As the city collapsed around them, a small group stayed behind to guard the rarest game in America.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about the wall of featherbowling portraits in Detroit’s east side. They just somehow seem familiar. I once showed some photos of the portraits to a curator friend at a gallery back home. I asked if they were any good. She asked me who the hell painted them. And added, “yes, they’re quite good.”The loose brushwork was clearly influenced by the Dutch Masters. As you scan the entire wall, you see the artist’s style evolve from year to year. Early on, the direct stare out to the viewer, glimmer of light in the eyes of the sitter, is reminiscent of Rembrandt. Then, Frans Hals. By the time the artist gets to Steve Gosskie, the lines are warmer, there’s a pastel color palate more evocative of van Gogh. My friend suggested that the loose, open and expressive lines also denoted a sense of urgency. “Almost sketch like. Your artist is trying to capture a likeness in a short time, perhaps?”
Indeed, it turned out there was very little time. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to explain exactly how this all fits together. The artist. The theft. The unlikely grand champion. The way small diaspora communities graft things from far away onto the most unlikely places, nurturing them until they grow into a twisted, stronger, somehow more authentic version of what once existed in the Old World. As Rembrandt put it: Die meeste ende di naetuereelste beweechgelickheijt. 
Featherbowling was born from that medieval family of games that endure, in no small part, because they can be played with a beverage in the shooter’s free hand. It’s Belgian shuffleboard. It’s horseshoes with a pigeon feather instead of an iron stake. It’s bocce, except you roll disks that have been weighted to roll unevenly across the earth, exposing the shooter’s secret divine grace for all to see. It’s pétanque, kubb, mölkky, curling, Cherokee marbles, Irish road bowls—the variations are endless—but none has the otherworldly mystery of this thing they’ve come to play on the east side of Detroit.
That 60-foot downhill triple breaker Tiger Woods nailed on the 17th hole at T.P.C. Sawgrass, which sucks every last atom of karma out of the air around it—that’s every sixth shot in feather bowling. You shout op de pluim when your ball snakes through the gauntlet of other fallen wheels, wobbling like a wounded buffalo nickel, before settling on the feather.
The perfection of the game is in the imperfection of the featherbowler’s trenches. For decades it was thought that only the old Belgians could read these imperfections. Not just any old Belgian. Only those from a small region in West Flanders, once part of the Netherlands. (When a tiny brewery in this region moves to a bigger location to keep up with the global demand for their strange sour beers, they move the dusty walls with them, for fear they’ll lose the yeast that developed in the air over time and hangs in the cobwebs.) It was as if those Flemish men—never entirely Dutch, never entirely Belgian—had been born, like swamp monsters, from the trenches on Cadieux Road. A grand champion needed this blood. And for generations, there seemed to be an invisible asterisk beside anyone who won the title that wasn’t from that direct line. And then the most inexplicable thing to ever happen to featherbowling in America happened: Steve Gosskie.
Read the story in ESPN The Magazine.
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