AJ Johnson, at long last, won his first career PBA Tour title to close the 2023 season.  With the 2024 PBA Tour starting this week, a rejuvenated Johnson returns to the city where he contemplated giving up his dream a year ago.

AJ Johnson sat in defeat.

Eight years had passed since Johnson’s introduction to the professional bowling world at the 2015 USBC Masters. Eight futile years.

The litany of gold medals he had won for Team USA might as well have been made of chocolate as he sunk into the steps of Bowlero Northrock during the 2023 PBA Wichita Classic in February 2023.

The limitless fire that burned within Johnson dwindled.

“For the first time literally ever in my career, I didn’t want to get up,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want to get on the approach. I didn’t want to throw a shot. I didn’t want to bowl. Because I knew what the outcome was prior to me ever throwing a shot.”

Johnson finished 53rd and missed the cut in Wichita.

Another week without a title, just like the week before, and the week before that.

And the 416 weeks before that.

About two weeks later, Johnson fulfilled his annual date with the PBA Tournament of Champions pre-tournament qualifier — a glaring reminder of where the then-30-year-old's career stood.

“Anyone else in professional sports that has gone as long as I have without performing or winning would be out of a job,” Johnson said he told his girlfriend Allie Hedges. “I don’t know how much longer I can continue to do this.”

Despite solid showings in the next two events — 12th at the PBA Kokomo Classic and 22nd at the USBC Masters — Johnson said he realized that something was amiss.

“That's when I came home and I felt something was not right,” Johnson said. “That’s when I started letting things affect my everyday life. I was miserable to be around; I would get mad very quickly. Allie one day looked to me and said ‘Are you okay?’"

His answer was a resounding no.

With that admission, Johnson knew he couldn’t compete for a check, let alone a title, without help.

Before the World Series of Bowling XIV in Milwaukee, not far from his hometown of Oswego, Ill. and his soon-to-be home near Kenosha, Wis., Johnson flew to Arizona for a session with his mental performance coach, Brian Cain.

The merit of their tune-up session was immediately put to the test.

In the 20th game of PBA Cheetah Championship qualifying, Johnson sat on the precipice of making the show. He needed three strikes in his final frame to force a roll-off.

He delivered all three — but what happened next foreshadowed the true change in Johnson’s demeanor.

“In the past, I probably would have thrown them all to force the roll-off and said ‘Great, now I have to roll-off after doing all that work. This sucks,’” Johnson said. “Whereas that time, I thought ‘Alright, what’s next? I’ve got to bowl a game? Cool. Nobody wants to bowl me right now.’”

Johnson dispatched the towering Swede James Blomgren in the roll-off, throwing another pair of clutch strikes to seal the deal.

“That’s why you do what you do!” Johnson bellowed after advancing to the championship round.


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His next hurdle would arrive at the top of the Cheetah Championship show: answering the latest version of the same question that he has answered on every telecast for the last eight years.

The same question Johnson asks himself almost every day.

You are still looking for that first title - what do you have to do today to finally get over the hump? 

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t eat at me. I’m kind of tired of hearing it,” Johnson told FS1’s Kimberly Pressler. “It’s just time to do it.”

The crowd roared after his response, anticipating Johnson to come out with guns blazing like an action movie hero.

Instead, he guttered. Then he guttered again in the fourth frame. And again in the fifth frame.

Johnson trailed his opponent, Jakob Butturff, by 45 pins through the fifth frame.

The commercial break revealed another glimpse at Johnson’s mental metamorphosis. 

“In the past I would have been sitting in that chair pissed off at the world,” Johnson said. “I would’ve just been throwing heaters down the middle of the lane just to get out of that game and move on.

“Instead, I talked to Brett (Spangler, Motiv’s ball rep) and he said ‘You know, if we keep it on the lane, we’ve got a chance to write a story that’s pretty damn cool.’”

After Butturff struggled with his footwork and fouled in the 10th frame, Johnson fired five straight strikes to win the match.

The crowd swelled as their hero, facing certain death, escaped and set on a course to finish the job… and then Johnson missed a spare in the 10th frame and fell to first-time finalist Joseph Grondin.

Another week without a title.


For Johnson, as much the struggle of not winning a title weighed on him, so did the struggle of watching his friends and peers win.

