Photograph by Kevin A.Roberts
Pete Weber kisses the ball, giving it a quick tender brush with his thin lips. Then he raises it, letting its heft and power cancel all thought, and holds it out in front of his body, elbow-high.
“He’ll never be his father,” people used to say, just loud enough for Pete to hear. That flat dismissal enraged him. But when you asked him quietly, he said it himself: “I’ll never be as good as my dad.”
He breathes all the air out of his lungs, muscles relaxing like a collapsed balloon.
The wins piled up, but people still shook their heads. Pete was just too brash, had too many problems. His father, now there was a gentleman, nicest guy in the world, the ambassador of bowling.
He starts his approach, his step as placed and light as a ballet dancer’s. It’s a comparison he’d loathe. He styles himself after wrestlers.
Dick Weber died peacefully in his sleep in 2005. Pete couldn’t bowl worth a lick the rest of the year. But he came back, and in 2007, he tied his father’s record for winning four U.S. Open championships.
Now his fifth is, quite literally, within striking distance.
His arm comes down, easy and natural as a bird’s swoop, the weight of the ball creating all the momentum, no muscles tightening to force it.
Pete started the U.S. Open unremarkably, then managed to move from 13th to fourth place just in time for the finals. Nobody’s picked him as the winner: He’s 49 years old, for God’s sake. Nobody that old has ever won the U.S. Open. But he came from behind and beat Ryan Shafer with a strike in the 10th frame. Another 10th-frame strike, against Australian powerhouse Jason Belmonte, got him to the title match.
He starts that famous backswing, cranking his arm higher than anybody ever thought he could sustain.
Mike Fagan’s matched him every step of the way, and now it’s the final frame, again, and Pete needs another strike to win the match.
The ball comes away from his hand like it’s gliding down a slide of ice. It veers to the right, like Pete’s balls always do, and makes a pretty little curve back toward the center, hitting the sweetest spot on the pins and knocking down every single one of them with an explosive bang.
Pete Weber’s just won the 2012 U.S. Open by a single point, 215–214.
He spins around, looking for a fan he swears has been trying to distract him all afternoon. “Yes! Goddamn it! Yes!” he screams. “That is right, I did it! I’m number five!” Now he’s scanning, his rage taking in the whole audience. “Are you kidding me? That’s right!” He punches his fist into his palm. “Who do you think you are? I am! Did it right!” He glares down the lane at the pins.
Then he walks to the stands, kisses his wife, and falls to his knees. Only now do the tears come. “Dad, I know you were watching,” he says, on his feet again and looking upward. “I know you’re proud. And I’m sorry I broke your record.”
“Come here, Petey!” called his mom, Nete. “Your father’s on TV!” Pete, 4 years old, sat cross-legged right in front of the TV and watched every second. The next day, before Dick had a chance to set down his bowling bag, Pete asked if he’d teach him to bowl.
“Certainly I will,” Dick said.
He taught his son the basic five-step delivery, then walked away. If Pete wanted to know more, he’d have to ask. Dick was determined not to force bowling on any of his children. He was pushier about baseball, got himself thrown out of most Khoury League parks by yelling things like, “Hey ump, put some glasses on!” Pete was always one of the first kids picked for any team, and he loved sliding into home, wasn’t happy until his uniform got dirty. He liked baseball a lot better than bowling until he turned 14.
That’s the year he begged his dad to let him join the adult league. First game out, Pete bowled 300. He was summoned to the desk and handed a $100 check. Heady stuff, for a kid who hated school and loved to win.
He decided that night to become a pro.
His father was his hero, but Mark Roth was his idol. With his long sideburns, Roth looked like Gene Simmons of KISS. “He takes his fingers and just shoves them into the ball, jams his thumb in, takes eight steps, and at the point of release, his wrist goes wham!” Pete told his dad. “It was like somebody started a chain saw! And he shot 299! That’s how I want to bowl, right there.”
The next day, Dick took Pete to Dick Weber Lanes, the bowling alley he co-owned in Florissant, and said, “All right, let’s try it. The only thing you need to do is start bending over a bit.” Pete bent, swung his arm back as high as he could, and turned the ball as hard as he could, to get that wild spin and hard slam.
