During his six-year quest to become a professional bowler, Doyle Irons has drawn strength from many sources.
From George Branham III, the most prominent African-American bowler on the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour, to Irons' nearly miraculous recovery from a car accident in 1995 that left him with a broken right wrist and ankle, the 21-year-old from Columbia is driven to succeed.
But perhaps the biggest inspiration has been his grandfather, George Jackson, a man who drove his grandson to local bowling tournaments when no one else could.
A man who became a father figure for a boy who had none.
A man who died in his grandson's arms last February.
"His big thing was to see me become a professional bowler," recalled Irons, who wears his grandfather's watch to every tournament he competes in. "That's why I keep bowling."
Irons' bowling career started quietly enough 17 years ago when his mother enrolled him in a bowling league at the Brunswick Columbia Lanes.
"There were drugs in the area, and a lot of single parents -- I was one -- with a lot of unsupervised children," recalled his mother, Deborah Baker. "I wanted to give him some sort of structure in his life."
Added Irons: "It worked. It kept me out of trouble."
Irons began competing in local bowling meets during his freshman year at Wilde Lake High School and just in time to compete in local bowling meets. His grandfather, who had been one of the original Tuskegee Airmen and a bowler himself, drove his grandson to the tournaments.
During his senior year, Irons participated in tournaments sanctioned by the Junior Bowlers Tour. In his first tournament in New Jersey, Irons finished second out of about 100 other youths.
In 1995, Irons's dream turned into a nightmare when a motorist drove on the wrong side of U.S. 1 and struck Irons' car head-on. Irons, who had to be cut out of the wreckage, suffered back injuries and a fractured wrist and ankle.
His doctors told him he would never bowl again.
"I was, like, crying," Irons recalled. "Then I thought that there was no way I was going to stop. I said I'll switch hands if I have to. I'll do what I have to do."
Irons lifted weights to speed up rehabilitation and within months was back on the junior tour.
Then Irons suffered the most significant setback of his career when he found his grandfather dying in front of the television set last February.
"He pointed at the TV and then he pointed at me," Irons said of his grandfather, who died of prostate cancer at 67. "It was like he was saying, 'I'll see you on TV.' Then he was gone."
Irons was so shaken by the tragedy that he was prepared to give up bowling. But his mother and relatives wouldn't let him, even forcing him to play in a tournament the same weekend that his grandfather had died.
"My father always said 'Stay with your goals. Don't be dissuaded,' " Deborah Baker said. "That's why we made him play."
Irons didn't disappoint. He bowled a perfect 300 game at a June tournament in New Jersey and finished his career in the Junior Bowlers Tour ranked No. 4 in the nation.
Some of his friends -- and competitors -- think Irons has the tools to make the PBA Tour.
"He has the right attitude for it," said Robby Lemerise, also of Columbia. "He hates to lose."
Mark Feiner, a former tournament director for the Junior Bowlers Tour, agrees: "He's got the potential. With a little bit of coaching and fine tuning, there's no reason why he can't reach the next level."
Irons says the only obstacles are a lack of sponsors and the absence of a coach. Still, Irons says that he will one day be bowling on national TV -- just as his grandfather predicted.
"No one respects me at all," Irons said with a knowing smile on his face. "I don't have more money or equipment than the other players, but I've got more heart."
Deborah Baker said her father would be proud of his grandson.
"My dad will always be there watching him," she said. "And he knows that."
Pub Date: 10/12/97