Head to the Lafayette Bowling Lanes on Thursday night, and you’ll encounter a group of black bowlers whose weekly passion and camaraderie have spanned decades.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” Joseph Cotton said of the Oak Rollers bowling league whose members are committed to the lanes.
They do not allow anything to interfere with their sport.
“I quit three jobs because I couldn’t go bowling,” said Herbert Broussard, who has been bowling since 1958.
He’s been bowling so far back that he can remember Booker T Lanes on Twelfth Street.
And he like other members can recall an era when black people had to wait until the late hours to bowl at white establishments — that’s if they were even allowed inside.
“You couldn’t get in the bowling lane until 12 midnight to 5 a.m.,” Broussard said. “Walking through the door any time before that was a problem.”
That history is behind the group today.
Bowling, even back then, takes precedence as a competitive sport.
“It’s just something we picked — we wanted to do,” said John Washington, league president.
The Oak Rollers’ history includes St. Landry Parish members who bowled at the Yambilee Lanes about five decades ago. When those lanes closed in the late 1960s, Eunice resident Gerald Hardy said that a few of them started coming to Lafayette and ended up merging with the league known then as the Peppermint Strikers — so named for their sponsor’s local nightclub.
Today’s league has about 30 members.
Hardy, along with Opelousas residents Willie Savoie, Antoine Lewis and Clarence Merricks, consider themselves the old-timers because they’re among the oldest in the league.
Their love for the sport runs deep.
“Once I started bowling, it was hard to stop,” Hardy said.
“It’s not only the athletic part of it — but the competition, just something I just love to do. I’m an athlete at heart,” he added.
For Joseph “Milton” Benoit, the group offers more than an opportunity to bowl.
“I like it — all the camaraderie with the many get-togethers,” Benoit said.
When Regis Allison moved from Baton Rouge to Lafayette, he was looking for a league to join, and the Oak Rollers was the recommendation. He has been with the group since 1998, but his love for bowling dates back to his military days when he was in his 20s.
Allison said it is the competitive nature of the game that keeps the guys coming back week after week.
“Everybody strives to be better — that’s life,” Allison said. “You want to be better in life, and bowling offers you the opportunity to be better. That’s a strong driving force for all of us.”
That driving force has reaped victories for the league in competition.
However, the bowlers are striking out with the young generation, and in this case, a strike is not a good thing. What they have enjoyed for many years has not sparked much interest with the youth, according to members. And that concerns them.
That is why the league president’s priority is recruitment.
“I want to try to get more bowlers, more African-Americans involved in bowling,” Washington said.
“It’s a wonderful sport to be engaged in,” Allison said.