a couple of minutes.
March 14, 2010
But to latch on to the physics—oil patterns and lane reads and all manner of arcane bowling stuff—rather than the metaphysics of our fairy tale is to miss the significance of the 32-year-old who suddenly owns the spotlight in America's blue-collar ballet. Since being handed an unemployment slip at the Pontiac East Assembly Plant two days before Christmas 2008 (he can't remember if the slip was actually pink), Smallwood has gone from an auto-industry statistic to modern-day Michigan fable.
The obdurate 10-pin rocked gently in an alley in Wichita, Kans., but Smallwood had qualified for the four-man PBA World Championship final more than three months earlier at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, 11 miles from Detroit's Metro Airport and an 80-minute drive from Smallwood's home in Saginaw. Smallwood was also pounding strikes at Thunderbowl when he earned his PBA card at the Tour Trials in May and made his first pro final in November—"the TV show," bowlers call it. A woman at the General Motors jobs bank called the day after Thanksgiving to say there might be something for Smallwood, but he said, with all due humility, No, thanks, I've got a new job, and you can watch me do it on ESPN on Sunday. She didn't quite grasp all of that and passed the phone to a woman next to her. The second woman understood. She was a bowler. Of course. Metro Detroit, with nearly 70,000 U.S. Bowling Congress--certified members, is the epicenter of U.S. bowling.
"After he won in Wichita, a couple came up to me and said they were from Michigan and both worked in the GM plant in Lansing," says Jen Smallwood, Tom's wife. "They said they'd been following his bowling ever since he worked at GM. There's been a lot of support from the GM family for Tom. He took something so negative and turned it into a positive. This is what people are holding on to, I think."
Tom Smallwood changed one life, not the lives of the tens of thousands of autoworkers who have lost their jobs. One man won't make a dent in the staggering 13.6% state unemployment rate or reopen the Pontiac East Assembly Plant that shuttered four months ago and turned yet more people into numbers.
Maybe you don't believe in fairy tales, but so much of Smallwood's improbable rise is swaddled in once-upon-a-time America—when Chevrolet ruled the highways and the insistent rumble of pins in bowling alleys was the bass line of the nation's sound track—how can his story be anything else?
HE LOOKS LIKE THE MAN behind you in the checkout line. Smallwood wears an old-timey brush cut, strains to rise to his official PBA height of 5'6" and carries a spare 25 pounds around his middle, which is not good for his knees when he's delivering a 15-pound bowling ball or climbing in and out of truck cabs. Before he became an inspiration, he did something called "first pass in trim" at Pontiac East, the GM factory once known as Pontiac Truck and Bus. The shell of a Silverado would roll down the line, naked except for a little padding for the carpet. Smallwood would duck in and twist three small screws by hand into a seat-belt bracket. Then he would lean out of the cab, grab the dangling air gun and tighten the screws. There are not many places in the U.S. where you work a legitimate 60 minutes in an hour—no office gossip, no walking around the desk to gather your thoughts or stretch your legs—but the assembly line is one. From 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., sometimes later if Smallwood could draw overtime, it was grab, twist and shoot. Four hundred trucks times three screws equals 1,200 leg-searing, mind-numbing, soul-sucking, mortgage-paying screws a day.
Jeff Grego says there seemed to be two Tom Smallwoods. Grego, who worked 150 feet from Smallwood at Pontiac East and first met him in junior bowling, says that at work Smallwood seemed to shrivel. At play, with a ball cocked in his right hand, he would square his shoulders and walk a little taller.
If you live on Michigan's I-75 corridor, you probably have a connection to GM. Smallwood guesses that half the households from Detroit to Bay City depended on the company for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly. He comes from good GM stock. His father, Dennie, put in 43 years, mostly building V-6 engines at a Chevy plant in Flint. His father-in-law, Tom De Veaux, was GM. Tom Smallwood's brother, Mike, was in Pontiac East and referred Tom for the job he finally landed two springs ago, probably the optimal position a man in his situation could have had other than a spot on the pro bowling tour. Solid pension. Decent money. Although he awoke at 3 a.m., rarely returned before five in the afternoon and went to bed at eight, this was the best thing for Jen and their daughter, Hannah Rose, now 2½ years old. Tom was making $3 an hour more than at the metal shop in Saginaw where he had worked for more than three years. GM's $16 an hour might turn into $27 in five years. Smallwood might be able to transfer to a plant closer to home, in Flint or even Saginaw. And the plant offered two-week furloughs at slow times. If he could grab one in January, he would take off for Las Vegas to bowl.
Ever since Tom was a toddler and his mom and dad took him to Colonial Lanes in Flushing, Mich., for Sunday-night mixed league—"We didn't believe in babysitters," Dennie says—he was enthralled by the sport. He was engaged by the satisfaction of a properly thrown strike, intrigued by the simple metrics that defined achievement in bowling. He played other sports in their seasons but always came back to bowling, because at the lanes nobody cared about your height or how many miles your fastball clocked. The only number that counted was at the end of the 10th frame. Smallwood attended Saginaw Valley State University but soon dropped out. He was going to be a bowler.
There was money in it, too. He went to Las Vegas as a 19-year-old for his first high-roller amateur (i.e., non-PBA) tournament, and won almost $10,000 on the second day. If you could ante up an entry fee and hook a ball into the pocket with the repetitive skill and focus of a GM worker installing seat belts, you would eat. Smallwood guesses he made at least $200,000 as an amateur in 12 years. Back home he would bowl for $800 to $4,000 on weekends. Even in lean years he would pocket an extra $10,000 or $15,000.
