The nerds in our audience know @nerdist, Chris Hardwick. You may not know his father, Billy Hardwick, but then Chris didn't much know him, either, until near the end.
Chris Hardwick achieved nerd-dom the hard way: He earned it. He is 41 years old, a stand-up comic, television personality, and podcaster whose A-list of interviews includes Tina Fey, Mel Brooks, and Tom Hanks. He is the creator of Nerdist, a YouTube channel which The Washington Post has called "an online factory of earnest pop culture enthusiasm." Nerdists are this earnest and this enthusiastic: They believe "Star Wars" is the ultimate expression of man's creative genius.
Billy Hardwick was one of the best professional bowlers ever.
Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote this paragraph:
"Christopher Hardwick is four years old. Last Saturday he sat on his mother's knee as his father, Billy, bowled for the championship of the Toledo Open and its $10,000 first prize. When Hardwick missed an easy shot, his wife, Sharon, moaned. Christopher patted her on the cheek and said, 'Don't worry, little lady, he's going to win.'"
With those words, Chris established his future as a precocious observer, for his father did, in fact, win on that day in April of 1976.
It was Hardwick's first victory in seven years.
I knew him in those lost years because he had moved to Louisville, Ky., and I was a kid columnist at the Courier-Journal. One day in the winter of 1969, the phone rang. "This is Billy Hardwick, just wanted to say hello."
Billy Hardwick. I'd grown up with the wavy-haired, good-looking California blond whose smooth stroke and easy roll didn't so much batter pins into submission as artfully persuade them to all fall down. He seemed to be on television every Saturday with old guys named Don Carter, Dick Weber, and Ray Bluth (though never, alas, against the really old, lovable trick-shot legend, Andy Varipapa, famous for converting the 7-10 by rolling a ball with each hand). TV sports wasn't much in the three-network 1960s. The PBA Tour was ABC's glamor package. Billy Hardwick was its glamor boy.
In our first conversation, Hardwick said he'd quit for the season, maybe forever. I said something brilliant, like, "Whaaaat?" He was only 27. He had won a then-record seven events that year. He had been the PBA's Bowler of the Year twice and was the first man to win all three of the game's major championships. He'd worked through a life of rheumatoid arthritis that threatened to put him in a wheelchair. Why quit?
"Why should I make any more money?" he said. "It just goes to her." A divorce.
Since age 15, he had lived in bowling centers. ("Don't call 'em 'alleys,'" he said.) He first worked as a janitor at $1.65 an hour and all the bowling he could do before he closed the place at 2 a.m. Because he out-hustled every hustler who passed through town, 10 sponsors put up $200 each to send him on the pro tour in 1962.
He failed. On the lanes with the great Don Carter? Who, me, Billy Hardwick, from the projects of San Francisco, the dispossessed son of a tormented and tormenting house painter? He didn't cash a check in '62. "I was a spectator, scared to death, instead of a competitor." But in '63, he won four tournaments and was Bowler of the Year, hailed as "Billy the Kid," "The Blond Bomber." In his words: "Number one in the world."
He loved that life. He loved the competition. ("When I'm wired, my world is a ball, a shiny lane, and 10 pins. I don't see or hear anything else.") Loved the beer. (The first athlete in a Miller High Life spot.) Loved the parties. ("You never went home alone unless you wanted to.") He loved it all until he loved some of it too much and stole from himself the gift of talent that had carried him to the places he once dreamed of.
He led the PBA money winners in 1969 with $64,160. Even after telling me he'd quit for the year rather than make money for a woman he'd divorced, even after knowing the costs of a life of dissipation, Hardwick went back out there.
He failed again. In the next six seasons, he won a total of $65,765. The parties cost more than that. In that time, two sons died in infancy. He buried them in Kentucky.
"From leading the tour in money," he said, "I went to leading in self-pity."
To make $500, he did appearances. He was still Billy Hardwick. He once drove up the Ohio River toward Cincinnati, caught a ferry across the Ohio River to a small Indiana town called Rising Sun. For his $500, he spoke and rolled a few balls on the two lanes inside a hardware store.
His new wife, Sharon, didn't like this lost man. She wanted the guy she'd married. "For two years," Hardwick said in 1974, "she's been reading 'Psychic Cybernetics' in my ear, trying to get it into my mind." The book was one of those self-help, positive-thinking things. When Sharon's mother died, and his wife fell into darkness, Hardwick finally heard the message.
"I became the positive one," he said. "I had to help her. I did it for her."
In 1975 and 1976, Hardwick four times made the PBA's five-man finals. Then came the victory at Toledo and a runner-up finish in the season's Tournament of Champions.
By then 35 years old and increasingly diminished by the arthritis, Hardwick effectively retired from competition. He never won again. Instead, the boy who began as a bowling center janitor wound up as the owner, for 30 years, of Billy Hardwick's All-Star Lanes in Memphis, Tenn.
Early in 2012, he did a podcast with Chris. Be warned, it's almost two hours long, but if you're a father or a son or a mother or a daughter, it's worth your time. (Unless, of course, you've already heard your dad's tale of the four-mile drive with a condom.) It's funny, it's raw, it's poignant. Mostly, it's pure Billy Hardwick, a man who endured the fires of a tortured youth, knew the hell of a lost middle age, and yet, at age 70, had found peace. My favorite line of the podcast was the last, surely an aside not meant for the microphone and yet saved on the tape. It's Billy saying, "Can I have a beer now?"
In August this year, Hardwick asked his son a favor.
"He wanted me to ask my mother if it would be all right to relocate the remains of my infant brother, Joseph, from Louisville to Memphis," Chris said.
There had been a Sharon-Billy divorce, remarriages by both followed by emotional and geographic separations. The reburial brought Billy, Sharon, and Chris together for the first time in years.
"Just the three of us and the priest," Sharon said. "It was lovely, and the last thing Billy said to me was, 'I feel like I've come full circle, and I'm happy, and if I have go to, OK, I'm happy.' Why he said 'if I have to go,' I don't know. Just that summer, a doctor told him he had the heart of a 30-year-old. But that's what he said."
Last week, at his wife's side in a car taking them to an airport for a flight home to Memphis, Billy Hardwick died of a heart attack. He was 72.