January 14, 2010
If you're thinking about giving up on your dreams, try walking a day in Wayne Garber's shoes.
Try sitting where he sat as a doctor told him that his lifelong dream of making a Professional Bowlers Association telecast dissolved the moment he fell down a flight of stairs after a 2007 tournament in Reno, snapping both patellar tendons in his knees. Try spending the next four months on your back as your mind mulls the doctor's admission that never before had he seen a single athlete recover from such an injury.
"I love the game, I don't know what I would do if I couldn't bowl," the Modesto, Calif. native and exempt PBA player says. "If someone told me I couldn't bowl, I would find a way."
Professional bowling may not currently enjoy the cultural prominence of other pro sports, and bowlers are not doing any commercials for AT&T or Cadillac just yet. But Wayne Garber's story confirms that bowling, just like any other sport you want to name, is another way for us to rise above ourselves.
Garber heard such a call all his life. He heard it in the voices of hundreds of people who told him over the years that they would "see him on TV someday."
"I was just like 'OK, whatever. It's never gonna happen. Forget it,'" Garber says.
He heard it in the form of a letter sent to him by Jim Gordon, owner of Yosemite Lanes in Modesto where Garber works as the manager.
"He sent me a heart-to-heart letter and said 'You cannot keep going at the weight you're at.' It would have been easy to sit on the bed and feed my face," Garber says of the months he spent laid out after surgery.
But Garber did not just listen to the call; he answered it. His answer was the 20 pounds of extra weight he dropped, the grueling months of incapacitation he spent listening to the growling of his stomach as he refused to indulge the "Pepsi and potato chip fiend" he had been for so long, and even more time in the gym that left him feeling younger than he had felt in years.
Then the call answered him back with words he thought he would never get to hear.
"Chad Murphy, Brand Manager for Columbia, helped me out as we were walking onto the set," Garber recalls of the moment when, at 42 years of age, he finally attained the dream he had given up on when he made the televised finals of the Red, White and Blue Open in Wichita on Jan. 10. "He stopped me and looked at me and said 'You know, only the best bowlers in the world pass through here.'"
No one could have told Wayne Garber that snapping his patellar tendons might ultimately become one of the best things that ever happened to him, but the evidence of how that fall down a hotel stairwell brought him closer to attaining his dream than ever before is too abundant to dispute.
"After being on my back for four months I bowled stiff-legged — probably not too bright — but I was averaging 220 without a knee bend," Garber explains of his return to the sport he loves after the accident that almost took it away from him for good. "I had a conversation with my best friend and told him 'I am bowling better than I ever have. I can't feel my legs; I feel so light on my feet.'"
With less weight to carry around and a fitness regimen that enabled him to perform at a level he had never experienced before, Wayne Garber found himself on the doorstep of his dream.
Last Sunday, before a national audience on ESPN, he opened the door.
Disbelieving bowling fans from coast to coast got their first glimpse of one of the most unorthodox bowling styles to ever be featured on national television, an 11-step approach in which his backswing begins just as he nears the foul line.
"It's a work in progress, I change it over time," Garber says. "You can't argue with the results, but looking at the video there is still a pause there. Maybe that has to do with not being very flexible. I don't bend like I used to."
Mike Scroggins, who ultimately defeated Garber for the Red, White and Blue Open title, agrees. So much so, in fact, that when Garber nearly collapsed to the ground after a crucial late-game shot stood between him and his first national PBA title, Scroggins thought he would have to help Garber up off the floor.
"When I left that stone 8-pin Scroggins told me he was scared that I wouldn't be able to get up," Garber says of that fateful moment in the game. "I got so low in devastation I might have needed help getting up."
But as he did after the prior devastations he overcame to just to make that show he'd dreamed of all his life, Wayne Garber got up on his own just fine. And if he knew the match was out of reach when he got back on his feet, the loss was merely a technicality. He had won the biggest battle of his life before he ever threw a shot that afternoon — the battle against himself.