From 1968 to 1975, Schlegel's life, on and off the lanes, was filled with 7-10 splits. During those years he averaged only $11,830 in tour earnings, his first marriage, which had lasted five years, ended in 1973, and most of his five major auto accidents came during this unhappy period. Also in 1973, while bowling in Los Angeles, Schlegel let a friend borrow his car. The police stopped the friend for a minor traffic violation and later ran the serial number through a computer. Back came the news: stolen car.
"The police came to the lanes, said my car was stolen, slapped me in handcuffs and took me to jail," Schlegel says. He was freed only when the police learned that his car, a rebuilt junker, had mistakenly been left on the "hot list" by the insurance company.
Other woes weren't so easily dispatched. A pulled hamstring ruined '74 for Schlegel, and in '75 his game fell apart. The end of Schlegel's PBA career seemed imminent. Then in August of 1976 he met Cathy DePace in Detroit and his luck changed. Four months later they were married.
By then, Schlegel had been on the tour for eight years and had pretty well toned down his image as bowling's flashiest dresser and most flamboyant performer—but he was still one of its more notable losers. He had played in 202 tournaments and failed to win a single one.
But with Cathy on the tour to inspire him, Schlegel won $43,362 in 1976—almost as much as in the previous three years combined. That year also marked the birth of a notion: Ernie dubbed himself the Bicentennial Kid. During the five-man PBA TV finals in Baltimore, he wore a Bicentennial outfit Cathy had made—white shirt with long, billowing sleeves and red-and-blue sparkles, and white pants decorated with silver stars. Says Schlegel, "It was somethin'."
The patriotic costume notwithstanding, Schlegel lost the tournament, adding to his reputation as "the greatest non-champion in PBA history." The word on the tour was that he choked in big matches, outthought himself and looked for excuses for losing.
Late in 1976, John Mazzio, an avid bowler and a self-styled psychologist who had met Schlegel a few months earlier, offered a hand. "I told Ernie I had studied a lot of psychology," Mazzio says. "His temper was phenomenally bad. I said to Ernie, 'Let me help you.' "
Mazzio has worked intermittently with Schlegel ever since, as his "mental-game adviser." In 1977, Schlegel earned $28,426, though he still didn't win a tournament. "John told me to work on my weakest point, which I felt was my smoking, and to make it a strength. John said if I could do that, I could do anything. At 3 a.m. on March 21, 1978, I had my last cigarette."
Later that same day Schlegel called Don Heimbigner of Vancouver, Wash., a manufacturer of bowling grips (plastic inserts for the finger holes in a ball). The grips keep the fingers from getting sore and give a bowler more lift on his shots. Schlegel used the grips in '78, and when his game showed immediate improvement, he says, "I thought I was on to something big because they weren't being promoted right. So I called Don and said, 'I'll sell a million.' He laughed."
Cathy, Mazzio, the Heimbigner grips—they all helped. Schlegel won $36,583 in 1978 and $29,935 in 1979. But still no wins on the PBA tour. Then came 1980. After leading throughout four days of qualifying at a January tournament in Anaheim, Schlegel needed only one win on TV to notch his first title. He lost to Gary Dickinson 217-198.