Alley Cat

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

Emil Williams Jr.

First Frame: Emil Williams Jr.'s two favorite athletes are Michael Jordan and Walter Ray Williams Jr. (no relation).

Both men rank among the dominant historical figures of their sports. Jordan, obviously, is the lissome basketball star with the billion-dollar smile. Having parlayed his on-court efforts into international celebrity, His Airness remains just about the world's most popular athlete and corporate pitchman, even in retirement, which he occupies by gambling, golfing, smoking expensive cigars and gambling on the golf course while smoking expensive cigars.

Walter Ray, meanwhile, is a husky, bearded white man in his forties who has been the most consistently dominant bowler on the Professional Bowlers Association tour for a very long time. With his next victory, he'll join Earl Anthony atop the PBA's all-time tournament win list with 41. (Legendary St. Louis bowler Dick Weber won 26 tourneys, which ranks seventh all-time; Weber's son, Pete, still active, ranks fourth with 31.) When he's not driving his RV to tournaments in backwater towns with his plain-looking wife, Paige, Walter Ray pitches horseshoes -- he's a six-time world champ -- in sleepy Ocala, Florida. On tour, he doesn't drink or smoke and makes himself Oscar Mayer sandwiches in his camper's dining nook.

Imagine Michael Jordan fixing a bologna sandwich in a Winnebago kitchenette. Suffice to say, Walter Ray and MJ inhabit such opposite poles of existence that a Petri dish merger of their DNA strands couldn't possibly take.

And yet, as he lugs a heavy jock bag into St. Charles Lanes on a muggy Friday afternoon, 21-year-old Emil Williams Jr. appears to be the pair's long lost in vitro love child.

"I don't know what it is about Walter Ray -- he's just so dominating," says Emil (which he pronounces eh-meel), his chocolate-color skin partially covered by denim shorts, an oversize white T-shirt and an unscuffed pair of Air Jordans. "But I'm tellin' you: Mike rules our lives."

Second Frame: Like Mike, Emil "has a pretty good jump shot," says his father, Emil Sr. With a cornrowed coif, twin stud earrings and a long (six-foot-three), lanky (150 pounds) frame, Junior certainly looks the part of a two-guard. And as a native Chicagoan, he didn't just jump on No. 23's bandwagon. Reared primarily in the dodgy Austin neighborhood on the city's west end, Emil spent much of his adolescent years on the north side at Lane Tech, the largest public high school in Illinois, located within walking distance of Wrigley Field. But Emil's a dyed-in-the-wool White Sox fan, betraying an allegiance to Dad's south-side roots.

Emil admires Sox announcer Ken Harrelson, which plays into his aspirations as a broadcast-journalism major at little Lindenwood University in St. Charles, an obscure sports juggernaut that captured seven national intercollegiate titles in events ranging from roller hockey to skeet shooting -- in the 2004-05 school year alone.

Of those seven, the title earned by the men's bowling team was unarguably the longest shot. Seeded fourteenth out of sixteen teams at the April finals at the Cherry Bowl in Rockford, Illinois, Lindenwood's Lions rolled through national powerhouses Wichita State and Morehead State in a best-of-seven series before upsetting top-ranked Fresno State in the best-of-three finale.

"Everything to gain and nothing to lose: That's a powerful tool in any sport," says Wichita State coach Gordon Vadakin, whose men's and women's teams have won seven titles apiece since bowling made its competitive debut in the college ranks in 1975. "That's what happened at that tournament. And that format lends itself to that sort of thing happening."

"That format" is the Baker format, in which teams send out a lineup of five bowlers, each of whom rolls two frames per game in sequence, rotating with their opponents on the adjacent lane. Conceived 30 years ago by Frank Baker, the format was intended to make bowling "more TV friendly," says Mark Miller, editorial manager for the United States Bowling Congress (USBC), the national governing body for amateur adult and youth bowlers in the United States.

Hurtling around like football players and ditching the monochrome polo scheme favored by their competitors for open-collared polyester shirts with blue flames, the underdog Lions breathed a freshness into College Sports Television's title telecast that the sport hadn't seen since the advent of the Baker format, if ever. Setting the tone with twinned strikes at the onset of each tilt in Lindenwood's two-game sweep was Emil, the Lions' lead-off bowler.

"You want a lead-off bowler who's consistent and never gets down," explains Emil, dubbed "The Human Firecracker" by teammate Ryan Reid. "If somebody strikes in front of you, you've got to strike too. Momentum is key."

"He's an emotional leader," says Andre Parker, a fellow African-American and Chicagoan who's Emil's roommate and best friend on the team. "If the team's bowling bad, he always has something good to say, either through his words or a strike or split conversion."

