THE CHIPMUNKS WERE making Peter the Cat crawl out of his fur. He’d stare out the sliding glass door at the back of David Olson’s house all day, tortured by a steady stream of critters carrying nuts through cracks in the cement steps that led to the back porch.
The steps were crumbling and had to go, anyway. So in early July, Olson used an off day from his job as a machinist in Norton Shores, Michigan, to grab a sledgehammer and start the demo job himself. There were four cement steps, angled toward the left, and he planned to tear them out in one day. Maybe then Peter could find some peace.
Olson yanked the first cinder block up with his hands. He took a step back, surprised to see that the ground underneath the steps was sand, not dirt. As he peered into the dark area in the middle of the hole he just made, he couldn’t believe what he saw: three bowling balls, half-covered by the sand. “No way,” Olson said out loud.
He’d recently joined two large Facebook groups, about people discovering strange objects. One was called “Stuff people find in walls,” and the other was “Stuff people find in the woods.” The woods group had some creepy finds, but he loved reading about old watches and fake skeletons that people found during home renovations. He loved how so many of the mysteries did not get solved, that you had to use your imagination to plot out what must have happened.
Now he was in the middle of a mystery at his own house. So he posted pictures of the bowling balls to the Facebook group, then went and told his wife, Megan.
She was equally perplexed, but quickly went back inside to her job designing software. David continued his work on the steps, but 30 seconds later he stood up in surprise again. More bowling balls. He kept going.
For the rest of the afternoon, Olson shoveled out sand and bowling balls. He’d post an update to the Facebook group, find 10 more balls, get a drink of water, find 10 more balls, eat something, find 10 more balls. When his 5-year-old son, Zeke, got home from preschool, he joined in. David would unearth a ball from the sand, plop it on the ground behind him, and Zeke would chuck it off the back deck. Over and over again. “I had to get to the bottom,” he says. “I couldn’t stop.”
It was grueling, mysterious and exhilarating. Olson kept going even though the summer sun was melting him. He didn’t know his five Facebook posts had gone viral, and that tens of thousands of people were following his quest. As afternoon turned into evening, long after Zeke tapped out, Olson reached the last step. His whole body ached.
Olson wandered over to the edge of the deck and stood above his yard, looking out at the mound of bowling balls he’d just unearthed. This was the first time he’d paused to count them.
He was stunned at the number: 158. Some had dents and dings, some were dark black, others a light blue. About 10 were grey and misshapen; Olson and Zeke had started calling them alien eggs. But they looked practically new.
As he stood there, Olson could finally contemplate the question people all over the world were wondering: Where the hell did all these bowling balls come from?
THE EARLIEST FORM of bowling — using a ball to knock down objects — dates to at least 5200 B.C.; miniature pins and balls were discovered in an Egyptian child’s ancient grave. We know that the Romans played a bowling game about 2,000 years ago, that Germans in 400 A.D. rolled rocks at pins as a religious exercise to cleanse the soul of sin and that King Edward III had to ban English citizens from bowling in 1366 because it had become too much of a distraction from a more valuable life activity at the time: archery.
Bowling grew especially strong roots in Europe in the 1600s to 1800s, and as Europeans set out across the globe, they often brought the game with them. One such traveler was John Moses Brunswick, a Swiss immigrant who opened a carriage-building business in Cincinnati in 1845: Brunswick Manufacturing.
The business grew quickly, and Brunswick added billiards and bowling equipment as staple products. The company headquarters relocated to western Michigan in 1903 to capitalize on the region’s lumber trade. Brunswick’s focal points continued to change over the decades. The company had a music label in the 1920s, made military supplies during World War II and manufactured fitness equipment in the 1990s.
At one point, Brunswick headquarters in Muskegon, Michigan, had around 3,000 employees at its sprawling compound, and a two-block section of town was known as Brunswick Row, where employees could live in rent-controlled homes owned by the company.
These days, the Brunswick operation in Michigan is considerably smaller and entirely devoted to the bowling business. Brunswick has plants in Mexico and Hungary now, but Muskegon is still headquarters for a business that is trending toward selling 1 million bowling balls this year.
It’s located only a few miles from where Olson lives in Norton Shores, a few football fields away from Lake Michigan. The balls Olson dug up are Brunswicks, and the company’s director of product development, Billy Orlikowski, was able to confirm one dated to 1953. So those dots were pretty easy to connect.
But how did more than 150 bowling balls get from the Brunswick plant into the ground behind a guy’s house?
Judy Hepler has a theory about that. She laughed out loud when she first heard about the Bowling Ball Guy in the next town over. Her husband, Mike, worked at the Muskegon plant for 48 years, and she still remembers him shaking his head about the company’s dumpster out back.
Mike, who died in 2009, had started working at Brunswick in the mid-1950s and worked his way up from the maintenance crew to a job in the lab, testing bowling balls to make sure they were perfectly round and dense. For many years, that involved dropping balls onto a springy mat and seeing how high they bounced. Once, Mike had a ball fly up and knock one of his front teeth out. If the ball didn’t fly back up above his waist, it meant the ball was defective and — at that late stage in the manufacturing process — headed for the dumpster behind the factory.
