Falling For Fowling

A made in Detroit sport goes international
Photographs by Josh Scott

Cheri Manus was less than enthused when her friends took her to a warehouse on Detroit’s east side to experience “fowling” for the first time. “They were like, ‘We’re going to throw a football at these boards and try to knock bowling pins down,’ ” Manus says. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Can we do something else tonight?’ ”

But Manus was immediately drawn in by the game’s unique twist on traditional bowling, and by the welcoming community she discovered that night.

Three years later, she usually goes fowling two nights per week. “I fell in love with it,” she says.

Manus is just one member of the growing fowling community that has spread to four different countries and more than half the states since Ferndale resident Chris Hutt and his friends invented the sport by accident in 2001.

Hutt’s friends have made an annual trip to the Indy 500 since 1994 (Hutt has attended since 2000). Most years they try to come up with some sort of project to impress their neighbors while tailgating at the race.

In 2001 they built a bowling alley, which had to be abandoned after runaway balls wreaked too much havoc on other tailgaters’ sites. But a new sport was born when a couple of tailgaters started tossing a football around near the bowling alley.

“A bad pass wasn’t caught, bounced on the ground, went right into the pins, and knocked them over,” Hutt says. “A bunch of light bulbs went off.”

Hutt coined the term “fowling” (pronounced “FOH-ling”), a portmanteau of “football” and “bowling,” and devised a set of simple rules for the game. Two traditional arrangements of 10 bowling pins are set up on two flat boards, placed 48 feet apart from each other. Fowlers take turns throwing a football from their board to the opposition’s board, competing to knock down their opponents’ pins first. Unlike bowling, the ball is actually much lighter than the pins, and fowlers have to adopt strategies that at first feel counterintuitive.
“You don’t have to be Brett Favre,” Hutt says. “It’s actually better if the ball comes in all wobbly because it falls wider.”

Hutt and his friends brought fowling back to Indy in 2002, and by 2003 so many people showed up at their campsite that there was a three-hour wait to fowl.

“You just felt that we had something here,” Hutt says. He began gathering groups of friends to play in Detroit on a regular basis, first in an empty warehouse in Troy and then in the parking lot of the Stonehouse Bar near the old State Fairgrounds. As the number of fowlers grew, Hutt sought a more permanent, year-round home for the sport. He rented an old toy warehouse on Van Dyke Avenue near McNichols Road, where he began to charge $10 a head for open fowling most nights of the week. “It was amazing how busy I was in the neighborhood I was in,” he says. “It had to be one of the most dangerous ZIP codes in the world. But it was packed.”

Last summer, Hutt says police raided another tenant in the Van Dyke building for marijuana possession, damaging the building’s gate and drawing media attention. Concerned about safety, Hutt closed up shop there and began looking around for another new site.

He had something a little different in mind this time: a larger space that could hold a proper fowling alley with ample room for parties, a full bar, and an area for bands to play. Hutt found an ideal spot in an abandoned auto parts warehouse at 3901 Christopher St. in Hamtramck, just south of Conant Street and Holbrook Avenue. But at 90,000 square feet, it was twice as big as what he was looking for. Fortunately, Hutt’s friend, Detroit Bus Company President Andy Didorosi, was seeking a new home for his own operation. “When this opportunity manifested itself, we needed to capture that,” Didorosi says. “There was no reason to wait.”

Didorosi bought the building in October and leased 34,000 square feet of it to Hutt. With investments from about 15 family members and friends, Hutt has gone about clearing and refurbishing the warehouse, purchasing a liquor license, and hiring an architect to design the space. The finished venue will include 20 fowling lanes, an indoor beer garden, and a stage.

After a soft opening planned for July, Hutt hopes to open seven nights a week beginning in September. Hutt still holds a day job preparing brick samples for Brick Tech Architectural in Berkley, but Didorosi says Hutt is aiming to make fowling “his life’s work.”

Hutt himself is modest about fowling’s long-term future, refocusing on present developments whenever the subject comes up. “It’s been a long, slow build to this point,” he says.But it’s hard to ignore the diverse and increasingly large following the sport has attracted. Hutt’s friends and their relatives have introduced fowling overseas in Kuwait, Germany, and Sweden, and Hutt says the Indy “fowling family tree” has spread out to play the game at home across the country.

Fowling has remained strong in metro Detroit as well, despite being temporarily without a home venue; a fowling tournament held in February at Eastern Market attracted 82 players.

“It ranged from 21-year-olds to 60-year-olds, every color of the rainbow, men, women, every shape and size,” Hutt says.

The interest is thanks to the friendly social atmosphere Hutt strives to cultivate — one he describes as a “knucklehead-free zone.” Tournament teams are picked at random, and players are encouraged to make new friends. “I like parity,” he says. “It keeps people interested.”

Jordan Zielke has been a regular fowler since discovering weekly fowling nights at the Stonehouse Bar in 2009. He says it appealed to him because anyone can play and have fun, regardless of strength or sporting ability.

“It’s a good equalizer,” Zielke says. “You can pretty much go up to anybody and ask them, ‘Hey, do you want to fowl?’ And you’ll pretty much always get a ‘Yes.'”