When Johnson won the collegiate MVP award in the 2013-14 season, he beat out fellow All-Americans Chris Via, Marshall Kent, Kyle Sherman, Darren Tang, François Lavoie and Andrew Anderson. 

Those players have since won a combined 17 PBA Tour titles, five major championships and a Player of the Year award.

That list doesn’t even include future PBA Tour champions Butturff, Cristian Azcona, Matt Sanders, Kris Prather, Mitch Hupé and Packy Hanrahan.

EJ Tackett, who is one month older than Johnson, started his career in an eerily similar fashion to Johnson. At 21, Tackett earned the No. 1 seed at the 2014 USBC Masters and fell to Belmonte in the title match.

Tackett won his first title the next season, then 20 more and, for all intents and purposes, two Player of the Year awards before Johnson won his first title.

“What the hell are they doing that I’m not doing?” Johnson said he often asked himself.

The late summer of 2023 proved to be transformative for Johnson. Just before leaving for the Storm PBA/PWBA Striking Against Breast Cancer Mixed Doubles event, Hedges revealed to Johnson that she was pregnant.

Johnson said a conversation with his ball driller before the Storm Lucky Larsen Masters helped him gain a new perspective of his career.

“Maybe this is it,” his ball driller said. “We tried to figure everything out. You work your ass off on and off the lanes. Maybe this (pregnancy) is the thing that is going to change your outlook and your mindset to help you free things up.”

Johnson sat on those words as he flew to Sweden for the Storm Lucky Larsen Masters.

Suddenly, the lack of a title didn’t feel so overwhelming anymore. No longer would he allow the stench of his professional shortcomings to consume him. (The smell of dirty diapers, however, inescapably lies right around the corner.)

“Everyone has their own timeline,” Johnson said. “Bill O’Neill didn’t win on tour for six years. Norm Duke won his first, then didn’t win for eight years. Earl Anthony didn’t even start bowling on tour until he was 31. I was reminded of that and it really hit home and resonated with me.”

In Sweden, Johnson locked in. He advanced to the 16-player match play field, where he defeated Ryan Barnes — the son of PBA Hall of Famer Chris Barnes — Kris Prather and Anthony Simonsen.

Those wins set up a title bout with Sweden’s prodigal son, Jesper Svensson.

Johnson had been in this position before — six times, in fact — and he had lost every time.

“I never voiced this out loud to myself until that moment,” Johnson said, “I told myself, ‘You have failed so many times. You’ve been in this position so many times and you haven’t gotten it done. You have been in this position and you failed.

“Why be afraid of failing now?”

After breaking his Sisyphean curse, Johnson’s belief in himself has been restored.

“Anytime you get a win like that, it ultimately gives you more confidence on the lanes and allows you to bowl with more freedom and clarity,” Johnson said. “Getting that win, it gave me that sense of belonging out here. Before, I felt like I was trying so hard because I wanted it so bad. Now, I can let it happen and let my abilities take over.”

Following the Storm Lucky Larsen Masters, the final title event of the 2023 PBA Tour, Johnson looked as confident as ever during September’s PBA League. In November, Johnson represented Team USA in the Pan Am Games and won the singles gold medal.

Managing expectations has been a popular topic of conversation between Johnson and his coach, Mark Baker. Now that he finally got the monkey off his back, the bar has been raised.

“That’s not to say that I’m going to keep doing the same things and expect different results,” Johnson added. “I’m going to figure out what it is that I need to do to be in a spot like EJ or Simo last season. I still want to figure out the things that I can do better to be able to get to that spot, because that’s where I feel like I’m going to and that’s where I feel like I belong.”

Johnson will walk into Wichita’s Bowlero Northrock this week for the start of the 2024 season.

It seems fitting that Johnson’s first opportunity to win his second title comes at the place where he almost gave up on trying to win his first.

At the PBA Players Championship presented by Snickers, he'll sit down on the same steps where anxiety took over 11 months ago.

When Johnson scans the 48-lane center, he'll still see the banners commemorating all the titles won by his peers.

But he won’t be dissuaded by the sight. Not anymore.

Because he has a banner, too.

Tickets for the PBA Players Championship presented by Snickers are available here.