His feet, he says, were numb. His hands were shaking. His wife was petrified.
He stepped forward and rolled the ball.
This is a story about doing what you have to do—to survive, to endure, to thrive. Tom Smallwood comes from a place and a life as Middle American as his name. His father was a Michigan autoworker. Tom was also an autoworker. He put in seat belts on a General Motors assembly line. Then, in 2008—two days before Christmas—he was laid off.
“It was the first time I was ever fired,” he says. “It hurts.”
Smallwood applied for half a dozen jobs. Never got a response. What would he do? He was 31 and had a wife, a 1-year-old daughter, a mortgage.
And a bowling ball.
Now bowling, in normal times, is not considered an alternate means of employment. But these are not normal times, and Smallwood was out of options. When he was younger, he’d dreamed of being a pro bowler. He was very good and had won some tournaments. But once he passed his 30th birthday, he chose what he called “the guaranteed-income world.”
Only what is guaranteed anymore? Jobs we thought we’d always have are gone. Firms to which we pledged our allegiance disgorge us. Houses are lost. Neighbors disappear.
So Smallwood took his bowling ball and went to the lanes every day. He made a decision: If he didn’t have a job by May, he would try to qualify as a pro bowler.
He was still out of work.
So Smallwood entered the Pro Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour Trials, where wannabes attempt to make the circuit. Around 120 bowlers bowled nine games a day for five days. It was exhausting. But when it ended, Smallwood was in third place. He’d done it—qualified for a tour exemption, which meant a guaranteed spot and a minimum paycheck at each PBA event for a year. His family cheered, and he almost cried.
“It was like someone said, ‘Congratulations, you got a new job,’” he recalls.
And thus did Tom Smallwood go from “unemployed autoworker” to “former autoworker turned professional bowler.”
If the story ended there, it would serve a purpose, proof that new vines can swing within reach, that careers can change direction. But let’s go back to where we began, to the numb feet and shaking hands and Tom’s wife, Jen, holding her breath. Because sometimes good stories have even better endings.
This was in Wichita, Kan., in December. The PBA World Championship. Smallwood had driven there in his Chevy Impala. (“Yeah, I still drive a GM, even though they got rid of me,” he laughs.) From the start, he bowled great. And now he was one of the last two bowlers left. The other was the reigning PBA Player of the Year, a tall Texan named Wes “Big Nasty” Malott.
Final frame. National TV. Smallwood needed one strike and at least seven more pins to win. He threw a strike with his first ball. Then, fighting his pounding heart—“I don’t think it’s possible to be more nervous”—he stepped forward, rolled again…
Well, you can guess the rest. All 10 pins went down. The announcer screamed, “Dreams do come true!” And Smallwood-—a year after the worst Christmas of his life—had something special for this year’s tree: the PBA World Championship and a $50,000 check, more than he’d ever earned in any year in any “conventional” job.
“I know I’m really fortunate,” he says. “Not everyone can pick up a bowling ball and win. But if I was still working at GM, there was no way I’d have even attempted this.
“Getting laid off was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. But it led to the best result.”
There’s a lesson here. This new decade may be the one in which Americans learn to reinvent themselves. If so, Tom Smallwood has set an inspiring example.
By the way, not too long ago, GM called and offered him his job back.
He said, “No thanks.”
I told you it was a good story.