For several years, Bill Kernan, a professional bowler from Northeast Philadelphia, had noticed a dip in his game.
His ball speed and rev rate — a metric that shows the number of revolutions on a roll — were declining. Kernan, who’s 54, thought he was just getting older (the Professional Bowlers Association does have an over-50 division, after all).
But the problem was that Kernan was suffering from osteomyelitis, a bone infection, which he was unaware of before being rushed to Nazareth Hospital in an ambulance in late March 2020.
“They thought I was dead, and my surgeon, to this day, tells me that I was on death’s doorstep,” Kernan, of Rhawnhurst, told Metro.
Doctors removed his left leg, and now, Kernan is on an improbable mission to return to competitive bowling. He says he would be the PBA’s first above-the-knee amputee.
“When I go to therapy, and even my prosthetist, they tell me how people get a leg and they don’t put it on until they go to therapy,” Kernan said. “They don’t use it, and their life is over. I’ve got so much to live.”
Kernan sports a high-tech prosthetic leg that has several different settings, including a bowling mode. The knee stops when it hits a 45-degree angle, allowing Kernan to replicate his approach.
In addition, the prosthetic can be fully rotated so Kernan can change the soles and heels of his shoes, a necessity for pros when lane conditions change.
It’s not certain when he will be cleared to return to a bowling alley. Most of the time, Kernan can walk with a cane, but he is still learning how to navigate life with a prosthetic.
He has, however, begun going back to the gym, sometimes against the wishes of his wife and doctors.
“When I lost my leg and I was in the hospital and then I was bedridden, I lost so much muscle tone,” he said. “I couldn’t stand looking at myself.”
Kernan is a regular at the Planet Fitness on Roosevelt Boulevard near Red Lion Road in the Far Northeast.
During his first workout without his wife, the gym’s manager, Carmelo Otero, and staff monitored Kernan through the building’s security system, they later told him. Members have begun wearing wristbands in support of Kernan.
Along with getting his cardio up, he is working to strengthen the muscles around his hip, a critical area if he is able to reach his goal of walking unassisted.
‘Bowling has given us a lot’
Kernan’s been bowling since he was 5 or 6 years old, growing up in Mayfair, and the game helped him bond with his father.
“We were best friends,” he said. “Before I became a pro, we bowled doubles together in leagues. We were tight.”
After the disappointment of being cut from Father Judge High School’s bowling team, Kernan went to a bowling center in New Jersey, where he worked and trained.
Kernan, as an amateur, went home with checks from his first two PBA tournaments.
“My life has revolved around the game since, and I’m very passionate about it,” he said.
Under the association’s rules, anyone who finishes in the money in two competitions must become a member before participating again.
Over the past three decades, he has traveled to regional PBA tournaments up and down the East Coast and in the South.
Kernan characterized his professional career as “maybe a little bit above average.” Though he has never won a PBA competition, he said he’s earned more than 50 titles in bowling tournaments and leagues.
“Bowling has given us a lot. It’s enabled me, at one point, to make my livelihood from it,” he said “I’ve gotten great friends. I’ve gotten great connections.”
The sport, he said, allowed him to go years without another job. He runs a bowling shop out of his house, drilling balls and helping other players.
For extra money, Kernan has worked as an insurance broker and in the trucking and printing industries.
Cash has been tight since the amputation, which forced him to outfit his house with handicap ramps, handrails and other modifications. He also pays out-of-pocket for his physical therapy.
“I’m trying to create more streams of revenue,” he said. “I have nothing left.”
He is running a GoFundMe to cover some of the costs. The effort had raised nearly $1,250 as of Sunday.
Kernan, during an interview at Planet Fitness, wore a large ring commemorating a time he scored 800 in three games, a feat pros say is more difficult than shooting 300.
He has cycled through a few physical therapists who he felt didn’t move quick enough in getting him back on his feet and to the lanes.
“I’m just learning to live again, and sometimes I forget that I’m also learning to walk again,” Kernan said. “My wife keeps telling me, ‘You’re trying to run. You got to walk first.’”
“I’m not afraid to fall down because I’m going to get back up,” he added.
For more information on the fundraiser, go to https://gofund.me/8e637e32