EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Professional bowler Ryan Shafer slid his fingers into one of the 15 Storm bowling balls he toted from home in Horseheads, N.Y., and fixed his gaze on the pins at the end of lane 36 at King Pin Bowling on Sunday.
Shafer, a member of the Professional Bowlers Association tour since 1987, needed a strike to have any chance of earning a spot in the final of the PBA's Eastern Regional King Pin Open.
At the other end of the alley, a young girl bowling just for fun walked out to retrieve a ball that had stopped in the middle of her lane.
"When you're playing in regional tournaments, you have to expect things like that to happen," said Shafer, who has Type 1 diabetes, the most serious form of the disease, and wears an insulin pump 24 hours a day, even while competing.
"The proprietors have to make a living, too, and they can't stop everything just for us. When something like that happens,you're supposed to just step away and refocus. You can't let (distractions) be the reason why you lose."
Shafer didn't step away. He whipped his right arm forward and watched as the ball curved into the pocket and thudded against the pins. Only eight of the 10 fell, however, thus dooming him to a 205-187 loss to eventual runner-up Vinny D'Ambrosio III, of Staten Island, N.Y.
Shafer's disappointment didn't last long, however.
A few minutes later, he was seated at a table with fellow bowler and good friend Tommy Gollick, of Oberlin, Pa. Gollick devoured a plate of chicken wings and french fries while Shafer sipped a bottle of water. Together, they watched Rusty Thomsen, a middle school teacher from Morgan, earn the $2,500 first prize with an exciting 239-238 win over D'Ambrosio.
"Ryan's one of my good friends," said Gollick, who lost to Shafer earlier in the day en route to a sixth-place finish.
"He's a great competitor, but he's an even greater person. He'd give you the shirt off his back if you asked him."
Only a Pittsburgh Steelers fan would have wanted the gold-and-black shirt he was wearing. Shafer, who was the PBA Tour's Rookie of the Year in 1987, always wears the colors of his favorite NFL team to regional tournaments. When he's at a pro tour event, he dons pinstripes as a tribute to the New York Yankees.
Bowling fans recognize his getup. The 44-year-old has appeared on ESPN telecasts 12 times in recent years - only the top eight finishers in a tournament make the televised portion of an event - and has earned four second-place finishes.
"I have the distinction of having the most appearances on TV and the most second-place finishes without having won one of those tournaments," said Shafer, who won the last of his four national tournaments in the pre-ESPN days of 2003. "Some people think it's a curse, but I consider it a blessing to be able to do what I do for a living."
In a strange way, Shafer credits being a diabetic for his successful bowling career. He was diagnosed at age 19, during his freshman year at Corning (N.Y.) Community College. He left school after one year and joined the pro tour.
"Back when I was first diagnosed, we didn't have the medical advances that we have now to treat the disease," Shafer said. "I wasn't sure what kind of future I was going to have, so I decided to try bowling and see how far it could take me. I told myself I could always go back to school when I was done bowling, but 26 years later, I'm still at it."
Bowling took him to the Econo-Lodge, located across the street from King Pin on the Black Horse Pike, this weekend. The motel was one of the event's primary sponsors, along with Pistol Pete's Restaurant and Skyy Vodka.
Shafer competes regularly in regional tournaments. He earned $825 for his fourth-place finish Sunday but got more value out of chatting with fellow competitors and spectators during the weekend.
"I could sit home and play golf like some of the other guys," Shafer said. "But I feel like it's my responsibility to help promote our sport and the tour as much as possible. I really enjoy talking with the kids and some of the other guys here. I also have a lot of friends on the East Coast and these tournaments are my only chance to see them."
Notes: Approximately a dozen fans watched Sunday's final. Included in the group was Bridgeton native Ray Mooney III, a former competitor in regional events and a four-time winner of The Press Rolloff. "It's hard for me to sit here and watch," Mooney, 46, said. "But I'm out of work right now and I couldn't afford to pay the $285 entry fee to compete in this. I'm hoping to be able to try the senior tour in a few years." ... Thomsen, who earned his first regional tournament title since 2006, teaches health and physical education at a middle school in Woodbridge. He also serves as bowling coach for Jersey City University.
Contact David Weinberg: