Jackie Joyner's basketball career at UCLA is over. And it has been years since John Elway thumbed his nose at George Steinbrenner and months since Bo Jackson spurned the Tampa Bay bucks. That leaves Walter Ray Williams Jr. as perhaps the top two-sport athlete in the nation.
If you haven't heard of Williams, don't be surprised. You won't find his name in your book of "Who's Who in Athletics." His sports are bowling and horseshoes, two long-standing passions of middle America, blue-collar activities better illustrated by Norman Rockwell than LeRoy Neiman.
Both games require accuracy and. Williams says. "The arm swing [in each! is similar." But the games are also different in that horseshoes plays the role of country cousin to the more urban pastime of bowling.
Williams, who is 27, does not fit the stereotypes of either game, being neither a hayseed nor a city slicker. "When people hear that I pitch shoes and that my nickname is Deadeye," he says, "they expect to meet some 60-year-old guy." Others hear horseshoes and the double first name, Walter Ray, and they assume he hails from the rural South. Williams is from California, born in San Jose and now living in Stockton. "I didn't grow up on a farm and I don't even like horses." he says.
As for bowling, at 6'2" and 160 pounds, Williams hardly shares the bowling-ball physique of America's most famous participants, Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone. And unlike either of those gentlemen, Williams has a physics degree from Cal Poly-Pomona and is more likely to be found in his motel room designing a horseshoe scoring program on his computer than in a bar knocking back a few cold ones.
When Williams packed up his five world horseshoe titles and joined the Professional Bowlers Association in 1980 there were many skeptics who doubted his motives, not the least of whom were his fellow bowlers.
"I'm sure all of us felt he didn't have a chance," says Dick Weber, a Hall of Fame bowler. "He has a very unorthodox style. He's herky-jerky going to the foul line. But he does one thing right: He gets the ball in the pocket."
And the ball in the pocket has meant money in the pocket. Last year Williams led the tour with $145,550 in earnings and nine top-five finishes. He won three tournaments and finished third in average with 213.8 pins a game. Three months ago he was named 1986 Bowler of the Year by both his fellow bowlers and the nation's bowling writers. This year he's doing well again, having beaten Marshall Holman in February to win the $150,000 PBA tournament in Miami. Through the middle of March he had won $51,410 and was fifth on the PBA money list.
Laurels and triumphs notwithstanding. Williams would never have become a serious bowler if he could have earned a living pitching horseshoes. But in 10 years of professional pitching he has made only $30,000, which is a good deal less than Dwight Gooden earns per start. So, after Williams won his first men's world horseshoe title in 1978, he turned his focus to bowling, a sport in which he had dabbled with above average success in high school.
In the summer of '79, the confident neophyte boosted his average from 170 to 200. "They made the lanes easier [by changing the oil pattern]," Williams says, "and I improved." A year later he joined the PBA and played in local and regional events. He still needed time, however, to grind out his senior thesis, a 60-page opus entitled "The Physics of a Bowling Ball." The paper received an 'A', but Williams cautions, "It's not going to make anyone a better bowler."