Smallwood rolled so well in regional events that he qualified for his PBA tour card in 2003--04. This was his first rodeo—and, well, he fell off the bronco. He scuffled through 19 of 20 events, missing cuts. He needed to be in the top 50 to make the all-exempt tour for the following season. He says he choked. He finished 53rd. Jen, a commercial scheduler for a group of radio stations around Saginaw, told him she was in no rush to marry a man who was not bringing home a regular paycheck.
Tom landed the job in the metal shop, then left for GM in the spring of 2008. Meanwhile he and Jen married and had a daughter. He would be a workingman and amateur bowler, at least until life and the economy intervened.
STATE LANES, IN SAGINAW TOWNSHIP, is just down State Street from Global Tan and a few blocks from a lawyer who advertises the Bay Area Bankruptcy Clinic. State Lanes celebrated its 50th anniversary last September. It is half bowling center, half Thirsty's Sports Pub. There are pastel-colored seats, yellowed ceiling tiles, 24 lanes and decades of secondhand smoke that clings to tables, booths and the leather love seats in the clubby seating area. The cover of US Bowler magazine with a picture of Tom Smallwood that hangs on one wall is dated October 2009. The ambience is October 1962.
"It's the home of the Friday-night $1 beer—that's our slogan," Ann Doyle says. In this bedtime story, Ann is Smallwood's fairy godmother and her husband, Steve, his fairy godfather. The Doyles, who have owned State Lanes for a year, are business people but also neighbors. When Smallwood, a State Lanes men's league regular, lost his GM job, and his applications at Lowe's and The Home Depot weren't yielding results, they let him practice. Free.
"I figure I cost them $250 to $300 a week in lane time," Smallwood says. The Doyles put him on the far left lanes, away from the leagues and the open bowlers. He usually practiced in the afternoon—after rising daily before dawn he was no longer a morning person. Occasionally he would request a particular oil pattern for his lane, but the only other sound coming from his direction was the tumbling of pins. Steps, cradle and release replaced the twist, grab and shoot of his old life.
In early May 2009 Tom and Jen decided to pay his $1,500 entrance fee to the Tour Trials—his last chance, Smallwood swears, to roll for his PBA card. He could have had a sponsor front the entry fee, but then he would have had to share his earnings if he made it back on tour. The couple viewed the entry fee not as an expense but as an investment in their future, something more solid than GM stock. Of 97 bowlers who entered the 45-game trials last May, only the top eight would make the tour. Smallwood finished third.
When he won the PBA World Championship, his fairy godmother, watching at home, screamed so loudly that it scared the Doyles' dog, which wouldn't come near her for an hour. Smallwood's fairy godfather was glued to a TV at State Lanes, where league play screeched to a halt as bowlers gathered to watch one of their own. When Smallwood struck out in the 10th to win 244--228, the roar was so loud that Steve Doyle was surprised it didn't carry to Kansas.
So Smallwood's new life began in earnest. Radio interviews. Inside Edition. ESPN. "Surreal," Jen says. "I can't believe I'm married to a professional athlete." In early January her husband dumped 25 balls in the backseat and drove 35 hours nonstop to Las Vegas with fellow pro Brian Waliczek, stayed a night, then drove another nine hours to suburban San Francisco for a tournament. He then detoured to Los Angeles for a meeting about book and movie possibilities before returning to Las Vegas in a harrowing rainstorm for the PBA Tournament of Champions on Jan. 19--24. Smallwood was driving his 2008 Chevy Impala, but sometimes it seemed he made it to Vegas by falling down a rabbit hole.
ON HIS FIRST BALL in his first game at the Tournament of Champions, Smallwood leaves the 2-8-10 split. He does not believe in omens. He believes in "operator error."
Smallwood's story is no more peculiar than his bowling style. He begins his approach from the extreme right of the lane, then drifts, almost crablike, to the left as he nears the foul line. Instead of swinging the bowling ball in a pendulum, he cradles it as if he were carrying a football in the open field. He veers back to the middle and finally releases the ball from the right side of the lane, not far from where he began his five-step journey.
His power is generated by shoulder torque, not by the lever of a backswing. He throws essentially with the index and middle fingers of his right hand; only the tip of his thumb enters the hole.
Smallwood throws the ball at below-average speed for a PBA bowler. When a pin remains standing that he figures should have fallen, he regards it dolefully, as a parent might a disobedient child. He does not get angry after a poor game—that 2-8-10 leave balloons into a messy 153—well, at least not for more than a minute. He is, after all, bowling for a living.
"If you had given me a piece of paper on December 23, 2008, and asked me to write a story of myself, what I would have wanted to get done in the next year, I would never have written it this good," Smallwood says. "Tour Trials. Maybe make a TV show. Stay in the top 15 or 20 on the pro tour. Not this."
He has gone from American idle to American idyll, but not everything in a suddenly blessed life is perfect. Dennie and Tom's mother, Sharon, have driven 2,137 miles—Dennie is a man who tabulates those things—to see him in the Tournament of Champions, and Jen has flown in for the weekend. But Tom seems to be bowling uphill after that inauspicious start. He closes to 28th place, four off the cut line, with four preliminary games remaining, but he begins the next game with an open frame and then chops the 6-pin and blows a makeable 6--10 spare in the second. He is done right there. Before the last qualifying game he walks by Randy Rieck, a friend from home, and smiles as he says, "The forecast for tonight is spotty showers with a 100 percent chance of getting drunk."
In fairy tales people do live happily ever after, at least each in his own way.
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SMALLWOOD'S IMPROBABLE RISE IS SWADDLED IN ONCE-UPON-A-TIME AMERICA—WHEN CHEVROLET RULED THE HIGHWAYS AND THE RUMBLE OF PINS WAS THE BASS LINE OF THE NATION'S SOUND TRACK