Old-timers told him he’d only last a few years, bowling like that. What they didn’t realize was how naturally that exaggerated backswing came to him. His approach was so fluid that five steps looked like one, and he sent the ball spinning forward without a split second’s hesitation. Every shot was consistent. He knew what he wanted.
Pete’s older brothers, Rich and John Weber, had never wanted to win quite that badly. They flinched at the pressure of the pro circuit, the expectations that fell on any son of Dick Weber.
Then came Pete. Dick watched him thoughtfully, and finally said it out loud: “You are going to be the best in the family.”
Pete startled like a colt. “Dad, I’m sorry, but I’m never going to be as good as you,” he said, all the bravado gone.
“Don’t worry,” Dick said. “You’re going to surpass me easily.”
You’d have to know Dick Weber to know what a shock Pete was. Dick was kind to everyone, handsome in that soap-scrubbed ’50s way. “Everybody loved Dick, ’cause he loved everybody,” says Nete. “I used to be jealous!”
Their youngest’s temperament seemed just the opposite: cocky, prone to tantrums. It wore on his father. Like the day Pete wasn’t bowling well, so he took it out on an unsuspecting golf machine at Weber Lanes, banging and beating on it. “Dick comes up from behind,” remembers a bystander, “and grabs him by the ear and says, ‘My name is on this building. You will not act like a 2-year-old.’”
For the family, those episodes are all by-gones, the tension drained out of them long ago. But outsiders who saw only a few vignettes remember them vividly, because Pete as the bad boy always made for great stories.
And Pete knew it.
He was, genuinely, the Webers’ black sheep, restless and explosive. He left high school to bowl, got his GED, got a girl pregnant, married her at 19, divorced and remarried and divorced again. He’d come into bowling at the end of his father’s golden age, entering those quiet, well-behaved tournaments that were about as exciting to watch as wet paint drying. His talent was undeniable—in 1986, at age 24, he became the youngest player in Professional Bowlers Association history to win 10 titles. But his temper was intolerable.
He drank, did cocaine, went through rehab, acted out, drank more, cussed and yelled, went through rehab again. In 2000, he was out on probation from competition just as his sport hit its lowest point; nearly bankrupt, the PBA was bought by three former Microsoft executives.
Pete’s era had begun.
He really likes eating at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, and—even though he’s trying to get more adventurous—he always orders Mongolian beef. He managed to try live squid on a recent trip to Japan. “My friend said, ‘Pe-ter, you try!’ O-kay. I pulled one of the tentacles off, dipped it in the sauce. Mmm, not too bad. Then I reached for another one, and it started pulsating.” He shudders. “My friend’s wife got the fish, and the fish’s lips were still moving as she was picking the meat off.”
So sometimes the same thing’s better.
It’s like his towel. “When I’m sitting there waiting to bowl, I’ll take my towel, fold it the same way, place it on my lap in the same way,” he says. “Just things that make me feel comfortable. And I sit the same way.” He pulls a chair from another table and sits on it to demonstrate, his napkin standing in for the towel. “My first title, I won in a red shirt. My 11th, I won in a red shirt. My 21st, I won in a red shirt. It’s every 10 titles. But my 31st, I didn’t wear red. Because every time I wore red on TV, I was not very good.”
His new color’s green, for luck. “I don’t care what sport you play, somewhere along the line there’s luck involved,” he says. “If you are not lucky, you are never going to be good.” He sees me write this down and squint at it. “If you are trying to be good, to be a perfectionist, you are never going to catch the breaks,” he explains, “’cause all the time you are trying to be good you are forgetting about all the luck involved in it. Trust me, I’d rather be lucky than good any day.”
Maybe that’s why he’s relaxed enough to pull off so many tiebreaking strikes. Maybe it’s why he’s so vulnerable on camera, uncaging need and rage and exultation so primal, most pros only let them out on a tight leash.
The Microsoft guys encouraged his no-holds-barred reactions, knowing TV viewers would be riveted. As for Pete’s shtick, he stole it all from World Wrestling Entertainment. His PDW tag echoes Rob Van Dam’s RVD; his trademark vulgarity, a crotch chop, is pure D-Generation X. “I just brought some of that to the bowling show,” he tells me, just as his Mongolian beef arrives. “I looked into the camera and went”—he stands and gestures, hands diagonal to frame his crotch, lips silently forming the words “Suck it.”
