Young, Gifted and Reckless, Bowler Pete Weber Tries to Keep His Life Out of the Gutter
Perhaps he will go on to be the greatest bowler who ever lived. Perhaps the 27 days he spent in booze-and-drug rehab in 1984 worked some sort of magic on him. Or perhaps he will fall victim of his own inner demons. But one thing is for sure about professional bowler Pete Weber: For better or for worse—and for much of the time it has been for worse—he is his own man. He—not the public, not the doctors, not even his family—will decide his fate. His harsh, self-destructive credo is X-rated: “Screw ’em,” he says, though not quite so politely. “I do what I want to do.”
At this moment what Pete Weber most wants to do is get rid of a god-awful hangover. Just last night pro bowling’s fastest-rising star bowled in an exhibition match in Rockford, Ill. Then, as is his habit, the 25-year-old went out and had a few beers. He caught an early morning flight home, and now he is sprawled on his living room couch in Florissant, Mo., just outside St. Louis. His head feels as if 1,000 gutter balls were rumbling therein. Weber shushes his kids, Ashleymarie, 2, and Nicole Anne, 6, and takes a sip of fruit juice. “I just drink beer now,” he says. “Beer doesn’t make me crazy.” His wife, DeeDee, 23, who has thrown Pete out three times during their tumultuous seven-year marriage, gives him a look that says, “Shut up!” He doesn’t. “When I drink mixed drinks,” he says, “I like to take on the whole bar.”
Later today Weber will fly to Rochester, N.Y., for a tournament. There, he vows, he will behave in a more sober and adult fashion. For one thing, he will be rooming with his dad. “When I room with Dad, I don’t party,” he says. “He keeps me calm.”
His dad, of course, is Dick Weber, 58, one of the legends of his sport and a member of the Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Fame. As Dick sees it, the prodigal son is prodigal in more ways than one. “Pete’s better than I ever was,” he maintains. That’s not just fatherly pride either. As great as Weber pére was, Weber fits really might be even greater. Whatever his problems—and they are legion—Pete utterly dominates the PBA tour. He was last year’s leading money winner, earning $179,516. He is also the youngest player ever to win 10 championships, and in seven years on the tour he has already won nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. Pete’s goal is as immodest as his gift for knocking down tenpins—to be the best ever. That is, to eclipse Earl Anthony’s record of 42 tournament victories and Mark Roth’s $1.3 million in career earnings. “I can do it,” says Pete. “I haven’t reached my peak yet. I can do it.”
Maybe. Providing he doesn’t do himself in first. The fans may love Weber because he’s uninhibited—a brash kid who never walks away from a good time. But the party animal has a dark side as well. Just ask his fellow pros. “Pete’s a tender subject with me,” says Marshall Holman, winner of the 1986 Firestone Tournament of Champions and Weber’s principal rival. “I mean, we’re not friends. He’s the best bowler I’ve ever seen, but he can be a real embarrassment. A lot of players have lost respect for him because of his drug and alcohol problems.” Mention Pete Weber to PBA President Ernie Schlegel, who was on the receiving end of a boozy tirade from Weber last May, and he nearly turns mauve with anger. “Pete screws up once more,” he shouts, “and he’s gone!”
Meaning suspended. Weber has been threatened with suspension before for such varied transgressions as taunting opponents, kicking out foul lights and screaming the dreaded fword on TV. To the PBA, which desperately wants to shed its blue-collar image and don yuppie glad rags, this sort of low-rent high jinks is mortifying. “I guess I do say f— too much,” Weber concedes. “But I’m my own person. If someone doesn’t like it, piss on ’em.” So ambivalent does Weber make the PBA, it named Holman Bowler of the Year, despite Pete’s higher earnings.
The youngest of three children born to Dick and Juanita Weber, Pete was a regular at Dick Weber Lanes, his father’s St. Louis bowling alley, even as a toddler. By the age of 12, he was bowling three hours a day, and not just because the games were free. “I hated school,” he says. “But trying to knock down 10 pins every time, that fascinated me.” At 17, he dropped out of high school and a year later joined the PBA tour.
In 1980 Pete met DeeDee during a Frisbee game in the parking lot at Dick Weber Lanes. Their courtship wasn’t exactly in the Ozzie-and-Harriet mode. She got pregnant; they got married. By this time Pete’s penchant for mind-altering drugs was nearly as staggering as his talent for bowling. Pete was knocking back a fifth of Jack Daniels a day and snorting seven or eight grams of coke a week. That was when he wasn’t smoking pot.
“I loved bowling high,” says Pete, who estimates that he blew about $200,000 in coke up his nose. “I didn’t care about anything and I bowled great.” Indeed, during a tournament in Dallas in 1984, he was 700 pins behind the leaders going into the final day. With nothing to lose he downed seven Long Island iced teas—a lethal concoction of seven different liquors and a splash of cola. Feeling no pain, he came roaring back into contention. “I missed by just a few pins,” he says, savoring the memory. Opponents were less enchanted since Weber tended to be abusive when drunk. “It was miserable bowling with him then,” says Holman. “But what was really infuriating was that he’d still beat me.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games for Weber. In the spring of 1984, when he came home loaded once too often, DeeDee tossed him and all his bowling trophies onto the lawn in the pouring rain. Dick and Juanita, who live just down the street, came over to mediate. “They raised hell,” says Pete. “I was hurting my family, and I didn’t mean to do that.” Two days later he entered the White Deer Treatment Center in Lonedell, Mo. He was released after 27 days and has remained drug free ever since, he says. But 13 months ago, after a tough tournament loss, he began drinking again. Not the hard stuff, he claims, just beer and wine. “People told me I couldn’t do it,” he says. “They told me I was an alcoholic. I said ‘B.S. I’ll do what I want.’ ” An expert might see Weber’s slip as his first step back into the maelstrom. Holman is no expert, just a concerned observer. “If Pete doesn’t stay clean,” he predicts, “he’ll kill himself.”
For the moment, though, Pete has arrived at a sort of uneasy truce with DeeDee, who has instituted a set of house rules. “He can’t drink at home,” she says, “and he can’t come home drunk. Other than that, I can’t worry about him anymore. He’s a big boy.”
As for Pete’s relations with his courtly road-roommate and father, the two appear to be closer than ever, bowling together occasionally in tournaments and playing golf. None of this has liberated the elder Weber from the pain of watching his son struggle with drugs and alcohol. “It was depressing and heartbreaking, as it would be for any parent,” admits Dick, who prefers to speak of Pete’s difficulties in the past tense. “But hell, everyone on the tour has had those problems at one time. Right now I feel fortunate. It’s the greatest thrill in a father’s life to have his son follow in his footsteps.”
On this night, in Rochester, N.Y., father and son check into a local hotel, showing up a few hours later at Marcel’s Olympic Bowl for the $150,000 Kodak Invitational. Everything seems in order. Pete follows all the familiar rituals. He steps to the foul line, lifts his 16-pound ball and spins it around in his towel five times. “I will hit my mark,” he tells himself. “I will strike. I will win.” But Pete begins disastrously. After nine games, he is 200 pins off the pace and in danger of missing the cut. “I can’t let it get to me,” he keeps muttering to himself. Then, suddenly, he catches fire. Five straight strikes send the crowd into a frenzy and catapult him back into contention. “I’m doing okay now, Dad,” he says, grabbing his father by the shoulders. “I’m doing okay.”
And for now, he is. For tonight. How will Pete Weber do tomorrow? “I just have to concentrate on bowling,” he shrugs. “And stay with my dad on the road.”
—Written by Jack Friedman, reported by Bill Shaw