Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blind bowlers in Michigan find fun at local alley

From The Flint Journal:

FLINT, Michigan — Earnest Sherrill (pictured) slides his body against the rail and takes four steps out into the bowling lane.

He can’t see the pins. He can’t see the bowling ball in his hand. All he sees is a bright light.


“I get one every now and then. I feel my way,” said a smiling Sherrill, 66, who is 100 percent blind. “I can see it in my mind.”

When the Pontiac resident lost his eyesight to glaucoma nearly 15 years ago, there were many things he could not longer do — drive, watch movies, check his reflection in the mirror. But he could still bowl.

For almost 30 years, the Flint Blind Bowler’s league has offered bowlers like Sherrill a way to keep their favorite pastime.

And top bowlers in the group — including Sherrill — continue to earn a long list of impressive awards at tournaments around the country.

“For me, being a bowler is a way to maintain some normalcy in my life,” said Sherrill, a retired autoworker and the group’s president who bowled before he lost his vision.

The roughly 25 bowlers — who include members who are completely blind, visually-impaired with some sight and fully sighted — gather in the end lanes of the Grand Blanc Lanes bowling alley once a week.

The trophies in Sherrill’s home are testament to his bowling prowess before and after losing his vision — including awards from blind bowler league competitions and that 300 perfect score that once earned him local fame in Pontiac.

Sighted members assist the others.

“You got nine of them. Seven pin,” Sherrill’s fiancé and fellow member Stephanie McKinley, 44, told Sherrill after he released a bowling ball.

“Did it go in the four spot?” Sherrill asked after trying for a spare but veering a tad too far to the right.

It had.

“When I first met him and saw all those trophies I thought how can a blind person bowl?” said McKinley, who is sighted, with a laugh. “The first time I saw him bowl, I didn’t believe it. I thought ‘he can see.’ It’s amazing how well they can do. Some people who are visually impaired live isolated lives. This is like a healing for some.”

At a recent session, group members joked about those with less vision bowling better than those who were sighted.

They reached out their arms as they walked back to tables, giving each other five.

“It’s a good activity when you don’t get out a lot. You meet people who don’t treat you any differently,” said Genesee County resident Alverness Scroggins.

To her, the lane is just a giant glare.

But that didn’t keep her from getting a strike on her first turn,

“That’s not all the time. I wish it was. That was just luck,” she said with a laugh. “I just throw the ball down the middle and hope to hit something.”

Group leaders say many people are hesitant to join the nonprofit league at first, nervous about falling or not being able to bowl well.

But many of the leagues’ members are top bowlers, earning high scores at national American Blind Bowlers Association tournaments.

The ABBA, which launched in the 1940s, has more than 2,000 members in more than 125 leagues across the United States and Canada, according to the vision loss resource Vision Aware.

The Flint league was started by James “Redhorse” Wesley, who was best known as an inductee of the 1989 Greater Flint Afro-American Hall of Fame for ace pitching on local baseball leagues.

Wesley, who later lost his eyesight and became one of the best blind bowlers in the state — according to Flint library records — started the league in 1978.

“He wanted to start an organization here because it was a chance to travel and meet other people who were visually impaired,” said longtime member Rose Henry, 71, who lives in Flint and is sighted. “It lets people know that maybe you can’t see but you can still enjoy your life.”