Every Tuesday night, 23-year-old Brady Stearns bowls in a league with two friends and his father, Bob, at St. Cloud's Southway Bowl.
And most days, Stearns heads to his day job as a manager at a local Little Caesars Pizza. His customers there probably don't know that a few weeks ago Stearns reached a bowling pinnacle: In league play, at Southway Bowl, he rolled a 900 series.
Yes, that's three consecutive perfect games. That's 36 consecutive strikes, spread out over several hours, with drama building between each one.
"Honestly I don't even know how to describe it," Stearns said in a recent phone interview.
And yet the feat, while rare, is happening at a rate that might surprise more casual bowlers.
The first United States Bowling Congress-approved 900 series came almost exactly 20 years ago in Nebraska, by a bowler named Jeremy Sonnenfeld. When Stearns rolled his three perfect games in a row, he became the 33rd bowler to do it — and the third one already in 2017. There were also three of them in 2016 and two each in the previous four years. Darin Pomije of New Prague, in 2004, is the only other Minnesotan with a 900 series.
Why is it happening so frequently now, when it never used to happen?
"I think the easiest way to answer that is that the game is evolving in incredible ways — technology through the years has expanded," said Chad Murphy, executive director of the United States Bowling Congress. "There are thicker oils, stronger balls and better players. The education that a bowler gets these days is stronger than it has been in the past. ... The information age is everywhere. Now it's happening in bowling."
Stearns, then, is the perfect combination of talent, determination and willingness to pay attention to the sport's evolution. His dad, Bob, was a professional bowler. The unassuming lanes where he rolled his 900 series were actually built by Bob Stearns in the 1970s and run by the family for several years.
Bowling is different now. When Stearns and two bowler friends traveled to Las Vegas for a tournament earlier this year, they had 45 bowling balls between them — 600 to 700 pounds worth — packed into a midsize SUV.
"It's hard to explain, but the easiest way is that each ball does something different. You kind of need something different for different shots," said Stearns, who is righthanded and always uses a 15-pound ball. "With the technology with bowling balls, it's not easier to strike — but in a way it kind of is.
Stearns' 900 series, though, was a good blend of high-tech and low-tech. He knew which ball he wanted to use because he had thrown a 279 using it the previous week in league play. But he doesn't haul in the full dozen-plus balls on Tuesday nights. On that night a few weeks ago, Stearns just felt good and started to get on a roll. He'd had "a few" 300 games previously, he said, but he'd never flirted with 900.
"I would say after the second 300 people were kind of watching and paying attention and knew what was going on," he said. "After each shot it gathered a little more attention. I tried not to look behind me."
After finishing the 900 series, Stearns received a ring from the manufacturer of the bowling ball he used for his 900 series and had a couple hundred friend requests on Facebook. Plus, he'll always have his name on a growing but still special list of bowlers who competed for three games and never missed once.
"It's still surreal that it even happened or that it was even possible," Stearns said.