COVID Forces Bill O’Neill Out of PBA Players Championship

Thirteen-time Professional Bowlers Association Tour champion Bill O’Neill is no stranger to big pay days, and he had hoped another one was in store as he prepared to head to Bowlero Jupiter to bowl the PBA Players Championship East Region finals in Florida.

“I was supposed to fly out at 7:30 this morning,” O’Neill told Bowlers Journal Sunday afternoon. “I woke up at 4 o’clock, and just decided that there is no way I can get on a plane without taking a [COVID] test. I went and got a rapid test, and it came back positive.”

The news forces O’Neill, who won the $ 100,000 top prize in the 2020 PBA Playoffs, to quarantine at home for what he expects to be about two weeks, and dashes his hopes of ultimately having a shot at the $ 250,000 prize going to the winner of the PBA Players Championship finals on Feb. 21.

Colie Edison, CEO of the PBA, confirmed that, “Due to COVID protocols, Bill O’Neill will not be participating in the Players Championship East Region Finals. Tim Foy will step in and take his position.” Edison declined to comment further at this time. 

Tim Foy Jr. had finished 11 pins outside the show with a 6,156 pinfall across 28 games in the PBA Players Championship East Region qualifier held Jan. 15-17 at Bowlero West End in Richmond, Virginia.  

O’Neill said he had experienced no COVID-like symptoms whatsoever until Saturday night, when he experienced chills and congestion. Those symptoms prompted his decision to get tested before boarding a plane to Florida. 

“Usually, I don’t sleep in sweatpants and a hoodie,” he joked. “But I did last night, and it didn’t seem to matter too much.”

He said he was trying not to think about the implications of his situation as it pertains to his PBA Players Championship hopes.

“The timing is pretty awful, and I’m just trying to look at it from more of a positive perspective, I guess. This pandemic has been terrible for a lot of people, and if this is the worst thing that happens to me and my family, then we’ll be alright. Hopefully, nobody in my family caught it.”

As the dad of two young children, son Gavin and daughter Avery, O’Neill said quarantining takes an emotional toll. 

“It’s difficult, because, just a couple times today, it makes me sad when my son comes up and just wants to talk to me, and I’m like, ‘Hey bud, I need you to get out.’ That’s a really hard thing to say.’ But I know I’m doing it for his benefit.”

Even though O’Neill’s wife Christi works from home as a first-grade teacher, O’Neill said she still would have to take a couple days off as Gavin now cannot go to school and Avery cannot go to her babysitter given dad’s diagnosis.

“It puts a strain on everybody, but hopefully it’s a quick couple of weeks and that’s it. Normally, if I just had the flu or something, I’d just be hanging out here and the kids probably would go to school, you know? They’d be like, ‘We don’t have it, so we’re going.’ Or my dad or my mother-in-law or father-in-law would come hang out. Now, you’re not doing that. We can’t have anybody come over here at all.”

As to how he contracted the virus, O’Neill said, “I really don’t know. I mean, the only thing I can really think of is I got it at the tournament last weekend, but I really don’t know for sure. I mean, I thought I was pretty diligent with my mask. I never took my mask off the entire time I was in the bowling center, even to throw a shot. But I was in the grocery store once this past week, so I guess it’s possible there. I really don’t know. It wasn’t from anybody in my immediate family that I’ve seen.” 

O’Neill said he saw most players wearing masks throughout the event at Bowlero West End.

“I saw some people pull it down when they were throwing a shot but then they would put it right back up when they were coming off the lane. It seemed to me everybody was doing their part. But I guess with this thing you never really know.”

Alluding to the PWBA Kickoff Classic, which is underway this week at the International Training Center in Arlington, Texas, under strict COVID protocols and procedures that have created a “bubble”-like environment for the players, O’Neill said, “It would have been cool to do a bubble type of setting like they’re doing for the ladies; we did it for the Weber Cup when I bowled that last October, and it worked out pretty well. 

“It seems like the ladies are having pretty good success with it in Texas. But I don’t know all the logistics behind all that. That’s certainly above my pay grade. I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on out, but I hope everybody else is good and nobody else gets this thing.”

PWBA players were required to get tested before traveling to Arlington, and then again upon arrival.

When FloBowling broke the news of O’Neill’s positive text on Twitter, O’Neill retweeted it with the comment, “Disappointed that I won’t be able to compete for the Players Championship title and 250k. Timing stinks but I’m feeling ok at the moment.” 

Former PBA Player of the Year Andrew Anderson sympathized.

“The timing is the worst it could possibly be. Bill’s a major champion and he’s a factor any time he puts his shoes on. And really it’s nice of Bill to get tested. We have to give our hats off to Bill to even take that chance, right?” said Anderson, who himself had COVID-19 in early November and said he tested negative before traveling to Florida, where he will bowl the PBA Players Championship Central Region Finals as the No. 2 seed. “There are some players that just might not have taken that chance. I just hope Bill gets better soon and gets back out with us.”

“I get tested a lot,” Anderson said. “I have family, I’ve got grandparents who are older. I play it safe. I’ve been tested probably five or six times already this year.”

Of O’Neill’s speculation that it’s possible he contracted the virus while bowling the East Region event a week ago, Anderson said, “We’re taking a chance every time. Every time someone goes out without their mask on. But I felt a little safer having already had it. I’m concerned by it, of course. It is a pandemic, something you’ve got to be aware of. 

“But the protocols the PBA put in place, not having fans, I think that’s good. The bowlers are doing the best job they can. Are there more high-fives and stuff like that than there should be? Maybe. But again, it’s up to that person. When I step up on the approach, I pull my mask down. I feel safe up there when I’m not around people. But when I’m off the approach, I have my mask on.”

Anderson said that he will be pleased to compete in either setting–the environment in place at recent PBA events or the bubble-like protocols implemented this week on the PWBA side. 

“If they decide to put us in a bubble, I will be more than happy to be in a bubble; if they don’t feel that is necessary, then so be it. I’m leaving that to them. I’m going to compete either way,” he said. “I do think the bubble is safe; the NBA proved that. They did really well, and now, look at the NBA not in a bubble. They have way more positive cases. Hopefully, a lot of those athletes are really healthy and you’re not going to see too much happen from it. 

“But the PWBA is a great example of what you can do, and it is hard. We have so many players coming from overseas. We have Belmo. You have Jesper. All these guys coming in from all over, so I think it’s safer for them if we went into a bubble, but obviously they did feel comfortable enough to be here.”

Jason Belmonte provided color commentary during today’s PBA competition on FS1, and Jesper Svensson is in town to bowl the East Region show as the top seed. 

O’Neill, for his part, says he has no idea when he might be able to get back on the lanes with major events on the horizon such as the Tournament of Champions in late February or the World Series of Bowling in March.

“I’m not even sure exactly when I’m going to be allowed out of the house,” he said. “I’m assuming at least two weeks, and then hopefully my energy level is back to normal by then. I’ll be able to get a few weeks of practice in, and then I should be good to go.

“It certainly stinks, and I wish I wasn’t in this predicament, but what I’ve been leaning on is that the last couple years have been good to me,” he added. “I’ve been really fortunate, so I’ll take a glass-half-full approach there.”

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