Riviera Lanes in Fairlawn, Ohio, was packed with spectators and the bright lights were shining for an ABC national telecast April 25, 1992, as five bowlers were about to battle in the Firestone Tournament of Champions, the most prestigious, highest-paying event on the Professional Bowlers Tour.
Among the quintet stood Marc McDowell, a Monona native, Monona Grove High School graduate and frequent patron of Village Lanes when he was a little kid. McDowell was hoping all those days and nights of rolling a bowling ball toward a triangular set of pins would help him accomplish the greatest victory of his six-year professional bowling career.
McDowell, who was the second seed, competed in his first match against Danny Wiseman, whose father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was an emotional 10-frame duel with McDowell winning 248-235 over Wiseman, who hugged his father after the match.
“We both bowled very well, and I hung on to win,” said McDowell. “I had tears in my eyes afterwards. It was an emotional win.”
McDowell won the championship match over Don Genalo 223-193 to take home the $60,000 first prize. The victory capped off McDowell’s most successful year as a bowler with three victories and $220,000 in winnings.
“It was a pretty amazing stretch in my life and bowling career,” McDowell said. “It is pretty sweet to look back on it.”
Friends, parents offer support
McDowell’s love of bowling began in 1970 at age 8 when he participated in Friday afternoon bantam leagues at Village Lanes, which was just two blocks from his house. His father, Larry, and mother, Sandy, were also avid bowlers and gave their son pointers on how to improve his game.
McDowell had access to the bowling alley every Saturday afternoon after his father was hired as a part-time bartender.
Childhood friend Jeff Richgels was also a positive influence.
“If it wasn’t for Jeff Richgels, I’m not sure I would have had the success I had,” McDowell said. “He was right there with me. He pushed me to be better. I pushed him. It was an amazing friendship.”
Aside from bowling, McDowell participated in other sports. Jim Green, a science and physical education teacher at Nichols School, was one of his favorite instructors.
“He just made sports fun and was very supportive of all the kids that came through Nichols School,” McDowell said. “At an early age, he fueled my enjoyment of athletics.”
Later, at Monona Grove High School, McDowell would benefit from the guidance of Dick Rundle, who was the football and boys golf coach.
“I had more exposure to him than anyone,” McDowell said. “His competitiveness was super contagious.”
After graduating from MG, McDowell tried out as a walk-on for the University of Wisconsin football team. He won a spot as a freshman as a placekicker, but after lingering near the bottom of the depth chart, he transferred to UW-La Crosse and joined the bowling team.
McDowell’s impressive performance at a Las Vegas tournament led to a bowling scholarship from West Texas State University.
“They were the No. 1 program in the country,” McDowell said. “I was kind of in awe of the way approached everything. When they offered me a scholarship, I accepted it.”
During McDowell’s four years, the school consistently ranked in the top 10 in the country. In his senior year, the team was ranked No. 1 after winning every tournament on the schedule and qualified for the national title match. In a bit of irony, West Texas State lost the championship by two pins to UW-La Crosse, McDowell’s former college.
After that, McDowell sought his fortune as a professional bowler after seeing one of his college teammates, Steve Martin, have some success on the tour.
“When that happened, I knew I could do this,” McDowell said. “He was a really good bowler, but I thought I was at that level or better.”
He sold 16 shares of himself for $1,000 each and headed off to his first professional tournament in St. Louis in 1986.
Starting as a pro
It was a rude awakening.
After qualifying for the event, McDowell discovered someone had burglarized his pickup in the hotel parking lot. His clothes, including his underwear, shirts, pants and belt, were nowhere in sight. He made a quick trip to a shopping mall before it closed that night to buy some new apparel.
On top of that, McDowell didn’t win any money in his debut as a pro bowler, but his luck would change in his fourth tour event at Kansas City. He qualified second and made his first national television appearance. He ended the 1986 tour with $51,000 in winnings and was named the rookie of the year.
“It was quite an experience. A dream come true,” McDowell said.
His first tour victory would come in 1989 at Fresno, California, when he defeated future bowling hall-of-famers Amelto Monacelli and Walter Ray Williams, Jr. to advice to the championship match against No. 1 seed Tony Marrese. McDowell scored six strikes in a row to win 234-196. First-place money was $18,000.
“It was just a thrill to stand in the winner’s circle after several close calls,” McDowell said.
By 1992, he had reached the pinnacle of the sport
He served as president of the Pro Bowlers Association and started using a new bowling ball made of a substance called reactive resin, different from the urethane used on the outside of the ball.
McDowell won the opening tournament in Torrance, California, and was on his way to a magical season.
In 1995, after the birth of his son Ryan, McDowell ended his professional bowling career.
“It just became harder to tour, and not being able to watch him grow up,” McDowell said. “The PBA was starting to decline. It lost the big TV contract with ABC. We didn’t have the same amount of prize money. We were losing tournaments. It was difficult to get corporate sponsorships in a highly competitive sports world.”
McDowell started his career in finance and has been working as vice president of advisory services at the NFP Retirement Division in Madison since August 2019. He specializes in 401(k) accounts.
He is still involved in bowling and serves as a staff member for MOTIV, a bowling equipment manufacturer. He also plays on a United States Bowling Congress amateur team called 11thFrame.com. One of his teammates is Richgels, his friend for nearly 50 years.
As for McDowell, he feels blessed to have lived his life in bowling and finding success in it.
“I always look back at my bowling like it was another life ago,” he said. “It was such a different life, traveling 30 weeks a year. It was a unique experience. I’m just thankful for that experience.”