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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.