From Laid-Off GM Worker to Professional Bowler, Tom Smallwood Strikes It Big

Tom Smallwood was an autoworker with a dream, and passion to pursue it.

January 03, 2010, 4:43 PM

Jan. 3, 2010— -- Tom Smallwood was just a regular guy working on an automotive assembly line in a small town in Michigan.

But when he lost his job two days before Christmas 2008, he decided it was time to pursue his dreams -- and struck it big as a professional bowler.

Smallwood, 32, started bowling for fun when he was about 14 years old. He said although he wasn't good at the time, a few friends who also bowled drove him to get better. He eventually became an amateur bowler, bringing home trophies and amateur prize money, supplementing his income bolting in seatbelts.

Smallwood worked at a General Motors factory in Pontiac, Mich., supporting a young family. Two days before Christmas in 2008, like so many autoworkers in Michigan, he was let go.

"I have a 2-year-old, and a house and car payments," Smallwood told ABC News. "We couldn't just go find another job that paid the same amount. So it was tough."

So Smallwood made a deal with his wife Jen: He'd try for a year to make it as a pro bowler, and if that didn't work out, he would find another job.

"While he was looking for a job he said, 'I gotta start bowling,'" she told ABC News. "Well, that would mean taking some of any little income that we are getting and kind of gambling it, saying, 'Hey, I'm going to go bowl this tournament.' Well, that money was for a bill. So he always walks out the door and it's like, 'No pressure, but you better make some money.'"

Bowling was in his wife's blood, too. In fact, they began their romance at a bowling alley.

"I was bowling in a ladies classic league," she said. "Tom was bowling as well and we were just sitting across the table from each other and I actually had his phone number and just called him. ... I think I knew I was going to end up with a bowler, because I bowled myself, and you know, my family bowled."

Last summer, Smallwood scraped together $1,500 for the Professional Bowlers Tour qualifying school. The school was five days, nine games per day.

"Basically all my hopes and dreams were into that one week, because it's a once-a-year deal," he said. "You only get one chance a year."

Smallwood said he told his wife: "This is it, my last hopes, chance, dreams of ever doing this again."

Out of nearly 120 aspiring pros, only the top eight would make the cut -- and Smallwood was one of them. This qualified Smallwood as one of 58 in the world of "exempt bowlers" in the Professional Bowlers Tour, guaranteeing him a paycheck each week he bowled.

"It was basically the start of one of the dreams of my life, you know, to be an exempt bowler. It really was a huge deal to me and my family," he said.

Smallwood did well enough on the tour that he qualified for the world championships, in Wichita, Kan., last month. To get there, he drove for 15 hours, with 31 bowling balls in his car.

The raw rookie made it to the finals on Dec. 13, to face Wes Mellot, the reigning king of bowling and Professional Bowling Association's bowler of the year. In the 10th and final frame, Smallwood needed one strike to win.

"There is no greater pressure than being on live television, on ESPN, bowling for a world championship against the best bowler in the world and needing to strike," PBA Deputy Commissioner Tom Clark said.

At that moment, Smallwood said he told himself: "You've waited 32 years for this, make it count."

Smallwood made that strike, and won the world championship, 244-228.

"Every emotion you could possibly imagine went through my head. [I] tried to fight back tears, I mean, because this is a dream," he said. "I mean to hold that trophy ... it's a dream come true."

He received $50,000 in prize money and two years of guaranteed qualifying on the pro tour, meaning he is assured of a paycheck each week he bowls -- a deal that worked out for both Smallwood and his wife.

"For him to be an assembly worker and fall back on a talent that has been there and to work hard and have another door open for us -- it's wonderful," she said.

"I possibly could not have written a better story for myself. It's been literally a dream come true the whole way through," Smallwood said.

For a one-time unemployed autoworker, a striking success.

ABC News' Jesus Ayala contributed to this story.

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