Employees could grab whatever they wanted from that dumpster, and so could the public. Mike had begun to see homeowners pop in and take discarded bowling balls as filler for their backyards. In rural Michigan back then, decades before Home Depot and Lowe’s, dropping bowling balls and other objects into a hole wasn’t as bizarre as it might sound.
“In my career, I’ve heard of skeletons, relics, doorknobs, license plates, all sorts of crap,” says Fred Nolta, a construction and excavation expert based in San Diego. “People used to bury just about anything.”
Sand and bowling balls wouldn’t pass any town code in 2021, but the combo is structurally sound, relatively speaking. For example, most of our highways are built using the same basic principle, with pavement over the top of a rock foundation of large stones and tiny pebbles that snuggle in around and underneath their bigger siblings for support.
“You want as many gaps as possible to be filled in,” Nolta says. “So I’ll put it this way: If you throw sand in around bowling balls, I bet it would work pretty well. For a while, anyway. It’s not a long-term solution.”
Still, Mike thought the dumpster was an awful idea. “Someday, somebody’s going to try to put in a swimming pool in their backyard and find a bunch of bowling balls,” he would tell Judy.
Mike was a union guy at Brunswick and cared deeply about his job, but also grumbled about it quite a bit. Judy remembers when their grandson was young, Mike would tell the little guy stories of needling his bosses, how he liked to get a rise out of them. Then Mike would get out the family riding mower and bring the little boy along as he cut the grass.
As Olson’s posts took off, other former Brunswick employees chimed in with comments echoing what Mike had told Judy. The free yard-fill notion has emerged as the most widely accepted theory for how David Olson ended up with 158 bowling balls that day (plus four he has found since then) under his yard.
But what shocked Judy Hepler about this whole thing isn’t that a guy in the neighboring town found 162 bowling balls behind his house. Her husband had always said that would happen someday.
No, what left her in disbelief was who found them. Because her grandson, the 4-year-old who sat on his grandfather’s lap on the riding mower and listened to all those stories about goofing on Brunswick management?
That boy was David Olson, the Bowling Ball Guy.
AT THE TOUGHEST moments of his life, David Olson often turned to his grandparents. His mother was in high school when David was born, and they spent the first four years of David’s life in Mike and Judy’s house. The grandparents couldn’t wait to get home from work to see him. “We fell in love with our little David,” Judy says.
As Olson finished his own high school career, he was struggling to find his way. He tried college and then retail jobs, but neither was for him. He says he started partying too much, spending too much, and felt rudderless. “I couldn’t find my niche,” he says.
He remained close with his mother and lived nearby with his grandparents off and on during that stretch in the late 2000s, but he had moved out on his own by the time Mike died in 2009 at age 74. “I learned a lot of stuff from him,” David says. “In those years, I got very close to him. I was happy I could spend that time down the homestretch of his life with him.”
Not long after the funeral, Olson asked if he could move back in with Judy. She said yes, but with conditions. He had to help out around the house, and she didn’t want to see any of the partying. Olson was working at a discount store at the time and had incurred an overwhelming amount of debt. Judy ensured that with every paycheck, he’d deposit half immediately into his bank account and bring the other half home. With Judy’s help, they wiped out his debt in two years.
Judy was amazed at David’s skill with repairs and odd jobs around the house. He had learned a lot from Mike over the years. She insisted that her grandson explore some kind of technical training. “He’s a brilliant young man who can fix anything,” Judy says. “I knew he’d be a treasure for somebody someday. An absolute treasure.”
They met with a community college counselor, and David found some machinery classes that interested him. He enrolled that day. He had a fantastic first semester, and when a local company that makes complex machine parts went looking for candidates at the school, David got an interview.
He admits he’s a naturally quiet person, and back then he had lots of doubts about himself and his place in the world. His nerves were so brutal the day of the interview he couldn’t believe a company would hire him to do precise, nerve-wracking technical work. But a few days later, the phone rang.
“You’re hired,” he was told.
AS HE STANDS beside his bowling balls in September, Olson is still processing his incredible discovery.
To his right, Zeke hovers near the 10-foot-long pyramid of balls that they constructed. In front of him, Olson points at the rest of his back-porch area. It has about the same surface area as a small garage, running maybe eight feet out from the house and 20 feet wide. It looks like it was built at the same time, using the same materials, as the back steps. That means there might be 1,000 bowling balls underneath, or there might be zero.
The area is flat and sturdy, so there’s no real need to probe any further. He was worried about the environmental impact of 150-plus bowling balls decaying in his backyard, so he reached out to Brunswick about what they were made of and whether he should be worried. The company provided documentation showing the balls are coated in rubber and not dangerous, which satisfied Olson. “They also look practically brand-new, too, don’t they?” he says, pointing at the mound.