Third Frame: There are currently zero African-Americans on the PBA's national tour, where the likes of Walter Ray Williams Jr. and Pete Weber duke it out weekly at tournaments in Trussville, Alabama; Taylor, Michigan; and Uncasville, Connecticut, for first-place checks in the $30,000 ballpark.

"I've got black bowlers who bowl in the regional program periodically, but for some reason not a lot of them have pursued the big tour," says John Weber, a former touring pro who now manages the PBA's Midwest Region and who also happens to be Pete's brother and Dick's son. "I don't know what we can do. It's there for them, just like it's there for everybody else."

In the PBA's 47-year lifespan, only two black bowlers, George Branham III of Indianapolis and North Carolinian Curtis Odom, have mounted sustainable careers on the big tour. Active until a few years ago, Branham and Odom were pro bowling's equivalent of Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete in golf. But so far there has been no tenpin Tiger Woods.

Emil Williams Jr. aims to change that.

"I don't just want to make it," he says. "I want to be consistent and win, like, 30 tournaments."

His mentor back in Chicago, a 34-year-old pro shop operator named William Clark, hopes Williams has the juice to do it.

"It'd be nice to see him put a face on the map for someone of color to be in the PBA ranks," says Clark, who works at River Rand Bowl in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. "It's long overdue. There're a lot of black bowlers, but for whatever reason they have a tendency as far as professional sports to go elsewhere."

Until three years ago, Clark -- a scratch bowler who regularly competes for cash in USBC-sanctioned tournaments as far south as Louisiana and Texas -- ran the pro shop at Waveland Bowl, a 24-hour bowling center located across the street from Lane Tech. One day during his sophomore year, Emil visited Clark's pro shop between classes and asked him to drill a thumbhole for a ball he'd just purchased. Clark did it for free, and the two began a conversation -- often highly technical -- that continues to this day.

"Emil was just inquisitive," says Clark. "We worked on his approach and his ball swing and bowling in different lane conditions: Depending on how they distribute the oil, you may have to play a different area of the lane."

Emil's ball bag grew larger and more sophisticated. Most social bowlers make do with one ball; a league bowler might employ two -- with one reserved for spares, like a putter. Emil takes the golfing parallel several degrees further: He carries with him, at all times, six different balls.

"This ball revs up early, this ball is made for dry lanes," he explains, scanning his arsenal. "You've got smooth, arching balls; and you've got balls with different drillings and layout.

"When you get to this level, bowling is very complicated."

Fourth Frame: "'Bowling is shit' aren't the first words that come out of a baby's mouth," says Steve Miller, a PBA director who recently stepped down as the organization's president and CEO. "Somehow they're taught that."

A former Nike marketing executive, Miller makes that quip near the beginning of A League of Ordinary Gentlemen, a recently released documentary that chronicles life on the road during the 2002-03 PBA tour. Focusing on four bowlers -- Walter Ray Williams Jr., Pete Weber, up-and-comer Chris Barnes and has-been Wayne Webb, the movie illustrates just how hard it will be for the sport's upper echelon to regain the respect of the American sporting public.

Throughout the film, Miller, the PBA's commissioner at the time, is constantly obsessed with image, watching live events on ESPN in the bar rather than the bleachers. In a once-mellow, dignified sport that frowned upon overt displays of emotion and played up its everyman appeal, Miller implores his bowlers to whoop it up between throws and has them introduced Super Bowl-style before each tournament's final rounds, slapping fives with fans and gesturing garishly at the camera. Paradoxically, he also wants them to project themselves as legitimate athletes, going so far as to ban smoking and drinking on the job.

With the exception of Weber -- who seamlessly morphs into the crotch-chopping, smack-talking alter ego "Pee-Dee-Dubya" during national telecasts -- these histrionics seem a bit forced. When Walter Ray's not making bologna sandwiches, Pee-Dee-Dubya's chain smoking, Barnes is feeding formula to his infant son, and Webb's pounding Budweiser pin-necks and DJ-ing karaoke in the bowling-alley lounge after an early exit from the biggest tournament of the year, held in a grimy Motown suburb that makes downtown Detroit look like the French Riviera.

True-blue jocks? Not exactly.

That said, in a nation that has summoned Pabst Blue Ribbon, Pumas, mesh hats and upturned collars (what's next, the Pontiac Fiero?) from the pop-culture scrap heap, the very anti-image the PBA is trying to shed is striking a chord among hipster ironists. Supper club-discotheque hybrid Lucky Strike Lanes at St. Louis Mills is one of fourteen franchises to open since the chain's Hollywood flagship debuted (with a strict dress code) in May 2003. Joe Edwards' local boutique Pin-Up Bowl -- favored by the Strokes, Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, Liz Phair and Nelly (high game: 257), among others -- has proven so successful that the Delmar impresario plans to open a similar venue at 1113 Washington Avenue downtown, to be called Flamingo Bowl.