“Yeah, I got a lot of flak,” he says, resuming his seat. “Junior bowlers started doing it and getting kicked out. Y’know what? Your kids watch a helluva lot worse.”
Pete continued to amp it up on TV, gladly risking $1,000 fines. Even his shocked-and-appalled critics had to watch to see what he’d do next. The sport started to gain momentum again, largely from Pete’s TV antics and the shift they signaled. He now had a precarious new role: bad-boy savior.
When he won the 1991 U.S. Open, he lifted the trophy over his head, and the eagle fell off and shattered. Rich cracked up at the look on his baby brother’s face: “Uh-oh, what’d I do? Am I in trouble again?”
Pete started to steady himself a few years later, when he fell back in love with Tracy Goettel, who’s now his wife. She grew up in Florissant, like he did, and her whole family bowled, too. “Every time she’d walk by,” Pete says, “I’d—” He stops talking, lets his shoulders drop, stares fixedly at the ground. “I thought she was the most beautifulest girl in the whole world. I finally asked her out on a date, and we had one date, and I didn’t call her again for 16 years.”
(He took her to a party, then deserted her for what probably felt like forever, hanging out with the guys in another room. She wasn’t thrilled, and he didn’t get up the nerve to call her again until after his second divorce.)
“Besides my mom, Tracy’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he says. “She’s made me grow up a little bit more: not blowing things off, being responsible for my actions.” I ask how she manages to curb his behavior. “She doesn’t really do anything,” he says. “She doesn’t nag or cajole or put pressure on me to do anything. She’s just—different. I respect her. And I hate to be alone, and I don’t want her to leave.”
In 1995, Pete had the worst year of his life. He made $4,500. And he almost quit bowling.
He’d learned by bowling a rubber ball down an oiled wood lane and watching it smash into three-pound pins. Then the balls changed to urethane, “and that was like throwing a bomb down at the pins. The urethane grabbed the oil a little bit better, and that gave the ball more power. It hit the pins and they exploded.” That was great—until they went to a reactive resin ball, which overreacted. Pete would have to stand far to the left and spin the ball to the right, and if it didn’t reach the dry part of
the lane fast enough, it wouldn’t hook back…
Hot with frustration, he told Tracy he was quitting and going back to school.
“You know how to bowl,” he says she told him smartly. “You are going to pull your head out of your ass, and you are going to learn how to do this.”
Pete nodded, meek with failure, and dialed his brother Rich, the best teacher he knew. They worked together every day for four months, until Pete learned to spin the ball forward, end over end, not side to side, and his hook came back under control.
In 1997, he became the second bowler to hit the $2 million mark in tour earnings.
Granted, the money left as fast as it came—going to child support, alcohol, rehab, and anything anybody needed. “When Pete had money, everybody had money,” says his mother.
He never quit drinking entirely, but now he drinks like a middle-aged man, complete with euphemisms (“We only party once a week”) and fond reminiscences of who bought which post-tournament shots of booze and how he forgot where he’d left his bowling ball. Tracy’s been a good influence.
“She’s definitely his other half,” says his oldest daughter, Nicole. “He likes bowling much better when she’s there. She surprised him the day of the U.S. Open championship and showed up. They didn’t even have to say anything, and my brother and I knew everything they were saying to each other, just watching on TV.”
Pete and Tracy bowl every Thursday night at St. Charles Lanes. It’s a scratch league; anybody can win. The lanes’ blond wood gleams, some of the gutters are painted bright blue, and the pastel murals above the pins look like ’70s posters. There’s a slouchy, beers-and-smokes banter that’s instantly relaxing.
Here, Pete is Dick Weber’s son, but in an OK way. “Petey’s Petey, and Dick was Dick,” one man says, smiling. Another remembers bowling with Pete when he was 14.
“Not quite as ornery now, am I?” Pete asks. He bowls strike after strike, then leaves a pin standing. People around lane seven look up, wait for the next turn. He bowls a strike. “There it is,” somebody calls, sounding relieved. Pete bowls again, and the last pin wobbles, then goes down. He does a little dance. “Don’t hurt that pin,” he yells.