A few weeks after his Facebook posts made him an international phenomenon — Olson says he did more interviews with Canadian news outlets than anyone else — he may have overestimated the appeal of his own story. He posted a GoFundMe in response to some of his new fans clamoring for him to dig up his entire back porch. He was open about his intent, that he didn’t have the money or time to tear out the entire back of his house himself. But the pushback was swift. The GoFundMe raised a few hundred bucks, and a handful of people Internet-yelled at him, saying that he was trying to inappropriately capitalize on a fun story. One person posted the Zillow listing for Olson’s house, so Megan told him to shut it down.
“We have kids, you know?” she says. “We had a lot of fun when the Bowling Ball Guy stuff started, but we don’t need people showing up at the house.”
David and Megan talked and decided it had been a good, fun ride. They stacked the balls in the backyard and made a final post or two asking people for suggestions about what to do with them. They thought they were done with the bowling balls.
But the bowling balls weren’t done with them.
Brunswick asked them if the company could have a few balls for the office, so Olson took some in one day. In exchange, the company presented him with two state-of-the-art, personalized balls for Megan and David, complete with a small case to wheel them around in. His ball says “The Igniter” and hers says “Crown Jewel.”
“I feel like the universe is telling me that our family should be bowling,” David says. “So I think we’ll start doing it as soon as the kids get a little older.”
A local restaurant reached out to see whether it could use the old balls in what was billed as a Flintstones bowling tournament, where pins would be set up in the street and bowling balls with no holes would be palmed and chucked by participants. Olson was told he could have a nice dinner with Megan on the house, and they could participate in the tournament for free if they chose.
So they got a babysitter and went on a rare dinner date. They’ve been together for about eight years and have packed a lot into that time. They met at a concert and hung out afterward, and immediately started to fall for each other. “I wouldn’t say love at first sight,” Megan says. “But it was definitely like at first sight.”
Megan was a perfect fit for him — she had a steady job and place to live, and he was still finding his footing after moving out from his grandmother’s house. She told him she wasn’t interested in any of the partying stuff, either, just like Judy had a few years earlier.
“Megan really came along at the right time for David,” Judy says. “It’s been beautiful to watch them grow and start a family.”
They got married in 2014, and now have three kids. (After Zeke, Vera is almost 3 and Warren is 18 months old.) So they’re at that stage of life where you wake up, hustle kids to daycare or school, go to work, make a mad dash from work to pick up kids, cobble together a dinner plan, give baths, read stories, collapse in a heap. Then they do it again the next day. It can be hard to find time for just the two of them.
So dinner tasted extra-great that night, and they both decided to play in the bowling tournament, even though neither of them had bowled in years. “And even when I did play, I wasn’t very good,” Megan says.
But they eked out a win in their first matchup. They hugged and laughed … and then they won again. And they kept winning.
In their semifinal matchup, against two serious-looking dudes in Brunswick bowling shirts, they figured this would be the end of their run. But the night had gone on and drinks had been served and hey, it was anyone’s game. And lo and behold, Megan and David kept matching the scores of their opponents. As they got into the middle frames, they started to believe — not just that they had a chance to win, but that these bowling balls were morphing into something more than just a bizarre backyard discovery. David thought he might have even had an advantage because he’d found the balls, rolled them off his back porch and moved them around the backyard. He felt like a baseball player with his favorite lucky bat, the one that always hits a home run, and he somehow ripped off five strikes in a row.
They won the match, then beat another couple in the finals. Against all odds, Mr. and Mrs. Bowling Ball Guy were the tournament champs. As they left that night with their trophy, they couldn’t help but feel a little weirded out, like their lives had been cruising around just fine and then changed practically overnight because of what they found under their back steps.
“Stuff like that makes it feel like fate to me,” David says, before a long pause. He’s careful with his words because he knows he sounds almost religious talking about the impact of the bowling balls. “I don’t understand it. It almost … it almost seems like a glitch in the Matrix. How can this be real?”
The glitches kept coming. Two weeks after winning the bowling tournament, Olson applied for a new machinist job. When he went in for his interview, he kept waiting for nerves to come back, but felt only calm. He met with the hiring manager and walked out of the interview confused by his own serenity.
On the ride home, it hit him. He’d powered through a barrage of nerve-racking interviews after his discovery, getting more and more comfortable, at one point laying shirtless on top of the bowling balls for an Inside Edition TV piece.
The next day, he got the job, which included a nice raise and an air-conditioned workspace, two things he’d been hoping for over the past few years. Olson put in his two weeks’ notice at his old job and started in September.
A few weeks later, Judy had a get-together for about 20 family members, including David, Megan and their kids. A few cousins asked if David could bring some of the bowling balls. They handed them back and forth, telling stories about Mike and the dumpster.
Judy didn’t even notice the balls at the party, but she did watch David as he talked and laughed with Megan and the relatives and then played with his kids. She thought about that little guy from 30 years ago, riding around on the mower with Mike, and then she thought about the 20-year-old wobbling into adulthood, and then the 25-year-old walking back through her door again.
Now she was looking at the Bowling Ball Guy, a treasure the whole world was starting to see.
“He’s always had every reason to be confident,” she says. “Anything he wants to do, he can do. But he didn’t believe it himself.”
She lets out an exasperated breath. “Well, not until he found a bunch of stupid bowling balls, I guess.”