"I always thought it'd be a good idea to have a really good martini bar that happened to have eight lanes for bowling," Edwards says of Pin-Up, which hosts a midnight league for service-industry professionals. "People are serious about trying to win -- until the third martini."

Fifth Frame: Swapping his Air Jordans for a pair of Dexter bowling shoes at St. Charles Lanes, Emil Williams Jr. slowly emerges from a plastic-backed chair and retrieves one of his six balls from the carousel.

For a guy nicknamed the Human Firecracker, Emil's pre-shot deliberations are breathtakingly dainty. Before bearing down at the top of the lane, he performs a slight rightward torso wiggle to set himself. Between the third and fourth steps of his leisurely five-step approach, his long, skinny right arm begins its high backswing.

While just about every bowler of Emil's caliber puts some sort of English on the ball, Emil favors silk-smooth precision over big thundering benders. He's not deeply concerned with rolling strikes, so long as he puts himself in position for a relatively easy spare conversion.

"Spares are the most important thing in bowling," he maintains. "And single-pin spares are like free throws. You just don't miss them."

Uncharacteristically, he leaves three frames open in his first game to accompany a single strike, charting a mediocre 156. This he chalks up to rust, what with his obligations as a student residential advisor occupying just about all his time during move-in week at Lindenwood.

"It's been a while," Emil concedes. "It takes the first few frames to get loose."

He begins his second game with a one-pin spare followed by a dreaded open frame, at which point he makes a slight adjustment and rattles off, in succession, a Brooklyn-side strike that he subjects to self-critique ("I missed a board or two left"), a spare, three more strikes, a spare, a strike, a spare and nine pins on his tenth-frame bonus ball ("I didn't carry," he remarks, referring to the still-erect tenpin) to finish with a respectable 203.

"Based on the first game, I wasn't getting the reaction I wanted," he explains. "So I changed balls and bowled straighter -- an arrow or two in."

Emil's third and fourth games are of PBA caliber, registering scores of 222 and 220, respectively. Open frames disappear almost entirely, as Emil rattles off an epic 25 straight fractions with either a strike or spare between the second frame of game two and ninth frame of game four, threatening his personal best of 30 close-outs in a row.

"I always knew I wanted to be a pro bowler, but I never thought I'd be as good as I am at this point in my career," says Emil, who plans to stay at Lindenwood for a fifth academic year, having transferred as a sophomore with four years of athletic eligibility intact. "College bowling is where it's at if you like bowling. I could watch it all day.

"If there was a bowling channel, I'd subscribe to it."

Sixth Frame: Until his sophomore year at Lane Tech, Emil's primary instructor was his father. A skilled league bowler who first got serious about the sport while serving on an army base in Germany, Emil Sr. had his progeny competing in a father-son league by age six.

"He got his first ball when he was, like, three," says Beverly Williams, Emil's mother. (She and Emil's dad are divorced but remain close.) "He loved that little ball. He's always had a passion for bowling; it just grew on him. I used to ask him if he ever stayed home -- he'd bowl seven days a week and then some."

Still does: During the season, which lasts from the first weekend in October through the end of April, Emil estimates he bowls up to 25 practice games per day.

"I could bowl all day, every day," he says -- and means it.

As a freshman at Lane Tech, Emil carried a 177 average. Once he began working regularly with William Clark, his average swelled to 222. As a junior in 2001, he won Chicago's citywide schoolboy title with a 220 average.

To put that in perspective, during the 2004-05 PBA campaign, Walter Ray Williams Jr. posted a league-high 227 average. Lane conditions in the college and pro ranks are considerably more challenging than in junior leagues -- Emil rolled a 190 average at Lindenwood last year in match play -- but Emil's admirers point to that period of rapid improvement as evidence that he has the chops and discipline to reach the show.

"I think he can make it," says Lindenwood's head coach, Randy Lightfoot, who spent thirteen years on the PBA tour before retiring to manage St. Charles Lanes, where Lion bowlers are given free practice privileges. "He's not a power player, but he can play many different angles. He and Andre [Parker] are the two hardest workers on the team."

Seventh Frame: Although they grew up separated by a mere half-hour's drive, Emil Williams Jr. and Andre Parker did not meet until Emil's freshman year at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, when the youth league where Emil was bowling disbanded and sent all its bowlers to Parker's league. They were on different teams, but Emil and Andre, a senior in high school at the time, became fast friends.

"They're inseparable," says Coach Lightfoot. "They're basically perfect kids."

