Laid-off autoworker cashes in on PBA dream
BY SHAWN WINDSOR
FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER
"Inside Edition” dropped by his house this week. ESPN asked that he drive to the nearest studio for a satellite hookup. Radio show requests continue to inundate him.
On Tuesday, a couple of Hollywood types told him they wanted his story, that it was a movie waiting to happen.
Can you blame them?
After all, Tom Smallwood chased and caught the American dream Sunday in Wichita, Kan., where he rolled a couple of strikes in the 10th frame to secure a World Championship, $50,000 and validation that he had found a place on the PBA Tour.
How many laid-off autoworkers end up there?
That improbable 12-month journey — from General Motors assembly line in Saginaw to bowling champ; Smallwood lost his job last December — is no doubt worthy of movie scripts and national TV interviews.
But that is only part of the story. For the journey began much further back, included a strong, tough-minded woman, and more than once involved risking money set aside to pay bills.
Payday on the lanes
Before he arrived at the 10th frame during the final round of the PBA's World Championships, before he stood before a few hundred fans and live TV cameras and a handful of family members who'd traveled from Michigan to see him, before he contemplated whether or not to reset the pins to give himself a few more seconds to breathe on the cusp of the biggest roll of his life -- before all that -- Smallwood had made a deal with his wife.
It was last June and Smallwood had been without steady work for nearly six months, since getting laid off at the General Motors factory in Saginaw where he bolted seat belts into trucks.
He'd told his wife, Jen Smallwood, that he'd spend the rest of the winter and spring looking for work; that if he couldn't find any, he would take a shot at the Tour Trials -- the Professional Bowlers Association's version of qualifying school. The school cost $1,500.
That was bill money. Money the Smallwoods didn't really have.
Tom had spent years running off to amateur tournaments. He'd earned money bowling in Las Vegas. He rolled on weekends or between jobs -- and layoffs. Over the course of a year, he won more money than he spent. Yet there were weeks he didn't earn back his entry fee, and a bill they'd plan to pay went unpaid.
"It was tough," Jen said. "Even when he had a job, he would risk his check for an (entrance) fee."
Those conversations weren't fun. She wanted to believe in her husband. He didn't want to give up on his dream. But at what point does reality set in?
In 2006, after almost six years of dating, Jen finally told him Tom he had to get a steady job if they were ever going to get serious.
"We can't get married until you do," she told him. "You've got to have a cushion. You've got to have a plan."
He found work at a metal fabrication plant in Saginaw that led to the GM gig. They married, bought a house and had a daughter, Hannah.
Smallwood was grateful for his new family, for his stable job and his home, but the lanes were still out there. He'd been bowling since he was 12. He won his first amateur tournament at 18 -- in Vegas -- and collected $10,000.
"I thought, 'This is gonna be the greatest thing in the world,' " he said.
The winning didn't last. He couldn't make consistent money, let alone find his way to the Tour. He came close. In 2003 he almost made it, but the PBA had spots for only 50 bowlers. He finished 53rd in a qualifying effort. It came down to the last tournament. His whole family was there.
"It was horrible," Smallwood said.
Worse even than the news he got two days before last Christmas, when GM cut him loose. At least that didn't feel like the end of a dream. Besides, Jen said, compared to many of her husband's co-workers -- men who had spent much of their factory lives heading one-income families -- the Smallwoods were lucky. Jen's job as a commercial scheduler for a local radio conglomerate paid the bills.
"I had been at the same company for nine years," she said. "We could at least stay afloat."
After losing his job, Smallwood diligently pursued more work -- as he had promised his wife. When early summer came and he had few prospects, he scrounged up the $1,500 Tour Trials entrance fee, packed the car and drove south to Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, the site of this year's qualifying school.
"I said to Jen: 'Hey, this is my last shot. If I don't make it I will quit. I will be done,' " Smallwood said.
Tour Trials are grueling. Contestants must bowl nine games a day for five straight days. Some 120 bowlers begin. Only eight make the PBA Tour.
Smallwood finished third. He was a 32-year-old rookie.
On tour in August, he quickly established himself, climbing to seventh in points entering the World Championships in Wichita.
In the semis he beat a former rookie of the year. In the finals he faced reigning player of the year Wes Malott. Entering the 10th frame, Smallwood trailed by three pins. Then Malott gave him an opening by failing to strike with his first ball.
When Smallwood stood to take his turn, all he needed was a strike and eight more pins. He thought about reracking the pins to buy time. Time to think, to breathe.
"I told myself: You've waited all your life for this."
Then he started his approach, reached back, and rolled true and perfect. Ten pins exploded. Now he needed only eight more. He rolled another strike just to be sure.
He floated. Scared he would wake up from this new reality, where he'd just won $50,000, his first professional title, a two-year exemption for the Tour, and a likely salary of mid-six figures for the next couple of years.
Two rolls, and his life had changed.
"I always knew I was good enough," he said this week, exhausted.
Now he knows for sure.Contact SHAWN WINDSOR at 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org.