After Chris Carter met professional bowler Parker Bohn III last year, his star-struck mother, Ginny Carter, told him not to wash. After all, he had just shaken hands with one of the biggest names in bowling.
"I don't think that before that day they knew what it meant to play with Parker Bohn," she said of Chris, 16, and his brother, Kyle, 18.
The Freeland residents were looking forward to mixing with some of bowling's top stars again this weekend at the Professional Bowlers Association Wild Turkey Bourbon East Region tournament at Forest Hill Lanes. Hall of Fame inductee Walter Ray Williams Jr., considered the top bowler in the world, and Patrick Allen, recently named Bowler of the Year by the PBA, are among the pros in town for the tournament. The winner of the event, which concludes today, takes home $5,000.
But before the pros were traveling the country, playing for big money, chances are they started out learning the game in a local bowling center. That's a familiar scene in Harford County, which is home to popular youth bowling programs.
Forest Hill Lanes' youth program is flourishing, showing that the popularity of bowling is not declining as much as some believe, said owner Michael Klein.
"It's an American lifestyle," Klein said. "We've always felt that bowling is an activity participated in by more people per year than anything else."
According to Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association International, bowling was the most popular recreational sport for Americans in 2003, with 55 million people age 6 and older participating.
Youth programs are an important part of a bowling center, Klein said.
"It's like a farm system," said Jim Miller, general manager of Forest Hill Lanes. "If you don't have the young bowlers, you don't have the adult bowlers."
At Harford Lanes in Aberdeen, about 300 children participate in a youth league during the school year, said employee Jerry Sides.
"It's a very popular program," he said of the weekly league. Sides said it's hard to overstate the importance of youth programs: "This bowling program in Harford County over the past 20 years has saved more lives than any other because they [youths] come to the bowling alley instead of hanging around on the streets."
Harford Lanes also offers child-parent programs.
At Forest Hill, assistant general manager Rose Murphy has been the youth program coordinator for 10 years, allowing her to watch young bowlers progress from the youngest age group to the oldest.
"I can't believe the kids that were Peewees and they're working for us now," she said.
Children ages 3 to 5 bowl in the Peewee category, where they bowl only one game and use bumpers, which prevent gutter balls and frustration. There are four other youth categories up to age 21. After that, it's on to the adult leagues.
The bowling center - the term the staff prefers instead of bowling alley - teaches more than the mechanics of the sport to its young bowlers. For example, profanity is not allowed on the lanes. And Murphy keeps a careful watch on youngsters.
Forest Hill Lanes features three youth sessions each year, a high school program and a weekly "Generation Gap" event for teams of adults and youth, as well as adult leagues.
The Carter family was one of the teams participating last week in Generation Gap, in which teams can have up to five members, with a maximum of two adults.
"There's just so few activities these days parents and youth can do together," Ginny Carter said.
Her husband, Kevin, said, "This bowling center supports [the youth program] in a much bigger way."
The high school program, which started six years ago when Murphy and Miller noticed that few kids were signing up for the youth league's oldest age bracket, has been a big success.
Forty-seven teams from nine county schools participated last year, including Harford Christian and John Carroll School. Last year was the first year that teams from Aberdeen High took part and one won the league championship.
"They had some pretty big boys on that team, and they jumped around like it was Christmas presents," Miller said.
Five-member teams from any school are welcome. They can be same-sex or co-ed, and the teams encompass a range of talents and experience.
One motivation for participation in the youth leagues is scholarships. Young bowlers play for money for college. The five winners from Aberdeen each earned a $200 scholarship. The members of the second-place team, from Fallston High, received $100 each in scholarships.
Chris Becker, a rising sophomore at North Harford High, spent his freshman year in the high school bowling program.
"It's just really frustrating when I don't do well, but fun," said Chris, adding that his team didn't place in the top 10 last year. Chris has been bowling for seven years.
"I'm going to try to bowl in college and maybe go pro," he said.
Any young Harford bowler who aspires to the big time can draw inspiration from a home-grown example: Tim Criss of Bel Air, ranked 30th by the PBA, has earned more than $500,000 on the PBA tour and has won five tour titles during his 21-year career.
"Timmy Criss always lived in a bowling center," Miller said.
Klein credits Criss, who will bowl in the pro tournament, with much of the success of this weekend's event, including recruiting prominent competitors.
"He just has a really great rapport with top-tier professional bowlers, and he's proud of the house," Klein said.
One of the highlights of the weekend is when several pros spend time showing more than 150 amateurs some of the finer points of the game. About half of those working with the pros are kids from youth leagues, Miller said.
"These guys were great with the kids last year," Miller said. "If they have time, they do some trick shots for them."