When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go Bowling

Last Thursday evening a new sitcom debuted on CBS called How We Roll.

The only reason I knew this was because it was the cover story of my TV Weekly:

When I opened the magazine there was a story about How We Roll, and the first sentence began:

“In 2008, Tom Smallwood of Saginaw, Michigan…

That caught my eye, because I’m from Michigan.

In case you’re wondering, Saginaw’s population is around 47,500, and it’s located here:

I continued reading about How We Roll and learned that:

  • The TV show is based on a real person.
  • That person is an underdog – a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.
  • This underdog doesn’t stay an underdog.

These are a few of my favorite things.

I love true stories about underdogs, dark horses, longshots – whatever name we call them. 

They’re people – or in some cases, animals – whom everybody knows can’t make it to the top.

But they do.

It turns out that Tom Smallwood from Saginaw, Michigan (pictured) is just such a story.

You saw the TV Weekly cover above – the guy is holding a bowling ball.

Bowling is not an interest of mine, but I’ve been aware of it since I was a kid.  My brothers liked to bowl, at one time to the level of owning their own bowling balls and bowling shoes. 

I tagged along once, and remember those long, smooth wooden lanes, the heavy, dark balls landing on the wood with a loud thud, the rattle as the bowling pins split and scattered.

And the elation bowlers felt when all the pins fell on a first throw:

And the contortions bowlers go through in the process:

And the frustration when things don’t go well:

This bowler’s dad told him to get a regular job or he’d end up in the gutter.  Looks like his dad was right.

Over the years I came to understand that while I didn’t care for bowling, many people did, and do.  According to this article:

“Bowling is the number one recreational activity in the U.S.!  A recent study showed that 67 million people bowled at least once in the prior year.”

Another article said,

“According to The Bowling Foundation, more than 25 percent of Americans bowl each year, making it the nation’s largest participation sport.  Today, bowling is a $4 billion industry with nearly 3,000 bowling centers in the United States.”

And I’ve learned that bowling is big business – show business and money business. 

Show business:  One example – an article on 11thframe.com said “The 2020 PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) Tournament of Champions TV finals on FOX drew an average of 1,464,000 viewers…”

Money business:  According to this article:

The average top pro bowlers with PBA memberships “clear around $250,000 to $300,00 a year,” not including sponsorships.

Which brings us back to Tom Smallwood of Saginaw, Michigan.

Tom wasn’t earning his living bowling.  He liked to bowl and had since he was a kid.  He bowled in college, then in bowling leagues in and around Saginaw, and he dreamed of bowling professionally. 

But Tom was also a realist. 

His bio on Wikipedia says,

“Smallwood found a job at a metal shop since his then-girlfriend (now wife) Jennifer would not marry a man without a regular paycheck.  At age 30, Tom had decided he was ‘done’ with trying to be a full-time bowler.  He then got a job at the General Motors Pontiac East Assembly Plant in the spring of 2008.”

As this article put it:

“…he was able to get a job installing screws into seat belt assemblies on Chevy Silverados, twisting in 1,200 screws a day on 400 Silverados for $16 an hour.”

In 2008 Tom had a wife and a child and a job at GM.

On December 23, 2008 he was laid off from his GM job.

On December 13, 2009 he won the PBA World Championship:

As this 2010 Sports Illustrated article put it:

“From the assembly line to the unemployment line to the PBA championship”

Of course, Tom didn’t just hop from underdog to top dog.

Again, according to the Michigan Live article, after Tom lost his job:

“He sent resumes to Lowe’s and Home Depot.  While waiting for a response, Smallwood practiced [bowling] hour after hour, day after day at State Lanes in Saginaw, working his way toward the May PBA trials and hoping to finish in the Top 8 and earn a PBA exemption for the upcoming season.

“He was third.”

Of course I didn’t know what a PBA exemption was, so I looked online:

“Bowlers want to earn exemptions because it means they can bowl in all PBA events for the length of their exemptions without having to go through the Tour Qualifying Round (TQR).  An exempt bowler can pick and choose any PBA Tour events and is guaranteed a spot.”

I’m not sure I understand that, but there’s a lot I don’t understand about a sport where getting three strikes in a row is a “turkey,” four strikes in a row is a “four-bagger,” and a “boomer” is a bowler who throws a hooking ball.

Whatever that is.

Since that 2009 championship Tom, now 44, has three PBA Tour titles, two of which are majors.  He’s finished runner-up in two other PBA major championships and won more than $600,000.

And I’ve gotten two very strong impressions from the many articles I’ve read about Tom.

First:  The loving support Tom got – and continues to get – from his wife Jennifer is a huge part of why his dream came true.  I’m sure it helps that she’s a bowler, too – in fact, they “began their romance in a bowling alley,” according to this 2010 article:

It took time for Tom to qualify for that 2009 PBA World Championship, and then time to get to the event in Wichita, Kansas – driving, the article notes, “for 15 hours, with 31 bowling balls in his car.”

Tom came, he bowled, he conquered.

“For him to be an assembly worker,” said Jennifer, “and fall back on a talent that has been there and to work hard and have another door open for us – it’s wonderful.”

My second strong impression?

That after all the titles and wins and money and media coverage – and now, a TV show based on his success – Tom is still a modest, unassuming guy who doesn’t take his success for granted.  In the many articles I’ve read, he’s consistently, refreshlingly modest:

On winning that 2009 PBA World Championship:

“‘Every emotion you could possibly imagine went through my head.  [I] tried to fight back tears, I mean, because this is a dream.  I mean, to hold that trophy…it’s a dream come true.’”  – Michigan Live, December 14, 2009

In 2013, on winning the Scorpion Championship for his second PBA Tour title:

“‘I thought if I ever made another show and won, I’d bawl like a baby, but I was so emotionally drained, I didn’t have any emotions left.’

“‘It’s amazing.  I never dreamed in my life I’d have one (title), so to have two?  As a kid, all I ever wanted was a chance to be there.  I watched these guys on TV forever.’”  – BowlingDigital.com, 11/3/13

About his 2022 season:

“‘It’s been a so-so season so far.  I’ve been bowling OK, but there’s definitely room for improvement.”  – Michigan Live, March 29, 2022

Finally, here’s another great quote – this from the CBS description of How We Roll:

“Here’s the thing Tom Smallwood knows about bowling:  You get two chances.  No matter what you do with the first ball, you get another roll to make it right.  A story of the ultimate second chance…”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: