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.
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.