By Bob Velin, USA TODAY
Two days before last Christmas, Tom Smallwood found himself, like millions of Americans, jobless and wondering how he would support his family.
The General Motors plant Smallwood worked at closed down, and the Saginaw, Mich., native was suddenly out of a job when he needed it most.
Michigan's struggling economy didn't leave the Smallwoods with many options, but "we didn't panic," he says.
Smallwood, 32, has always been a good bowler, even supplementing his income in some local tournaments, and he saw there was a Professional Bowlers Association qualifying tournament in Detroit.
So, with the blessing of his wife, Jennifer, Smallwood set out to chase his dream.
"I always felt I could compete out there (on the Tour), but I was also content with working and staying with my family," Smallwood says. "I have a 21/2-year old (Hannah Rose) and she's my life."
Smallwood qualified, gained a one-year exemption, and nearly a year after being laid off, finds himself in a dream scenario — ranked seventh in the world and one of four semifinalists in the PBA World Championship, which will air Sunday (ESPN, 1-2:30 p.m. ET) in Wichita
So far, Smallwood has earned just under $30,000 on the tour, but a victory Sunday would add $50,000 to the family's coffers. The least he can win is $12,500.
Smallwood bowls against Bill O'Neill, a Pennsylvanian who was a four-time All-American at Saginaw Valley State, and veteran Wes Malott faces former top rookie Rhino Page in the other semi.
Smallwood is a professional, but he's far from living the high life on the tour. He drove his own car with fellow pro Brian Waliczek from Detroit to Wichita last week ("only 15 hours") and they will drive back to Michigan for the holidays, then set out on their West Coast swing in California in January — "341/2 hours from Detroit," says Smallwood — for five tournaments west of the Rockies.
"It saves a lot of money and you have your own car, and it's a lot easier to carry your bowling balls in the car than it is paying about $100 for every four balls on an airplane," Smallwood says.
Ironically, Smallwood received a call from the GM jobs bank last week asking if he was interested a job.
"I said, 'Uh, no thank you.' They called me on a Friday, and I was on TV that Sunday," Smallwood says. "I said, 'I'm a professional bowler now. If you want to turn on the TV this weekend, I'll be on ESPN at 1 p.m.'
"It was pretty funny."