Notre Dame football takes to the bowling alley for a good cause

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA — Jaylon Smith’s accessories said it all.

When Notre Dame’s rising junior linebacker strode into Strikes & Spares Event Center in Mishawaka on Sunday morning, he did so with a bright orange bowling ball in one hand and a bag containing two more balls and a pair of bowling shoes in the other. He unleashed a boyish grin, surveying his competition, sporting a blue Notre Dame visor that struggled to contain his bountiful dreads.

Of course, this was a charity event, a bowling fundraiser spearheaded by the Notre Dame chapter of Uplifting Athletes and graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt, an opportunity for the team’s players to mingle with its fans while simultaneously raising money for research into osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that affects children.

It was a worthy cause on a sleepy Sunday morning.

But it was also a competition.

And Smith didn’t come to lose.

“Jaylon is clearly very good because he brought his own bag and balls and shoes,” safety Matthias Farley said dryly, making an assumption that would later be supported by abundant skill. “He’s probably the best. I don’t think anybody else has made that investment.”

The aforementioned investment has been made in both time and money. Smith has been bowling since he was born, though he recently began taking the sport more seriously. That meant acquiring his own pair of bowling shoes, which he purchased online for $59, and strategically ensuring that their bright orange lining matched the color of his ball.

Nowadays, apart from his numerous football obligations, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker and potential 2016 lottery pick frequents the bowling alley at least once or twice a week, in his words, “to practice and work on my weaknesses. It’s a process. I’m still growing.”

That process is deliberate, a repetitive journey from walk-up to follow-through. Following each release, Smith swings both arms forward and back, maintaining perfect balance as he stares daggers through the pins. If they fall, he celebrates, circling the lane and high-fiving every available hand.

Add bowling to the list of things Jaylon Smith is good at. pic.twitter.com/9mRg9zom5p

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) July 12, 2015//

The frames pile up, and the process repeats itself: walk-up, release, follow-through, high-five.

Repetition. Practice. In the alley like on the field.

“I’m very serious,” Smith said. “You think about everything when you’re sitting down, but once you step up to the lane, it’s go-time. I approach it just like football.”

And just like football, he’s very, very good.

“I’m on a different level,” Smith said, jokingly comparing his bowling skills to those of his teammates. “It probably isn’t too fair, because this is something that I do regularly.”

Luckily for Smith’s competition, few were keeping score. Sunday’s event was devoted to service, not strikes, as the Irish players signed autographs, took pictures and talked football with the roughly 70 parents and kids who jammed inside the bowling alley. Punter Tyler Newsome hiked bowling balls backwards through his legs, and linebacker Jarrett Grace raised one finger triumphantly in the air, a symbol of the lone pin he had knocked down in the previous frame.

Jarrett Grace, bowler extraordinaire. pic.twitter.com/WfySfv5674

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) July 12, 2015//

“I’ve been smiling non-stop, just interacting with these kids, getting my butt kicked in bowling,” Grace said, accurately assessing his middling ability. “It’s really great. That we have a great cause behind it just makes it that much better.”

The event, and the cause it recognizes, was inspired by Sam Grewe. Sam was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2011, adopted by the Notre Dame football team in 2012 and has since been declared cancer-free. And while the primary goal is to raise money, the team is also afforded the ability to connect with its youngest and most ardent fans.

“You see yourself 10, 15 years ago in all these kids,” said Schmidt, who organized the fundraiser for the third consecutive year. “Especially me, I remember as a kid, if I would have been able to do this, I would have died. This would have been it for me. This would have been the highlight of my year, the highlight of my 10 years as a kid.

“I see myself in every kid that comes in here and wants to bowl, wants an autograph, wants a picture. That’s really cool, to connect on that level.”

When it ended, Smith packed up his black and orange shoes, his three bowling balls and his faded orange towel, and left the building. Even for the avid bowler, the event had been a strike in more ways than one.

“It’s a blessing,” Smith said. “You have to serve others, and that’s something I’ll do for the rest of my life.”

Bowling smack talk between Joe Schmidt and James Onwualu escalates quickly. pic.twitter.com/LfOhD8IgZ1

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) July 12, 2015//

Jerry Tillery and Jaylon Smith have very different bowling skill sets. pic.twitter.com/z4qlF397TT

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) July 12, 2015//

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame Football player Drew Recker helps Kendrick Peebles,6, with his bowling game at Strikes 'N' Spares Bowling Alley on Grape Road during an Charity Event. SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN. via FTP