"I'd call him my brother in an instant," adds Parker, who made the traveling squad to Rockford last spring as an alternate. "We were both brought up in the Baptist church [Emil's dad is a deacon], and we try to stay out of trouble. It would have been real easy to hang out with the wrong crowd, but those things -- drugs, gangs, things of that nature -- never appealed to me."

But bowling did.

"I had a few [black kids] over there who bowled, but Emil was the one who took to it the strongest," William Clark says. "I've found that due to economics, it's easier to pick up a basketball or football, because once you have those things it doesn't cost anything. Whereas with bowling equipment, a lot of kids can't afford some of those things."

Emil could -- with money he earned as a cashier at a Chicago Old Navy. He still works at Old Navy during summers and holidays, and at his father's wholesale grocery warehouse whenever he's home -- in order to pay off his green Dodge Durango, which, Emil says, "represents a lot of hard work."

"I try to teach him that whatever he's gonna do, he's gonna have to work at it," says Emil Sr. "'Cause ain't nobody gonna give him nothing in life."

Eighth Frame: When Tino DiFranco opened Normandy Lanes in 1960, his patronage was, to the best of his recollection, "100 percent white." The largest bowling alley in the state of Missouri with 64 lanes -- 32 to a side -- DiFranco's center, located in a Natural Bridge Road strip mall near the Lucas & Hunt intersection, is now called North Oaks Bowl.

The name on the marquee isn't the only recalibration: DiFranco's bowling alley now caters to a clientele that's "99 percent black."

"It really hasn't changed that much," the 76-year-old DiFranco observes. "Except we have different music in the jukebox now."

Born and raised on the Hill, DiFranco also owns a slice of Tropicana, the 52-lane Clayton behemoth. But North Oaks is his and his alone.

"League bowling is still a big part of our business," he says. "We've got one league here, the Chism League, that has 28 teams -- five to a team, with ages varying from 19 to 72. I think the blacks maybe take it more seriously than the whites."

That would be news to Andre Parker.

"When we first started bowling tournaments in the Midwest, me and Emil would likely be the only two black people in the bowling alley," Parker says. "All the time, we get that look. But once we start bowling and people see what we can do, everything's cool."

The sport's highest level pales by comparison. Bowling is far and away the nation's most popular recreational sport, with more than 70 million participants. Yet only 3 million people bowl competitively. Of that upper crust, the incentive to join the pro tour -- or even to turn pro -- is diminished by the fact that the league doesn't cover travel expenses or entry fees, which can cost a touring pro $2,000 or more per week. If a bowler doesn't advance past the qualifying round, he's lucky to break even (each bowler is guaranteed just $2,000 per tournament).

"People's lifestyles have changed over the last twenty years," says the PBA Midwest Region's John Weber. "I think it's harder for people to get away on the weekends to bowl. The other part is it's a bigger financial risk to bowl in even the PBA regional program than at smaller local events. Risk and reward: You've got to weigh it out, and some guys just can't afford the risk."

"The definition of a professional bowler is you have to belong to a professional organization," says U.S. Bowling Congress editorial director Mark Miller, whose organization sponsors frequent cash tournaments for adroit bowlers unwilling to take their show on the road (unsanctioned events also draw a fair share of weekend warriors). "But you can earn money if you aren't part of a pro organization. We call it the 'professional amateur.' That's the nuance of bowling."

In 2000 the PBA, once a Saturday-afternoon staple on ABC's Wide World of Sports, was rescued from pot-bellied extinction for a mere $5 million by a trio of Seattle-based Internet barons who purchased it lock, stock and ball bag.

Their first and most critical task: Reinvent the sport, which suffers from something of an image problem.

"I'm not a real big fan of Jim Rome, but he said bowling is the only competitive sport in existence where you gain weight while you're competing," says Bill Straub, head coach of the reigning NCAA women's bowling champion University of Nebraska Lady Cornhuskers. "It's the old pizza-and-beer thing. Some players may not adhere to that particular image, but if that's the perception on Wall Street, we have a problem.

"Bowling has such a monstrous image problem that it's not going to be front-page news," Straub goes on. "There's a perception that there's just not enough interest. A friend of mine just won a PBA senior tour event this past weekend in Florida, and he won $8,000. At the PGA senior tour event this weekend, the winner will take home more like $250,000."

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.

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.

"That's how I feel," Emil replies.

Tretter then calls on Brian Chase, a former teammate who's seated next to Emil. Chase tells the professor he's from upstate Pennsylvania (something of a recruiting pipeline for the Lions).

"How'd you like the way the Cardinals beat up on the Pirates last night?" Tretter asks playfully.

"I'm not a baseball fan," replies Chase.

"I am," volunteers Tretter. "I'm baseball, hockey, football -- whatever."

Quietly but audibly, Emil Williams Jr. drops a hint:

"What about bowling?"

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.