Maryland place kicker Michael “Earthquake” Tart, so nicknamed because of the thud he causes with each roll, sends one down the lane during the football team’s weekly bowling night. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Michael Tart laced up his bowling shoes and put down his foot-long sandwich, the same sweet onion chicken teriyaki he orders every Thursday night at the alley. He grabbed two 12-pound balls, one colored a rusty red, the other an icy blue, and humped them over to the lane, punching three names into the screen:

Earthquake. Mr. 300. Ice Man.

Soon Greg Parcher, who calls himself Mr. 300 even though he has never bowled a perfect game, walked into the bowling alley at the University of Maryland student union, holding a blue ball that looked like a satellite image of the ocean. He sat down and eyed the lane, slick and glistening from the oil.

“Let’s see how it’s reacting,” he said, rocking the ball backward then launching it forward. His right leg swung up and to the left as the ball danced toward the pins. The Maryland football team’s long snapper has a smooth release, but only nine crashed down. “I mean, it’s not horrible.”

“Better than last week,” said Tart, who proceeded to knock down six pins and then two, missing the spare. When the Terrapins’ backup place kicker bowls, his ball thuds into the ground behind the foul line and skips down the deck, generating a thunderous boom. That’s how Tart became Earthquake.

Offensive lineman G.T. Harraka, the third founding father of the Terrapins’ bowling club, is Ice Man, because when they began bowling, the ball with “Ice” etched into its gritty surface fit his meaty fingers the best.

On this mid-October night, two days before Maryland traveled to Wake Forest, the Terrapins’ football players filled four lanes, including specialists, quarterbacks and linemen whose massive hands hold the bowling balls like apples. Whereas breaking 100 was once cause for celebration, everyone now averages around 200. Parcher has twice hit 266. But their routine is less about results, and more about the act itself.

Over the past two and a half years, the trio has established a tradition and found normalcy in this alley, along with a number of their teammates. They like coming here because, in between class, workouts, practice and games, they can coexist among “regular students,” Tart said, the type who don’t spend their Saturdays performing before thousands of fans. Here, they’re not reduced to merely football players.

Recently, Parcher created a poster for the bowling group. The University of Maryland logo fades into an alley behind cropped headshots of all the key members. Written across the bottom is the one truism that Parcher, Tart and Harraka have known for years.

“Thursdays are for bowling.”

An unusual tradition

They came to the alley one Thursday on a whim, to a small tournament with a $5 entry fee. No one was particularly good, but that first semester, in the spring of 2011, they bowled every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. They watched “The Big Lebowski” constantly and tracked professional competitions online.

Parcher learned to put spin on his ball from YouTube videos, and his form is smooth. Harraka’s shot is more plodding, with a lethargic curl that bends into the pocket. He winds up with his whole body, all 300-some pounds. Everyone gets sweaty, and soon Harraka lifts up his shirt and squats over the fan attached to the ball-return machine.

“I mean, the fan’s here,” he said. “Might as well use it.”

The conversation turned to perception, and how football players are viewed at Maryland. They like breaking the student-athlete stereotype. To travel around campus, Harraka squeezes himself onto his grandfather’s 15-year-old bicycle. Tart, a communications major who wants to get into broadcasting or television production, referees intramural soccer and is training to officiate flag football. Last year, Parcher drove a campus bus.

In class, they try to blend in, and often consciously avoid wearing clothes that identify them as football players. They like it when peers are surprised to learn they are athletes, because that means the students didn’t just look at their black backpacks and assume, “Meathead.”

“Thinking like we didn’t earn it at a good school like Maryland,” Tart said. “Sometimes, we don’t want to be student-athletes. Drop the hyphen and the second word and just be students.”

In the lane, Harraka struck a nine, leaving only the rack’s head pin. He whipped around, oblivious to the conversation taking place behind him.

“It’s like a big middle finger,” he said.

Language of their own

“Tina finally woke up from her nap,” Tart said, referring to the name he has given his ball. “I’m in the zone right now.”

Harraka offered a high-five, but Tart left him hanging.

“Too in the zone to celebrate with your friends,” Harraka said.

The Earthquake was cruising, friends be damned. He considers himself a more consistent bowler than Parcher and Harraka, yet his career-best score ranks third. Tonight, though, Tart had 196 through eight frames, just 30 short of his all-time high.

Their invented terminology comes from real experiences. “Tarting” — to approach one’s high score before choking — is no different. Tart split on the 10th frame and finished with a 213, causing Harraka to adopt an Australian accent like Steve Irwin spying a crocodile.

“A lot of people don’t get to see Tarting in their natural habitat,” he said.

Recently, Maryland football officials sent the players a text message about planning their future classes, which Harraka considered until remembering he will graduate this spring. The end is near and that makes him sad. No more midsummer sprints during training camp, no more dressing for road trips, no more bowling on Thursdays.

As the night finished and his teammates drove back to their apartments, Harraka unchained his bicycle and wheeled onto the sidewalk. Across the street, the Maryland equipment truck was turning out of Gossett Team House. Its headlights lit Harraka up as it drove away, steering toward Wake Forest.