Lost job drives Michigan bowler to new career

His alarm clock would sound at 3 a.m., and by 5:30, Tom Smallwood would have made the 90-minute drive through Michigan to the General Motors plant in Pontiac. He would assume his spot in the assembly line and wait for the next truck to roll by. He would bolt in the seat belts, make certain the most important safety feature of any automobile was secure and await the next one. He would do this for eight to 10 hours a day, for about 400 new trucks a shift.

He didn’t have a lot of time to contemplate other careers.

Until he didn’t have one.

"Here and there, I would think about it," Smallwood said. "I would think about never having much time to bowl. Then I was laid off.

"Then I knew it was basically going to be my last chance at it."

There have been few stories like this from the state hit hardest by our economic crisis, few times when a victim of the automotive industry’s plummeting existence discovered such a successful alternative to paying the monthly bills.

Smallwood this week was at Red Rock, where he failed to advance past the second round of the Professional Bowlers Association Tournament of Champions, where his improbable journey to competing among the world’s best players continued.

"These things can happen," Smallwood said. "It’s not a fairy tale."

It just reads like one.

He promised his wife six months. That is how long he would spend searching for employment to help support her and the couple’s young daughter once laid off from GM, how long he would wait before taking a deep breath, keeping a good thought and giving this bowling thing one last try.

Smallwood always could bowl. He was one of the country’s top amateurs with 80 perfect games. He also has pulled off the 7-10 split, which in bowling carries the odds of, say, Rex Ryan conceding defeat before kickoff in Indianapolis on Sunday.

But the dream was on life support at the PBA Tour Trials in 2008, when 97 bowlers gathered in Detroit to compete for eight one-year exemptions onto the regular tour. This was it for Smallwood.

He finished third. The dream lived.

You probably could end the story there and have a good feeling about it, but then the PBA World Championship arrived in December in Wichita, Kan., and the 10th frame of the final game was about to play out.

Wes Malott was a finalist. The Big Nasty. The reigning Player of the Year. The guy with six PBA titles and 24 top-three finishes and 29 TV finals appearances and more than $700,000 in career earnings. That guy.

The other finalist was a 32-year-old tour rookie who, not long before, had assumed his spot in the assembly line and waited for the next truck to roll by.

Smallwood stood there, nervous as all heck, wondering if he should stall by holding his hand over the blower, thinking back to all those 3 a.m. alarms, to the 90-minute drives through brutal weather, to all those job applications he had filled out and never once received a return call, to the irony of GM offering him his job back a day before this final round and him telling the woman on the other end that, well, he was about to bowl for a world title on television and would have to pass, to his wife and daughter, to how he got from there to here.

Then he stepped forward and bowled a strike.

"I was afraid at that moment I would wake up and none of it would have been true," said Smallwood, who earned $50,000 for his world championship win. "There are still so many unemployed autoworkers out there. There is a little hope things are picking up, that some plants are adding employees. But it is what it is. It’s very difficult.

"If someone had asked me more than a year ago to write my own story, there is no way I could have written it this well. I always felt I could compete at a high level. Whatever that meant, I wasn’t sure.

"If it all ends tomorrow, I’d consider it a great success. I’m not a 30-time winner. I maybe can win five, six, seven titles before I’m done. I can probably do this another eight to 10 years. But if it all ended, I would just go right back and find a job."

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on "The Sports Scribes" on KDWN-AM (720) and www.kdwn.com.

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