By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Bowlers Journal International
Just off Federal Highway in a place called Martin County, Florida, Stuart Lanes is not much different from most bowling alleys.
The usual smell of lane oil and Lysol greets bowlers at the door, the names and scores of local gods hang from a wall in the drab light, and vending machines are as good for candy bars and Fritos as they are for rosin bags, thumb tape, ankle socks and wristbands.
Aside from the washed-out driveways of last summer’s hurricanes, Stuart Lanes is a familiar but unremarkable stomping ground for some of the millions of people who go bowling each year.
Except for one thing.
As with any local bowling scene, Stuart claims its share of names that carry a provincial notoriety, like recent Martin County Hall of Fame inductee, Jim Manning, for instance.
Or PBA member Ralph Brunt, who sustained a 251 average for over a month at the start of the 2004-05 season in neighboring Port St. Lucie.
But these are not the names bowlers talk about in Toledo, Tucson or Dallas. Their celebrity stops at the county line, but Stuart Lanes is also home to one of the few names whose itinerary stretches beyond those typical boundaries.
The name lingers in Louisville, Kentucky, where it topped a field including Dick Weber, Dave Davis and Glenn Allison to win the PBA Coca-Cola Open at 22-years-old.
It echoes in the bowling alleys of Ft. Worth, Texas, where it led the pack for a fourth title in 1970 and an easy route to Bowler of the Year honors.
People read it on the walls of the National Bowling Hall of Fame in St. Louis, Missouri.
And when the face that goes with the name showed up on lane 3 one Tuesday afternoon, I asked around to make sure.
“That’s Bo Burton,” says Kathy at the front desk before giving a bowler his shoes back.
“THE Bo Burton?”
“Do you know any other Bo Burtons?” she quips.
I watch him cruise to a practice score of 264, his arm swing smooth as a mirror, and realize that the answer to Kathy’s question is no, I know of only one Bo Burton – this one.
In his characteristic faded jeans, tan leather belt and cotton polo shirt, Bo introduces me to his three bowling buddies.
“This is my coach,” he says, pointing to Dominic, a Stuart Lanes mainstay who works weekends in the pro shop, “that’s my trainer,” he continues, “and this is my drinking partner.”
One thing Bo makes clear is how dearly he loves his drinking partners.
“If you wanna be a real pro,” he jokes during league one night after handing a struggling bowler a beer, “then when you’re bowling bad, you gotta drink up.”
He brings a fresh Bud to his lips and gulps to the chuckles of two teammates.
Judging from his 238 average and high series of 804 in the Monday Night Men’s Trios, maybe he’s on to something.
Bo’s hair is thin and light with years now, and his waistline may creep a little further over his belt than it did on T.V., but the game remains the same: an immaculate stroker’s shot straight up the boards from the original “Dead Eye.”
If Bo’s body almost gives away his age, the scoreboard goes a long way to turn back the years. Yet he insists that his touring days are over for good.
“Nope, I’m retired,” Bo says, uttering the word “retired” with such complete assurance as to obliterate any suggestion of regret, “I just bowl leagues with my kids.”
In fact, Bo is all about the kids now, whether they are his own or the ones who come to Stuart Lanes to do what he did when he too was just another name with dreams in his eyes, clawing for a rank among the gods that roamed his father’s St. Louis bowling center: Glenn Allison, Harry Smith, Ronnie Gaudern, Ned Day, Billy Welu.
In addition to coaching junior bowlers at Stuart Lanes, Bo bowls league with his sons Brett, a young, promising golfer also known as “Axeman” for his time as a boxer, and Tripp, a stocky guy in his 20s who bowls more like a runaway freight train than like his father.
Preferring the thumb-less approach patented by Mike Miller, Tripp Burton steams towards the foul line and rips a thousand revs out of the ball before blowing the pins to splinters. Like most crankers, though, Tripp is not exactly his father.
“He either bowls a 520 or a 720,” Bo observes with some bemusement, “they’re not that serious about bowling,” he says of his two sons.
They don’t need to be. Like Brett, Tripp’s first love is golf, for which he won a scholarship to Missouri.
But the Burton clan’s jock genes didn’t all go to the boys. Niki, Bo’s youngest daughter, won a state golf championship and a scholarship to Alabama. Only Catrina, her older sister, eluded the family’s athletic tradition to work as chief financial planner for City Group.
For now, at least, Tripp and Brett stay close to home, taking advantage of the golf course Dad lives on.
“We’re tired,” Bo says of himself and Brett during league, “we got up at 4:30 this morning and played 18 holes.”
Golf may be the new family pastime, but the game that made the name is not forgotten.
When I ask how he would have fared if the challenge of exemption status existed in the PBA of his prime, Bo takes no time to answer.
“I’d have qualified every year,” he assures me, “I was always for stuff like that.”
Considering the 16 titles he scattered across the ‘70s and ‘80s after taking his first trophy in 1964, Bo’s words are more than mere ego; they are the truth.
“I won in ’70, then I was sick in ’71. I had to be hospitalized, so I probably would have deferred until the next year. Then I came back and won two tournaments in ’72,” he recalls, revisiting memories of gods whose shoulders he climbed over to join the list of names on the wall, and the places he went to do it: Johnny Petraglia at the El Paso Open, Dave Soutar in Miami, George Pappas in Sarasota, Earl Anthony in Hartford, Connecticut.
It is a house of memory most people never build, but Bo does not linger long in those rooms.
When he leaves his Bud behind, takes a blue Brunswick Zone into his arms and pauses briefly on the approach with the ball held just below his chest, his focus is that of a man who wants to throw the shot of his life, not just the next shot of a 40-year-career.
But part of Bo’s charm is his refusal to take himself too seriously, and that is why a small crowd of bowlers erupts into a fit of friendly ridicule as he trips a 4-pin for a sloppy strike.
“Hey, Bob,” he gloats to his opponent, pacing back from the foul line with a cocky saunter.
Bo lifts his up right sleeve, stretches out his arm, and poses with a flexed muscle as the teams convulse with chuckles.