So I was sitting on the couch trying to find a second NFL game to watch on my picture-in-picture set up last Sunday when I stumbled upon bowling on ESPN. I was about to switch the channel to one of the Sunday Ticket games on DirecTV when I noticed a familiar face on the screen.
It was my friend Tom Smallwood, 36, bowling in the Professional Bowlers Association Scorpion Championship in Las Vegas.
It actually wasn’t that shocking to see T.J., as his friends and family refer to him, bowling on TV. Not since he became a media darling in 2009 when the then-32-year-old shocked the bowling world by winning the 2009 PBA World Championship.
He had been working on the assembly line at General Motors in Saginaw, Mich. before being laid off two days before Christmas in 2008. He’d gotten a steady job to support his wife and young daughter and never really tried to pursue a career as a pro bowler.
But the layoff gave him the opportunity to finally give a pro career a real shot. And he made history a year later by winning the biggest tournament on the PBA Tour. Reporters from across the country wanted to interview him, including me, which I did for the White Mountain Independent. His story also made Sports Illustrated, national newspapers, and network television. It was the kind of rags-to-riches story Hollywood loves.
In fact, Jack Black will play a man who gives up everything to become a pro bowler in an upcoming movie by Richard Linklater. Black would not confirm he will play Smallwood, but this is a story that needs to be told and indications are that the film will be based on his life. However, it’s possible he’ll play a character more like Pete Weber, one of the most successful and colorful bowlers in history. Weber battled alcoholism and has been married several times.
When I watched T.J. win the PBA World Championship four years ago, I immediately was interested in writing this can’t-miss feel-good tale. However, I didn’t have the kind of money he needed for his family and later received for the rights to his story.
T.J.’s older brother, Mike, and I have been good friends since we were kids. So I’ve known T.J. most of my life. He was quite the athlete as a kid. And he was obviously a standout on the lanes.
I knew he was still bowling professionally but I hadn’t seen much of T.J. on TV since his monumental victory four years ago. He’d been on ESPN several times, but hadn’t won again.
So, when I came across him on TV last Sunday, I immediately turned up the sound and starting watching. It was the semifinals and T.J. was trailing in the eighth frame. However, he rallied to tie it late 232-232 and force a roll off, which entails each bowler throwing one ball until someone wins.
T.J. went first and threw a strike. Josh Blanchard matched him, again, and again, and again. Finally, it ended. T.J. threw a fifth consecutive strike in the roll off and Blanchard came up short, ending the longest roll off in Tour history.
That sent T.J. onto the finals, where he had another dramatic finish to beat amateur Marshall Kent 221-216 for his second career PBA title.
If you’d like to see Smallwood bowl, he’s scheduled to be on ESPN again this Sunday at 11 a.m. local time in the PBA World Championship. He’s the No. 4 seed.