He’d rather see them all smash down at once, of course. But Thursday nights are just for fun. He bowls with a different partner every week. “The guy bowling with me right now averages 148,” he whispers. “I don’t really know him, but I try to keep him encouraged, so he isn’t throwing F-bombs.”
The man seems perfectly placid. Who’s Pete really talking about?
I ask if anger’s what fuels him, powers those miraculous strikes.
“Not if I get mad at myself,” he says. “If I get mad at myself, then no, I’m not helping my cause at all. But when a fan makes me upset or another bowler makes me upset, that brings out the best in me, because it pisses me off.”
Someone seated behind him starts laughing: “God forbid somebody in the stands piss him off.”
It’s an older guy laughing, a friend of the family (a loose designation applicable to most of Florissant and much of the bowling world). He reminds Pete he’s got the original score sheet with the last three games Dick ever bowled, not long before he died. “Score was 674. It was here. After they were done bowling that night, they had a gold pin at the desk, I went back and got another one out of the back, and Dick signed it for me. Then everybody wanted him to sign pins.
“Oh, he was just a prince,” the man continues. “Never said no to an autograph. Talked to you like he knew you his whole life.” He remembers himself, glances sideways, says heartily, “Pete’s got the same gift. If he ever meets you one time, he will never ever forget your name.”
“No,” Pete says, “that’s not true. I remember faces, not names.” He’s firm about the distinction; he doesn’t want extra credit.
The thing is, he is well-loved, at least by people who know him. He’s easygoing about everything but tournament bowling.
Though sometimes, all the legend and lore does try his patience.
“Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected? Yeah, my ass he was!” he says, grinning. “At the beginning of his career, yes. But as you get older, temper’s a little quicker. You can write this if you want—my mom knows about it. In I think ’83, in Vegas, I’m bowling next to him. He needs a strike to make the cut. He leaves a tenpin. He turned around and said, ‘Sonofabitch!’ and made a 60-yard field goal with the ball return! Kicked it just like that.” Pete kicks the air. “He knocked me off my chair, I was laughing so hard, and the whole audience gasped. ‘Oh my God! Dick Weber just kicked the ball return! Did you hear him? He said ‘Sonofabitch’!’”
Being Dick Weber’s son got Pete breaks and attention—and people mistrusted his ability because of it. Being Dick Weber’s son also cranked up the pressure and expectations, and he’s finally learned, sort of, to shrug them off.
“The only pressure is what I put on myself,” he says. He repeats the sentence regularly, always with the same inflection. It’s become his mantra. “As long as I don’t stand there and think about it… I do everything behind the approach; I see my shot before I throw it. I visualize my shot. Pick up my ball, put my fingers in, put my thumb in, get set, blow all the air out of my body to get relaxed. The more calm I am, the easier it is to throw the shot. The more I think about it, the harder it is. Norm Duke, he’ll stand there for 20 seconds. If I stood there for 20 seconds, you might as well just pull me off the approach, because I’m not even going to start.”
Nicole has stopped by to watch him and Tracy bowl, and she’s listening. Later, she tells me he’s taken to talking to his dad when he bowls. “Like if a pin shouldn’t have fallen, but it did, he’ll say, ‘Yeah, Dad!’”
So who’s better? Pete’s mom says her son is, and she says Dick thought so, too. Rich says yeah, maybe so. Their dad had a classic style. “His timing was never as good as Pete’s, that’s for sure.” Dick threw the ball a little differently every time—but he made instinctive corrections at the line, to make it good. Pete’s so consistent, he doesn’t have to bother.
Pete brushes all of this away, like it’s spider webs in his face. “People will say I’m better than Dad, but I will never say I’m better than Dad at anything. His life in bowling was 10 times harder than mine. You only had two bowling balls to work with. You drove everywhere. He was the greatest ambassador to bowling anyone has ever known. He did everything for the sport, nothing for himself. He would always feel sorry for the guy he beat and happy for the guy who beat him. Sorry, I’m not happy when a guy beats me.”
Six months after Pete won his fifth U.S. Open, on August 21, he turned 50. Now the PBA Senior Tour is open to him, with more records to break. But there’s only one he wants badly.
“I’ve never been PBA Player of the Year,” he says.
His father was back in 1965.