Just in time for the holidays last year, Tom Smallwood was grappling with the fallout of losing his job. He had just been laid off at General Motors Co. (GRM) where he worked on an assembly line making seat belts for extended cab trucks. Now, almost a year to the day that he received his pink slip, Smallwood received one of the highest honors in bowling: He won the PBA World Championship, beating the reining Player of the Year Wes Malott 244 to 228.
The 32-year old Smallwood, who was an avid amateur bowler before he was laid off, not only got the trophy, but he also received $50,000 in winnings. On top of that, GM just offered him his job back.
Smallwood started working at GM in 2007, figuring it would provide him with a solid salary so he could better support his wife Jennifer and his two-and-a-half-year old daughter Hannah. Both his father and his brother worked at the automaker's Pontiac, Mich. plant and helped him land the job. But Smallwood's timing was far from perfect as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression decimated the auto industry. The beleaguered GM embarked on a massive restructuring and the plant where Smallwood worked was shut down.
In December 2008, Smallwood's career options were limited to say the least. The unemployment rate in Michigan was (and still is) one of the highest in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In towns like Pontiac it seemed like everyone was unemployed. Given those odds, Smallwood figured he'd have just as much luck turning his passion for bowling into a paying job then he would trying to land a more conventional one. In May, he tried out for the PBA.
It took some convincing for his wife to let him pursue his bowling dream. "I have always bowled...I never thought it would be my sole income," says Smallwood.
The move wasn't a complete whim: At the time, Smallwood was considered one of the top amateur bowlers in the U.S. with 80 perfect 300 games. Recently, he made the nearly impossible 7-10 split
Life in the Lanes
Last summer, Smallwood finished third out of 97 bowlers in the PBA Tour Trials in suburban Detroit, gaining a rare one-year exemption that enables him to compete in a tournaments without having to try out. Only 8 out of the 58 exemptions that the PBA doles out are considered up for grabs in any given season. But having an exemption doesn't necessarily mean smooth sailing.
"It's not easy to be an exempt bowler," says PBA chief operating officer Tom Clark. "You are guaranteed a paycheck."
Smallwood's short pro-bowling career has not been all roses. He lost a televised match in September, finishing tied for third. Smallwood then bowled in Asia for a month, visiting South Korea, the Philippines and Hong Kong.
At the PBA World Championship, one of the Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour's major tournaments, Smallwood was up against some of the PBA's biggest stars, including Malott, who is nicknamed "The Big Nasty." The lead of the final, tension-filled match see-sawed between Smallwood and Malott until the final frames when Smallwood claimed victory after nailing four strikes in a row.
"It was truly unbelievable," Smallwood says, who adds that the experience has left him emotionally drained.
Smallwood's story has captured the imagination of the press. Inside Edition is doing a story on the taciturn Midwesterner and a Hollywood producer has expressed an interest in his life story. Smallwood says he is not holding his breath to see some actor play him on the silver screen.
"Whatever happens, happens," he says.
Making his victory even sweeter, Smallwood recently received a call from GM' s Job Bank offering him a new job. He politely turned down the offer, explaining he was due to appear on ESPN.
"They were surprised when I said 'no thanks'," he says.
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