Everyone at Manatee Lanes had long since quit what they were doing and gathered behind the boy bowling on Lanes 9 and 10. This was a Saturday morning, Halloween.
The adult men's tournament going on had all but stopped as the bowlers peeled off to cluster behind the kid throwing strikes. Nobody dared to speak as they bore witness to his magic. They didn't want to jinx him. Heaven forbid someone say "Good luck" and ruin this moment, this unbelievable thing they were watching.
You could hear a pin drop, and they had been dropping like mad. The machine at the end of the lane slid 10 more into place.
Christian Miller, 15 and chubby cheeked, wearing a T-shirt and gym shorts, fetched his golden Storm IQ Tour Pearl from the rack and brought it to his chest. His mother clicked record on her phone.
He stood left of center, moved his right toe to his left instep and sucked in a breath. A bowling lane is 60 feet from the foul line to the head pin. On the previous 23 balls, he had covered that distance perfectly, in the same veering left-to-right-to-left arc. The 24th, if thrown correctly, would mean back-to-back perfect games, a feat that some of the very best bowlers haven't tackled.
Christian took a small step with his left foot, a lunge with his right, brought the 15-pound ball back high in the air behind him, then let gravity do the rest. The ball left his fingers and screamed down the lane, toward Christian Miller's future.
• • •
Christian was bowling at Manatee Lanes in Crystal River a few years ago when a man walked in — an adult man named Mike — and announced that he was looking to make a bet. Ten frames. Loser pays.
"I'll beat anybody in here," this man named Mike, a regular at the lanes, announced as heads turned. "Anybody!"
Christian comes off as shy, but he sidled up and offered to bring Mike's braggadocio down a notch. Ten frames were rolled, and Mike walked away, having lost to a boy 240 to 200, with a lesson: Christian Miller can bowl.
"He was only 13," says his mother, Rachel Miller, who teaches third grade at Crystal River Primary School and vouched for the story. "Thirteen."
Christian has played most other sports, but nothing else has stuck. "Bowling fills my soul," he says.
He started bowling at 9 with his mom — Dad likes to watch but doesn't bowl — for something to do. By 10, he started to get serious about his hobby. At age 11, Christian rolled 254. At age 12, he rolled 298.
Those of us who visit the bowling alley every once in a while may hope to break 150. Two hundred seems a distant dream. But Christian has bowling in his blood.
His great uncle is Carmen Salvino, one of the original eight inductees into the Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Fame. He's also in the United States Bowling Congress Hall of Fame. He won 17 PBA Tour titles.
There's that, and there's Rachel, who signed him up for his first league and pays his lane fees and promises him new balls — not cheap at $220 a pop — if he breaks records. And there's also Cathy Roof, 44, who directs the youth league at Manatee Lanes and gives Christian good-natured teasing.
"He's a good kid," she says. "He practices a lot more than any of them do."
Two hours on Tuesdays and Saturdays. And he pops in several other days, too, putting in about 20 hours a week.
And there's also Frank Matuszewski, 73, who coaches Christian. "The whole idea is to get them on the right path, give them the right basics," Frank says. "They can bowl the rest of their lives if they can get the basics."
The basics are one thing. Bowling a perfect game is another. So many factors can affect a bowler's play — the oil on the lanes, the humidity, the balance of the ball. A single perfect game remains elusive for many, despite new ball technology. Mathematicians say the odds of an adult male bowling a 300 game are 11,500-to-1. Even more rare is to put two perfect games together, back to back. Three perfect games, a score of 900, is sacred. That's 36 strikes in a row. Though some 95 million Americans bowl, only 28 have achieved a sanctioned 900 series.
Christian dreams about this stuff. He watches bowling. He watches video of himself bowling. When he follows his mother through the supermarket, he swings his right arm way up behind his back and lets invisible balls fly through produce.
Why couldn't he?
• • •
That Halloween morning, he never said it. He usually starts by joking around. "I'm feeling a 300 today," he'll say. But that day, he remembers, the words never escaped his lips.
The first game he bowled 258. Two spares short of perfect. He was feeling good, though.
The next game came naturally. Near the end, when he realized he had put together an almost full game of strikes, when people started to gather, he got a little nervous. But muscle memory kicked in and he just kept going, nine strikes, 10, 11.
When he bowled his first perfect game, his mother let out a long scream that is the propriety of proud mothers.
He dedicated the game to Ace, a Chihuahua-beagle-dachshund mix. "My dog-brother," Christian says.
Then he kept going. The second game sounded like crashes. Everything hit just right. In the 10th frame, the 11th ball he rolled came off weird. It looked wrong. His shoulders sagged. The folks standing behind him shouted, "Carry!"
He felt like he was just there, inside his head, but his body was doing its own thing.
Ball 12 was just fine. His mother hollered again.
"It's a phenomenon," Coach Frank says. "I think he had 27 or 28 strikes in a row there. I don't have words for it, I really don't. It's something I may never see again."
"Seeing something like that makes me so proud," says Cathy Roof, who had never witnessed a perfect game. "Three hundreds are hard to get."
Christian Miller bowled back-to-back 300 games and broke the house three-game record with a score of 858. They put his name and numbers on the marquee out front, so the drivers on Gulf to Lake Highway could see. Manatee Lanes typically gives perfect-game bowlers free champagne. Christian got free chicken fingers.
Terry Bigham, director of communications at the United States Bowling Congress, said the organization keeps records for 300 games and 900 games, but not 600 games.
"It's rare," he said, "but it's kind of hard for me to put it into context. … It's something that happens maybe a couple of times a season. It's a big accomplishment."
Christian bowled 33 strikes in a row, if you take into account the last frames of his first game and the early frames of his fourth. He kept bowling just to see. He wants to go to college for bowling and turn pro. His mother smiles when he says this.
"It's a thing that I might never beat for the rest of my life," he says. "I could be on my deathbed and remember that time when I was 15 and bowled two perfect games."
With this, he asks his guest at Manatee Lanes if he'd like to bowl. Against you? No way, comes the reply. Christian Miller stands and grabs a ball and does what comes naturally. The first throw is a strike.
Contact Ben Montgomery at (727) 893-8650 or [email protected] Follow @gangrey.