By Pat Lopes Harris
Mercury News

After a car crash left actor Robert Conrad, best known for his roles in ``The Wild Wild West'' and ``Baa Baa Black Sheep,'' unable to walk, he checked into the best rehab center he could find.

Four months later, as he was checking out of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's Spinal Cord and Traumatic Brain Injury Rehab Center, Conrad vowed to use his fame to give back to the program that put him back on his feet.

So Sunday, he hosted the 22nd annual Spinal Cord and Traumatic Brain Injury Rehab Center Bowl-a-thon. Although the 68-year-old Bear Valley resident missed the event because of a longer-than-expected recovery from back surgery seven weeks ago in New Orleans, about 70 bowlers filled Cambrian Bowl in San Jose anyhow.

``I would have walked there if I had to,'' Conrad said in a telephone interview, denying reports that snow in the Sierra kept him from making the trip.

Scott Shields, the center's director of therapeutic services and the event organizer, expected the bowl-a-thon to raise $10,000. The center will use the money to buy athletic equipment, including mountain bikes, that are modified for handicapped users. The unit treats about 150 people annually, including those hurt in car crashes, at work and on playing fields.

Sunday's event attracted a wide range of bowlers: young and old, beginners and old hands, on foot and in wheelchairs. Lea Ventura, who uses a wheelchair because she has cerebral palsy, said she took part in the event to help those who came by their handicaps in more sudden ways.

``It's very traumatic for people in the accidents and their families,'' she said. ``They're very distraught when they have to adjust to being disabled.''

Ventura bowled with help from her father. He built a narrow wooden ramp that went from her lap to the floor of the bowling alley. She put a ball at the top of the ramp and let go. The ball rolled down the ramp, eased onto the floor and careened toward the pins. Bowling is Ventura's favorite sport, although for her it is something of a game of chance.

``It's like gambling,'' she said. ``You never know what's going to happen.''

Sandy Mayfield, a retired therapist who founded the bowl-a-thon, said showing patients they can participate in sports -- from biking and bowling to skiing and soccer -- despite their injuries speeds their recovery.

``We want them to see that life goes on after injuries. The actual thing that stops patients is their own feelings. They say, `I can't bowl.' Well, yes, you can bowl,'' Mayfield said. ``What we show the patients is: There may be stairs, but there are ways to get up those stairs.''

Contact Pat Lopes Harris at or (408) 278-3471.

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