And most days, Stearns heads to his day job as a manager at a local Little Caesars Pizza. His customers there probably don’t know that on March 28, Stearns reached a bowling pinnacle: in league play, at Southway Bowl, he rolled a 900 series.
Yes, that’s three consecutive perfect 300 games. That’s 36 consecutive strikes, spread out over several hours, with drama building between each one.
“Honestly I don’t even know how to describe it,” Stearns said in a recent phone interview.
And yet the feat, while rare, is happening at a rate that might surprise more casual bowlers.
The first United States Bowling Congress-approved 900 series came almost exactly 20 years ago in Nebraska, by a bowler named Jeremy Sonnenfeld. When Stearns rolled his three perfect games in a row, he became the 33rd bowler to do it — and the third one already in 2017. There were also three of them in 2016 and two each in the previous four years. Darin Pomije of New Prague, in 2004, is the only other Minnesotan with a 900 series.
Given there are professional bowlers as well as countless other talented amateurs or aspiring pros competing in 60,000 leagues nationwide, there are certainly opportunities for someone put together 36 consecutive strikes.
But why is it happening so frequently now, when it never used to happen?
“I think the easiest way to answer that is that the game is evolving in incredible ways — technology through the years has expanded,” said Chad Murphy, Executive Director of the United States Bowling Congress. “There are thicker oils, stronger balls and better players. The education that a bowler gets these days is stronger than it has been in the past. The information about the equipment and products is more readily available to be taken in. The information age is everywhere. Now it’s happening in bowling.”
Stearns, then, is the perfect combination of talent, determination and willingness to pay attention to the sport’s evolution. His dad, Bob, was a professional bowler. The unassuming lanes where he rolled his 900 series were actually built by Bob Stearns in the 1970s and run by the family for several years.
By Brady’s estimation, Bob has rolled 30 or 40 perfect games in his life. That used to be the gold standard in bowling, and it’s still a major accomplishment. But crowds these days really only gather when more strikes start piling up.
To make that happen, Stearns said, is akin to “putting a puzzle together. It’s about finding out where you need to play on the lane, where you need to throw the ball. What ball you need to throw.”
Stearns competed in a recent tournament and brought 13 different balls with him. When he and two bowler friends traveled to Las Vegas for a different tournament earlier this year, they had 45 balls between them — 600 to 700 pounds worth — packed into a midsize SUV.
“It’s hard to explain, but the easiest way is that each ball does something different. You kind of need something different for different shots,” said Stearns, who is right-handed and always uses a 15-pound ball. “With the technology with bowling balls, it’s not easier to strike — but in a way it kind of is. … Basically all it is is trying to find the right bowling ball to match what you’re bowling on, and if you can make the same shots over and over the same thing will happen. … You still have to strike, but you just have to find the right kind of reaction and make the best shots you can.”
Stearns’ 900 series, though, was a good blend of high-tech and low-tech. He knew which ball he wanted to use because he had thrown a 279 using it the previous week in league play. But he doesn’t haul in the full dozen-plus balls on Tuesday nights. On that night a few weeks ago, Stearns just felt good and started to get on a roll. He had had “a few” 300 games previously, he said, but he’d never flirted with 900.
“All I remember from the first game was that I threw the last shot in the 10th frame and was fortunate to get a strike,” Stearns said. “I didn’t think anything of it.”
In fact, Stearns said a 900 series wasn’t even his primary goal for most of the night. His league has a strike jackpot, awarded to bowlers who knock down all the pins in certain frames throughout the three games. “I was thinking about that, and when I needed to get strikes to win it,” Stearns said.
He took down the jackpot in the latter half of the third game. By then, Stearns could feel the tension mounting a little.
“I would say after the second 300 people were kind of watching and paying attention and knew what was going on,” he said. “After each shot it gathered a little more attention. I tried not to look behind me.”
Indeed, that’s the beauty of sports. For all the technological advancements and information, it does still come down to performing a physical feat. Doing anything 36 times in a row is hard, especially when nerves come into play.
“Honestly I wouldn’t know personally,” Murphy said of a 900 series. “But I can only assume it takes a pretty amazing level of focus to continue to make a certain amount of shots in repetitive fashion for three hours. It’s pretty incredible. As the number gets higher, I can only imagine a bowler would be thinking about it more and more.”
Stearns thought about it, but he stayed calm by reminding himself that 900 or not, he’d still be going to work in the morning. While he has aspirations of bowling on the professional tour — hopes that could gain steam after his big night — for now Stearns is a guy with a regular job who accomplished an extraordinary thing.
He did a handful of interviews, received a ring from the manufacturer of the bowling ball he used for his 900 series and had a couple hundred friend requests on Facebook.
And he’ll always have his name on a growing but still special list of bowlers who competed for three games and never missed once.
“It’s still surreal that it even happened or that it was even possible,” Stearns said.