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Ten years after he started bowling, Mahomet-Seymour graduate Rich Covington bowled his first 300 game.
“I was really nervous my last few frames,” Covington said. “I tried not to think about bowling a perfect game. I would talk to my friends about other things to keep my mind off my game.
“I also talked to myself to calm myself down and not get nervous.”
It worked. The right-hander rolled 12 consecutive strikes to achieve the feat at Arrowhead Lanes, in Champaign, on June 9, 1997.
He was 20 years old.
Now, he’s 40 years old and has rolled 300 games 89 times, a total believed to be higher than anyone else who currently is bowling in Champaign County.
“If someone would have told me I would have 89 (300 games) by the age of 40, I would have thought they were crazy,” Covington said.
He’ll have the opportunity for even more 300 games.
“My goal is to bowl until I’m 80, or as long as I can throw a ball down the lane,” Covington said.
To reach bowling’s pinnacle, Covington said, the keys are to “make sure you always hit your mark on the lanes and follow through. I always hope that I can carry well enough to strike all 12 frames.”
He gets an idea of what to expect during warm-ups.
“Sometimes, when I throw a practice ball and my ball has good reaction, I know that I’m going to bowl pretty good,” he said, “just not sure how good.”
Covington is not one who charts his score in his head as the game progresses.
“I pay attention to my score, but I don’t think about it too much while bowling,” he said. “I don’t want to talk myself out of a good game.”
Rules of etiquette exist as a bowler closes in on the ultimate milestone.
“No one trash-talks the bowler,” Covington said. “When it comes to the 10th frame, most bowlers use courtesy and let the bowler that is on their way to a 300 bowl first, and step back and wait.
“You usually hear a lot of chanting, like ‘come on ball,’ cheering on the bowler.”
When successful, the scene is chaotic. The bowler is engulfed by hugs, cheers and high-fives.
Covington was once nearly part of two perfect games at the same time. He rolled a 300 and teammate, Josh Hart, finished with a 299.
Covington bowls in leagues three nights a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays at Old Orchard Lanes, in Savoy, and Wednesdays at Arrowhead.
He doesn’t spend a lot of time at the lanes otherwise.
“I don’t practice much any more,” he said. “I just show up and bowl on league nights.”
It’s a philosophy that doesn’t need tweaking. Covington is carrying an average near 240 this season.
Bowling is an activity Covington has been around for years.
“My dad (Rick) and grandparents (John and Evelyn Shelton) were bowlers,” he said. “My cousin Mike (McWethy) and I were always at the bowling alley watching them.”
Covington’s mom (Rhonda) also worked at Western Bowl, in Champaign, during his youth.
“I loved bowling as a kid because I was able to hang out with my friends,” he said.
Covington got his first ball (a Twister) at age 12. He now has about 30, all of which weigh 15 pounds. He typically carries seven balls with him on bowling nights.
“It depends on the shot and how it changes if I change balls,” Covington said. “One of my balls is always my spare ball.”
He has never yet arrived at the lanes without either his shoes or the balls. More and more frequently, however, he is accompanied by a next-generation bowler.
“My oldest son Aaron (age 5) loves to bowl,” Covington said. “His cousin (Becca Spreen) made him a shirt for his birthday last year with bowling pins on the front and his name on the back.”
Rich Covington, who works at Clifford-Jacobs Forging, welcomes the chances to bowl beyond his league nights.
“I enjoy bowling recreationally with my family,” he said. “Now that I have kids, we bowl sometimes for fun.
“I do not bowl competitively when bowling with my son. I take that time and try to teach him lessons on bowling.
“He’s pretty good himself. He can put the correct fingers in the ball instead of just throwing the ball down the lane with both hands. He gets very excited when he knocks down any pins.”
Covington’s wife, Leslie, is a former bowler. He appreciates the opportunities she has to watch.
“I love having my family with me when I bowl,” Rich Covington said. “It’s not a distraction and I don’t get nervous when they watch.”
If not bowling, Covington has other ventures where he could spend free time. “I would do more golfing and fishing,” said Covington, who lives in Mansfield with his wife and two children. Noah will turn 1 on Saturday.
Rich Covington's bowling highlights:
—has totaled 89 career 300 games;
—twice bowled 300s on his birthday, Nov. 13, 2008 and Nov. 13, 2014;
—bowled back-to-back 300s at Arrowhead Lanes on May 7, 2001;
—highest three-game series is 863 (299-300-264);
—has bowled 300s at seven locations, Arrowhead Lanes (Champaign), Western Bowl (Champaign), Old Orchard Lanes (Savoy), Country Tyme Lanes (Rantoul), Hoinke Classic, Strike and Spare Western Bowl (Cincinnati), Spare Time Lanes (Decatur) and St. Clair Bowl (Belleville.)