Alley Cat

Somebody forgot to tell Emil Williams Jr. that bowling is for fat, beer-guzzling honkies

Ninth Frame: Were it not for a transcript dispute during his recruitment, Emil Williams Jr. might be starting his senior year at Wichita State University, universally regarded as college bowling's equivalent to basketball's UCLA Bruins circa Alcindor and Walton.

Head coach Gordon Vadakin is the Shockers' John Wooden, and is regaled as such by school officials and private donors alike. Both Vadakin and his top assistant draw full-time salaries. The school just plunked down $100,000 worth of new lanes in its student center for the men's and women's teams to practice on, and Vadakin and his staff are allotted that same amount in annual scholarship money to lure the nation's top bowlers to south-central Kansas.

Mark Gilliland

"When you get to this level, bowling is very complicated," says Emil, whose six-ball arsenal gives him more in common with golfers than the martini-sipping hep cats who populate Pin-Up and its ilk.
Mark Gilliland
"When you get to this level, bowling is very complicated," says Emil, whose six-ball arsenal gives him more in common with golfers than the martini-sipping hep cats who populate Pin-Up and its ilk.

Like Wichita State, Lindenwood offers financial aid to its elite bowlers that covers roughly half of each student's $18,000 annual tuition.

"There are maybe 25 or 30 schools that offer scholarship money, but few at the level Lindenwood does," says Lightfoot, whose status is only part-time. "If you're a good bowler, you look for who's the best -- and scholarship money."

Lindenwood's men's and women's teams don't belong to the NCAA. Like Wichita State, both belong to the USBC's Collegiate Program, which does not prohibit undergrads from going out and making a little scratch at open tournaments when they're in need of book money. While Emil maintains a strict amateur status in order to earn additional tuition-specific scholarship money and remain eligible for the junior national team (a privilege he'll forfeit when he turns 22 next year), the Lions' top bowler, All-American Brian Valenta, occasionally bowls for cash at monthly Grand Prix Opens in the St. Louis area.

"Bowling is about the only sport that doesn't follow Webster's definition of pro versus amateur," notes Nebraska coach Bill Straub.

While that delineation is murky, another isn't: the gender stratification of bowling programs in the college ranks. On most campuses, one sex plays bitch, and it's not the one you think.

"We used to come back after winning a national championship and kids would say, 'Nebraska has a bowling team?'" recounts Straub, whose women's teams have won nine national titles (Cornhuskers men have captured two). "Those days are gone. The girl bowler is in the athletic dining room, elbow-to-elbow with the quarterback."

And the guys?

"Heck no -- and that's the norm," says Straub, who abandoned the men's program to focus on women in 2001. "There are some schools with pretty good men's teams that won't even acknowledge their existence."

The reason for this peculiar disparity: Title IX, the 1972 federal law that ensures equality of opportunity in education, which requires NCAA programs to invest, dollar for dollar, the same amount in women's athletics as men's.

"Almost every school in the country has a Title IX concern," says Straub, who bowled alongside Lightfoot on the PBA tour in the late 1970s. "You have to be 50-50 in terms of participation, scholarships and dollars spent. That's a very hard thing to accomplish.

"Some schools, rather than adding women's sports, drop men's sports instead," Straub goes on. "So in 1994 women's bowling was identified as an emerging sport that could eventually offset Title IX requirements."

Tenth Frame: In the sixth frame of the second game of Lindenwood's title match in Rockford, Emil's first ball sailed a little too high on the headpin, leaving him with a one-pin spare attempt to close out the frame.

He likens such scenarios to "Michael Jordan going 7 for 25 from the field and 15 for 16 at the line." In other words, 29 points is 29 points.

After converting that spare to give the Lions an all but insurmountable 21-pin lead with four frames to go, the Human Firecracker paused for a moment, pulled a silver chain from beneath his flaming blue bowling shirt and put the dog-tag portion of the necklace in his mouth, holding it there as he moseyed back to a congratulatory throng.

"Out comes the good luck charm," remarked CSTV commentator Brian Webber.

Emil's teammates followed with three consecutive strikes to ice a 218-176 victory and Lindenwood University's first national bowling title.

On the metal face of that good-luck charm is a hologram of Emil's late sister, Renae, who suffered a fatal asthma attack on Christmas Eve 2003 at her home in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She was 34, and left an 11-year-old daughter to her mother's care. Emil suffers from occasional asthma attacks, too, though not to the degree his sister did. But what her death has taught him is that idle time is no ally of vitality.

"I really want to do a whole lot: bowling, music [production] and broadcasting," says Emil, who frequently provides commentary for area high school football and basketball games on Lindenwood's radio station, KCLC (89.1 FM), as part of his major. "This year I'm gonna do a lot more play-by-play. A lot of people can do color; I like doing both."

On a Tuesday morning during the first week of school, Emil's American Lit instructor, Sue Tretter, asks him where he's from in front of the class. When he tells her Chicago, she replies that her daughter lives there.

"She came home, got a job but couldn't stand to stay in this one-horse town," says Tretter.

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