GREENVILLE — Bowling is just a game.
For some, bowling is just a hobby, a night out of the house. For others, it’s about competition and being the best. But mostly, it’s just a game.
For Greenville bowler Ryan Johnson, it took a tragic event to realize bowling was just a game. Really, not all that important in the grand scheme of life.
On Dec. 19, 2012, after a night of bowling, Johnson and two friends were involved in a fatal accident in Ronald Township.
Brett Petersen of Greenville was driving. Johnson and Chad Saladin of Greenville were passengers in a Ford F-150. Petersen lost control of the vehicle, which left the roadway. The truck went airborne and came to rest on the passenger side of the vehicle.
Petersen was able free himself from the truck and called for help. Johnson sustained non-life threatening injuries in the crash. Saladin died at the scene.
“All I remember is asking how the guy (Saladin) in the middle was doing,” Johnson said. “I was told he didn’t make it. I don’t remember anything else after that.”
The accident was caused by a combination of alcohol and poor road conditions.
Johnson — an avid bowler and member of the Greenville Bowling Association Hall of Fame — injured his right arm at the elbow and shoulder in the accident. Due to nerve damage, he lost feeling in his bowling arm and underwent two surgeries.
One of the best
Johnson has been one of the area’s best bowlers for years. An annual member of the All-City team, he routinely averages 200 and higher.
With a rocket for an arm, pin point accuracy and the ability to adjust to any lane condition, Johnson made bowling look easy. Prior to the accident, he was averaging 210, 215 and 232 in three different leagues, all at Greenville Lanes.
That all changed after the accident.
Not only because of the injury, but because of the emotional pain of the tragedy, Johnson thought he was finished as a bowler.
“I didn’t want to bowl after the accident,” he said “I didn’t want to leave the bowling alley anymore, remembering what happened and not seeing Chad and Brett there.”
At the time, Johnson had two 800 series (804, 815) and 16 perfect games (12 sanctioned) on his resume. If he was to continue, he would have to do so as a left-hander.
After some time away, Johnson found the courage to return to the bowling alley to pick up a ball and throw it down the lane — this time as a left-handed bowler.
That isn’t an easy task for the average bowler.
But Johnson isn’t an average bowler.
As a left-hander, he still makes bowling look easy. He just isn’t as consistent as before. He said he isn’t ambidextrous, but bowling from the left side feels natural.
“It was something I did as a kid. I would goof around and throw left handed with my stepdad and stepbrothers,” Johnson said. “It was something that came natural to me as far as being able to throw left handed.”
While not as good from his new side, Johnson is still averaging in the 180s and can score with the best from time to time.
As a right-hander, anything less than perfect was a disappointment to Johnson. The pressure he put on himself is gone on the opposite side.
“I didn’t have any expectations on how I was going to bowl. I knew I wasn’t going to be as good as I was right-handed,” Johnson said. “But when I started bowling left-handed, I had more fun. I enjoyed it more.”
A rare feat
On Feb. 19, exactly 14 months after the accident, Johnson made history at Greenville Lanes.
He became the first Greenville bowler to roll a 300 from both the right and left sides. He was perfect in his third and final game of the night during the Wednesday Fun league.
The exact number of bowlers who have accomplished this feat is not known, as the United States Bowling Congress (USBC) does not require its sanction bowlers to declare which hand they bowl with.
According to the USBC, the first male to do so was Neil Bayes of St. Louis, who rolled a right-handed 300 on Dec. 5, 1963. More than seven years later on June 20, 1970, Bayes rolled a left-handed 300. The first female to do so was Lesley Boczar of Sunrise, Fla. She rolled a right-handed 300 on May 5, 1997 and left-handed 300 on July 22, 2003.
“It’s special to have done this,” Johnson said. “It means a lot to do this with both hands. This isn’t something that happens often.”
An emotional night
Johnson’s previous left-handed high game was 279. That was during practice. His league high game was 255.
On that Wednesday, the strikes just started falling for Johnson. As the scoreboard Xs increased so did the awareness of those around and the uneasiness of Johnson.
Johnson never got nervous as a right-handed bowler. Not even with 11 strikes in a row. As a left-hander, that wasn’t the case.
“It started getting emotional in the ninth frame. I didn’t think about shooting a 300 until that frame,” he said. “Going into the 10th, I was nervous because of the circumstance and the situation. The reason that I was bowling left-handed and how it came about.”
Johnson’s 10th strike went Brooklyn (the wrong side of the bowler’s regular pocket). The 11th strike was perfect. Before his final shot, Johnson took a step back, bent over and took a deep breath.
“That was because knowing if I hit that last strike it was going to be an emotional, crazy time,” Johnson said.
Johnson threw his final shot. It was just a tad high, but when all 10 pins fell to the lane, Johnson collapsed to his knees, his hands covering the emotion on his face.
After the strike, a line of congratulations and hugs followed from every bowler in the house. Certainly, every congratulator was aware of the situation.
“I didn’t know what everyone was thinking,” Johnson said. “All I remember, after kneeling down, was someone came up and bear hugged the heck out of me. Everyone was there after that.”
Johnson finished the night with a 683 series.
On Wednesday, Johnson received a ring for bowling his 300 game. Quietly, he dedicated this rare feat to the memory of his friend.
Bowling left-handed has given Johnson a new appreciation of the game.
“It sucks it took this accident to make me realize how fun this game is,” he said. “It took bowling left-handed. It took this accident to realize I don’t have to take this so seriously.”
Bowling is just a game, after all.