Sometimes, Christopher Johnson gets questions from peers about his passion. Friends have asked what bowling practice even means.
"It's times when I say I bowl and people are, like, 'That's not a sport.'"
Johnson, 18, can't think of too many peers at his high school, Lankenau Environmental Science Magnet, who dream of the pro tour. But that's his goal, and he wants to be best. A local junior league champ, Johnson has competed at the Eastern Pennsylvania Regional Championships for all four years of high school. His personal best: Two years ago, he bowled a 299. (A perfect score is 300.)
This spring, he won an unusual bowling scholarship to play for Belmont Abbey, a small Catholic college in North Carolina.
The Johnsons, who live in Olney, say the scholarship will cover room and board plus meals for all four years, with additional grants, through academic scholarships and financial aid, offered to cover his studies. Belmont Abbey costs roughly $33,000 a year. His bowling scholarship would take care of the $10,390 cost of room and board, while tuition stands at $18,500. Books and other expenses would be an additional $4,100.
Belmont Abbey would not confirm the dollar amount of the scholarship, but Lisa Johnson, Christopher's mother, framed it this way: "We don't have to put out any money for college."
Johnson, 18, started bowling when he was around 6 years old.
"At first, I didn't take it that seriously," he recalls. But then, he caught a competition on ESPN, and his interest deepened. "I really sat down and looked at the technical side of it and fell in love." That epiphany, he recalled, happened when he was 9 or 10.
He doesn't have a name for his favorite throw. When he approaches the lane, he doesn't like to lean or curve his release too much to induce a dramatic hook. He practices pulling the ball up and inward, then throwing it "real clean." His foremost concern remains technique.
The Johnson family, over the years, has became passionate about the sport. Lisa and her husband, Alan, went from watchful, supportive bowling parents to USBC-certified coaches. His sister, Tatiana Johnson, a 16-year-old junior at Girls High, also grew up bowling and is a formidable athlete herself.
"Between the two of them," Lisa said, "my living room is full of trophies."
The teen has juggled 12 hours of bowling practice each week with schoolwork and his job as a dietary aid at a nursing home. When he's not bowling, he is supporting the Eagles and playing admittedly intense sessions of Uno with friends in his living room.
Lankenau principal Joshua Levinson still awaits the final ranking for Johnson's senior class. It's still too close to call, the principal said, but the bowler is in contention for valedictorian and will definitely graduate in the top three.
"He's fabulous," Levinson said. "I'm sad he's leaving me."
Johnson — who averages 173 at the sport bowling level, and 206 in his high school league — often travels for tournaments, regionally and nationally. At the top competitions, he explained, athletes who look like him are few.
Being black at tournaments, he said, "I don't even know the words to describe it. I feel … the eyes are on me, but it's not so friendly. It's like that every time."
The scrutiny hasn't tapered his desire to master his skills. "That's what got me here now," he said.
Asked what she likes about his game, his sister said: "He keeps a level head. That's something he helps me with because I get frustrated a lot."
Bowling, Belmont Abbey bowling coach Clyde Ferguson said, is a game of physics and mathematics. In sport bowling, balls slick their ways down alleys thanks to the oil coating the lanes. If a player understands the oil pattern, and the level of friction expected from the particular finish on the ball, the player can estimate where the ball may break — or curve toward the pins.
A mathematical mind can more easily compute adjustments while viewing how the ball rolls, Ferguson explained, but it also can weather the moments when the ball just isn't doing what the player wants it to do.
"Those elite players are the ones who can stay in the moment," he said.
Johnson has thoughts of biochemical engineering, but also eyes that pro career. Playing at the collegiate level is the first step. Down the lane he can see winning rookie of the year, playing regionally, winning a major in the pros.