Former NFL standout competes at 2019 USBC Open Championships

LAS VEGAS - Nick Barnett of Carlsbad, California, spent nearly a decade in one of the most bowler-populated areas of the country, but it wasn't until the next phase of his life and career that he himself became a bowler.

Barnett was a standout linebacker for the National Football League's Green Bay Packers from 2003-2010, and while there are many things Wisconsinites love, bowling and Packers football easily are near the top of the list.

Though Barnett didn't bowl while in Green Bay, it turns out bowling actually was part of his youth, and there was a point in his childhood where he had to choose between the two sports because his family could not afford for him to do both.

Decades later, after playing in more than 150 NFL games with three teams - he played for the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins from 2011-2013 - Barnett found himself back in a bowling center, and it re-ignited a passion.

"My dad bowled when I was young, and I actually bowled one year in a junior league, but I had to choose between that and football because we didn't have enough money to do both," Barnett said. "Football was my No. 1 love, so I chose that, but I still went to the bowling alley to watch my dad. It always was there and part of my life, and I was excited to get back to it after I retired."

Barnett said his return to the lanes came while seeking warmth and entertainment after a day of snowboarding.

After bowling well and enjoying himself during a few recreational outings, he made his way to a local pro shop for some equipment of his own, and he's been a regular on the lanes ever since.

Now, two years later, the 38-year-old right-hander felt ready to test his newly developed bowling skills on the sport's biggest stage at the 2019 United States Bowling Congress Open Championships. He was invited to compete in the 2018 tournament in Syracuse, New York, but he wanted another year to get more comfortable as a competitive bowler.

Barnett made his tournament debut this week at the South Point Bowling Plaza as part of a group of nearly 20 teams, and he's already working on his game plan for his sophomore campaign at the one-of-a-kind National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada.

"They told me it was a blast, but it would be hard, and probably a little frustrating at times, and it was, but at the end of the day, I learned a lot and had a lot of fun," Barnett said. "I'm always prepared for what it takes to perform at the highest level, but this definitely is something you have to experience first. Now that I've been here, I understand the conditions better and know there's some things I'll need to work on for next year."

In his first appearance at the USBC Open Championships, Barnett got better with each event, and his performance included sets of 531 in singles, 475 in doubles and 412 in team.

He joins a growing list of former and current professional athletes who compete at the Open Championships, including NFL Hall of Famer Terrell Owens and past Major League Baseball all-star John Burkett, who both competed in the 2019 event. Burkett is ninth in the Regular All-Events standings (2,095).

Barnett knows football and bowling are two completely different sports, but both can challenge you mentally. Then, add in the challenge of the Open Championships.

In football, if you get mad or frustrated, you can take it out on someone else on the next play.

In bowling, if you let your frustration linger, it most likely will affect your next shot, and probably the shot after that, and not in a positive way. So, adjusting to the mental side of bowling probably has been Barnett's biggest challenge.

"I'm not saying I've been great at handling it, because I still let some stuff get to me, but I'm getting better at it," Barnett said. "I just tell myself to breathe and remind myself that I can make the shot because I am a good bowler and know what to do. One mistake doesn't define you as a bowler or a person. Plus, there's no person to hit when I mess up here, and I don't want to hit myself, so I just try to relax and enjoy it."

As a lifetime athlete, Barnett is not afraid to work hard and take the steps that will help him excel, regardless of the sport or activity. Bowling-wise, that started with visiting local his pro shop for his equipment needs and later included the guidance of a USBC-certified coach.

BakerMarkForWeb240x240His quick progression on the lanes came with the help of Team USA assistant coach Mark Baker, who is one of the best-known coaches up and down the West Coast.

When Baker, who lives about 75 miles away, is not available, Barnett leans on the other competitors in his own bowling community for guidance and a competitive push.

Baker notes that Barnett's athleticism makes him easy to work with because he's more familiar with his body and able to quickly make any necessary changes or adjustments, and he has a great physical game, especially for someone so new to competitive side of the sport.

Learning to think and react like a bowler will take some time, compared to the bang-bang decisions and in-the-moment adjustments required on the football field.

"Physically, Nick has come a long way quickly, and he's very easy to coach," Baker said. "The thinking part is a little different because bowling and football are so different. You can't change his DNA and what made him such a great professional athlete, so it will take time to learn and grow that part of it."

The next step in Barnett's bowling progression will be to experience more environments like the Open Championships and its challenging lane conditions, and he and Baker will use what he saw and learned at the South Point Bowling Plaza to get him ready for the 2020 event in Reno.

"The only way to really get good at bowling on the tougher patterns is to keep doing it," Baker said. "We talked a little about Sport conditions already, but it was something he needed to go out and experience first. Now that he's been there, we can take the info he gathered and make a plan for next time."

Part of Barnett's dive into bowling includes helping the next generation of competitors enjoy and learn, just as he has over the last two years.

The opportunity to pay it forward is something he already was doing in the football world, and being able to do the same for bowling came as pleasant surprise as his own bowling career has progressed.

Barnett is especially proud of being able to keep young bowlers involved, especially when circumstances otherwise might force them to step away from the game like he did as a young bowler.

"It's funny, I barely even coach football anymore, and I've really had a lot of fun helping the youth leagues and bowlers," Barnett said. "We've got one of the biggest youth programs and spend a lot of time with them at Surf Bowl. I'm also able to help get equipment for the kids who may not have the means to get it, and that's rewarding. As I said earlier, I once was faced with the decision to choose between football and bowling, and I don't want the cost involved to make them have to choose, too."

Barnett also has five children of his own, and three have taken a liking to bowling, though they're not quite ready for organized competition.

He encourages them to play as many sports as they might be interested in, and if the time comes where they choose to narrow their focus, he'll be just as supportive.

Along with the opportunity to be a mentor on the lanes, Barnett enjoys bowling because of the camaraderie and consistency it offers, filling a void that was created when he walked out of an NFL locker room for the last time in 2013.

"A lot of retired football players leave the game and immediately lose the locker room and camaraderie aspect of their lives, but the bowling community offers a similar type of support system and reliability," Barnett said. "You know you're going to see those friends each week at leagues and events, and it also helps with the competitiveness that never goes away."

Ironically, some of Barnett's football teammates bowled, and even participated in bowling fund raisers, but it's not something that ever interested him while he was in Green Bay.

Now, whenever he goes back to Wisconsin, he makes sure to have his bowling equipment with him, so he can spend some time on the lanes at The Ashwaubenon Bowling Alley, just a short drive from his former home, Lambeau Field, and a recent stop for some top-tier USBC and Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour events.GreenBayForWeb250x140

It's likely Barnett will run into some football fans while bowling in Green Bay, many of whom could rattled off many of his career football stats, but most will admit they didn't know he was a bowler.

Well, he wasn't. But he is now.

On the football field, the first-round draft pick (2003) played in 153 games for three teams, earned all-pro honors in 2007 and was part of the Packers team that won Super Bowl XLV, though he was not able to play in the big game after a wrist injury ended his season after just a few games. That was his final year with the team.

As a bowler, Barnett is just getting started, and bowling is a sport that can be enjoyed by competitors of all ages and skill levels.

"One thing about bowling is that you can do it for the rest of your life, and it's something you can share with your kids and friends and family," Barnett said. "It's also a great new challenge, and it has been fun. I'm used to performing at a high level, and that has been another challenge with stepping into this new world. I still want to be the best, so I'm trying to put in the time to learn and improve, especially since I'm competing with and against guys who have been doing this their whole lives."

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