By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally Published on BOWL.com
One thing a retired Ernie Schlegel does not need to do at age 66 is get up early on a Saturday morning to root on bowlers at a local youth league.
Yet that is exactly where you will find the PBA and USBC Hall of Famer on this particular Saturday. Sporting a USBC Youth jersey at Allen’s Crosley Lanes in his hometown of Vancouver, Wash., he joins 12-year-old Takota Smith for a round of practice, and he is up to his old tricks.
Schlegel heaves his ball straight up the 7 board and guides it toward the headpin with flailing arms and a swinging fist. As the pocket collapses for a strike, he turns to Takota and playfully gives him the business.
“I’ll squash you like a grape!” he says in his inimitable Manhattan accent as he shares a chuckle with the boy’s father, who has also joined the action.
It is exactly the same Ernie Schlegel that bowling fans have known for decades, the Ernie Schlegel who erupted with chants of “Muhammad Ali!” after a stone 8-pin left a devastated Randy Pedersen in the fetal position at the 1995 Touring Players Championship. That victory solidified Schlegel as one of the most polarizing performers in the history of the sport.
“For the old people!” the then-52-year-old Schlegel shouted as he leaped into the air with both arms raised. “I am the greatest!”
And to this day, as his 40-year PBA career winds down to a lighter schedule of select majors and regionals, that is exactly what he believes.
“If there is anyone who doesn’t think I’m good enough for the Hall of Fame,” Schlegel said in a Bowlers Journal interview, “just pick any bowler and I’ll bowl him, and I’ll beat the living daylights out of him!”
But a different Ernie Schlegel emerges here at Allen’s Crosley Lanes where he analyzes the games of youth bowlers with the seriousness of a pro determining the best line to play on the next squad of a PBA Tour stop, a man whose tough exterior belies a heart as big as the city he was born in.
“I was hanging around with a rough crowd,” Schlegel has said of his days on the tough streets of Upper Manhattan in the 1960s, a time when drugs took more of his friends than Vietnam and a broken nose was as common a means of conflict resolution as a handshake.
The only crowd that Ernie Schlegel is hanging around with at the moment, though, is the family of 12-year-old Takota Smith. Schlegel has known Takota’s stepmother, Autumn, ever since he roomed with her father on tour decades ago. But when Autumn tragically lost both her father and mother, Ernie Schlegel took her and her brothers Jeremy and Jason under his wing. Now he has a new “nephew” to mentor-young Takota Smith, whom he introduced to the sport this year.
“He loves those kids like they are his boys,” Schlegel’s wife Catherine says of Autumn’s brothers Jeremy and Jason. “He is Uncle Ernie to them. Jason has a two-year-old now who just goes crazy when she sees him.”
That is the Ernie Schlegel people around here know – not the brash kid from the streets of New York who once fashioned a neck tie out of licorice and ate it in front of his teacher in defiance of school uniforms. Now he is the “crazy uncle” who is as sure to show up and watch the Saturday morning youth leagues as the parents of the bowlers themselves.
He is also the grandfather who speaks to his grandson, Zachary Connor, at the same day and time each week by webcam and, amid a recent visit to see his daughter Darlene in Florida on Zachary’s birthday, quickly found himself coaching youth bowlers at the local bowling center.
“I just can’t seem to not help kids,” Schlegel explains, “you never know who is going to be the next great one.”
This is the Ernie Schlegel who openly weeps in his own living room over the plight of 7-year-old Chris Oldam, a boy born with a heart so defective as to require several open-heart surgeries.
“I bowled a member/non-member regional with his dad Ryan Oldam, and I found out that his son Chris has already had several open-heart surgeries,” Schlegel explains. “The kid is only seven years old. After the last one his father told him it would be the last time, but now it looks like he might need another one.”
Another thing that Schlegel learned about Chris Oldam is that he is a Chris Barnes fan.
“You see this guy?” Ernie says as he holds up a copy of Bowlers Journal in which Barnes is featured on the cover. “I am his No. 1 fan now. I called him and told him that this boy is a big fan of his and explained the situation with his heart condition, and he called me back within five minutes to speak to the kid himself.”
It may be a softer version of the Ernie Schlegel who proclaims himself “The Greatest” on TV, but that Ernie Schlegel, too, is just as alive and well as the one who weeps over a boy who in seven years has spent more time in surgery than most people spend in their lives.
“Maybe we could actually get some practice if Ernie would show up on time,” quips a diminutive 20-something bowler from the approach at a local nine-game sweeper for which Schlegel shows up just five minutes before start time.
“Don’t make me come down there and make you smaller than you are!” shouts Schlegel. “Guys like you I used to squash like grapes and put them in my back pocket. I think I still got one back there.”
And just in case anyone who heard him dared to doubt the truth of what he said, Schlegel rides consecutive 250 games into first place with two games to go in a field of bowlers young enough to be his children.
“I wonder how long he will be able to keep this up,” says Catherine, the woman whom many credit for helping Schlegel into the winner’s circle after so many years as the PBA’s so-called “winningest non-champion.”
As he places third and leaves the center with plenty more cash in his pocket than he had when he got here, it seems clear that Ernie Schlegel, who plans to bowl the Regional Players Invitational in December before another appearance at the Tournament of Champions next year, will do this for just as long as he wants.