Lanes 23 and 24. Tucked in the corner, where the lighting is a little duller. Over there by the jukebox.
Friday night. Late February. Outside the crisp air is as cold as the beer on tap.
And Jasper Cotten is red hot.
It’s a league night, so Kendale Lanes is hopping. The cacophony of heavy balls barreling down the lanes to clash with tumbling pins is music to every bowler’s ears.
Ah, music. Cotten can’t really hear any over the din of balls and pins, but his eyes catch the rotating pitcures on the jukebox screen. He keeps staring in that direction, waiting for his time to toe the line again.
His turn comes. He takes his ball, the one he bought new at the beginning of the league season, takes his mark, steps and swings.
The result is the same as the one before, and the one before that, and the three before that.
Back to his chair. Back to his jukebox. Back to his zone.
“I just tried to keep my mind there,” Cotten says months later. “Just keep it there and try to make the same throw.”
Cotten is humble. He’s 45 years old, works as a subcontractor in floor covering and hails from Pittsboro. He bowls in a Friday night league in Sanford because his son asked him to.
For five years, he didn’t bowl. Not because he didn’t enjoy it. But he’d been playing the sport off and on all his life. So he took a break.
But at his son’s behest, he came back. Can’t beat competing alongside the kid.
And Cotten is good, too. He’ll try to tell you he’s just a regular bowler, and among competitive local bowlers, maybe he is. But that 175 average is nothing to scoff at. You want this guy on your team.
Especially on that night.
There is a crowd forming behind him, but Cotten doesn’t see it. Doesn’t even sense it. Just him and the jukebox. Then it’s him and the pins.
Back and forth.
Perhaps one could see this coming. A few weeks earlier, Cotten had rolled a 262. It was his career-high score. He’s on a better pace on this night.
Steps. Swing. Throw.
“That new ball just started rolling good for me,” he says.
Back to the juke.
As anyone who has stepped foot into a bowling alley in the last two decades knows, you don’t have to keep a hand-written score anymore. Yes, the guy at the cash register will give you a scoresheet, but it’s primarily used to catalogue the number of games played and provide a template for some advertising.
The scores are readily available on the television monitors over the ball return. They instantaneously update the score as soon as the pins fall to the hardwood.
You always know where you and your competition stand. You cannot hide from it. Anyone who walks by your lane can tell your level of ability with just one quick glance at the brazen blue screen.
Cotten, though, doesn’t dare look up.
“No way,” he says. “I couldn’t look at the screen.
Not that one, anyway.
His turn again. Steps. Swing. Throw.
It comes off his hand wrong. At least, if feels wrong.
Still, it hits.
“Three balls weren’t pretty at all,” he can say now. “They all still went down.”
Cotten knows he’s close. How close, he isn’t exactly sure. He likes it that way. It’s why he won’t look up or make eye contact with any person behind him watching.
He stares at the juke, just wanting to keep making the best throws he can. He steps up again, goes through his motions and lets it fly.
The crowd around him erupts. Cotten is 12-for-12 on strikes for a perfect score of 300. It is the first 300 at Kendale Lanes in nearly three years.
Three weeks later, in mid-March, the winter league season was over.
Cotten hasn’t been back to the lanes since.
He goes to work, and even in triple-digit temperatures in late June, still finds the energy to get some chores done outside around his home. He’s waiting for the 300 ring he’s due to receive from U.S. Bowling Congress to arrive in the mail.
He’ll bowl again in the winter league, he says, but probably not before then. And he’ll always try to duplicate his perfect game, even if he didn’t even reach his average in either of the other two games in the series on his fateful night.
After all, if someone like him can do it once, why can’t he do it twice?
“It just goes to show that any average-type bowler can get one,” Cotten says. “Here I am, a 175-average bowler, who only bowls in a Friday night league, who never perceived it, who never expected to get one.
“You never know when Lady Luck will strike on you.”
Strike on you, huh?
Perfect word for the perfect game.