A Classic dream come true

A lot has changed since I wrote my first column for Bassmaster.com. I guess you could say that is an understatement. My world has done a complete 360 more than once! Despite all of the changes in the air, there is stillness and calm in the midst of it. I’ll do my best to explain that feeling here. Sometimes words just can’t capture the true feeling of an event but I am going to do my best.

As I mentioned in “How ‘Team Howell’ began,” Randy and I have been in the bass fishing business for 21 years. This past week, Randy fished his 12th Bassmaster Classic. He fished his first Classic in 1997 in Birmingham, Ala. That was the year before we actually moved to Alabama from North Carolina. I can remember then the excitement we both had. It was a turning point in his career when he qualified to fish the Classic that year. It gave both of us a sense of “we belong here” and we both knew that the career choice was right.

Passion for the sport of bass fishing is what drove him from the very beginning, and it still drives him today. As with any passion, the belief that you can do it has to be the one factor in the equation that keeps you going. I also believe that the people you surround yourself with have to have that same belief. If not, disbelief is detected easily and can affect a person mentally.

In 1997, Randy and I both believed that he could win a Classic, but I am not sure that we believed it would be that one. I can remember trying to talk ourselves into believing it, but truly inside we were more focused on doing everything right and consumed with the “Classic Hoopla” as it has been termed. Classic Hoopla is all of the stuff that is required of the anglers. At that time, it included the dinners, meetings, rules, rods and baits limitations, where to sit, where to seat family, how to dress, how to talk, early mornings, late nights, etc. The list could go on, but really you can label it as distractions that were necessary. I remember cheering for him each day; and to both of us, just being there felt like winning, or what we knew of winning.

Honestly, I do not remember where he finished in that first Classic, nor do I remember much about the next 10 Classics. What I do remember is that our belief that he could win grew with each year that he qualified for another one. The Hoopla was still very much a part of the next 11 Classics, but we grew in experience as far as what to expect each time. We became comfortable and familiar with the process. But, more importantly, since then, our faith in God has grown, and we have come to realize that He is in control. The only belief that we needed to have is that when His timing is perfect, winning would happen.

Fast forward to 2014. Randy qualified to fish his 12th Bassmaster Classic. As in years past, there is always an excitement and thankfulness we have for each qualification. However, this one felt different before it ever began. It was the same feeling we had at the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Northern Open he won last summer at the James River.

During the week of practice for that the Open, it was both of us had an overwhelming feeling of expectancy, confidence and faith knowing that God’s timing was perfect and it was going to work out. He won that event and not only did it build our confidence but our faith reached a new level that is hard to explain. If you had been a fly on the wall that week of the Northern Open, it would have been quite comical. There were so many distractions that took place that week that could have taken both of us out of the game if we had allowed it. But through years of experience and growing, each distraction was just another step to take, get through and keep our eye on the prize. Psalm 37:23 says that “the steps of a good man are ordered by God” and knowing this enables us to keep on keeping on through the distractions.

And then came the week of the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic. The three day practice began and it appeared to be a downward spiral. Randy got a sinus infection that required an antibiotic. Unfortunately, he had taken several rounds of antibiotics in the two months prior for walking pneumonia and the crud. Because of this, his stomach suffered and he began having excruciating pain. Practice was Feb. 14-16, and he was in complete misery the entire time. I was really getting a bit concerned because the last thing a Classic angler needs is sickness. Also, he usually tells me how his practice is going, and it was NOT going great. However, he knew warmer weather was coming and he knew that things were changing. I could tell the subpar practice was not affecting his belief that things were going to get better.

Soon after, we were able to come home and stay for three nights. It was really weird to be preparing for the biggest tournament of the season and have the luxury of staying at home. During regular season events, we are in our camper on the road, and I do my best to make things as close to normal home life as I possibly can. Most men do not like change, so one of my main jobs is to help maintain normalcy which in turn helps him not to have unnecessary distractions. His last day of practice was on Wednesday, and by this time he had begun to recover from the stomach and sinus issues through the help of a couple of  doctor friends that we are fortunate to know. Toward the end of this practice day, he got a few bites that helped solidify the belief he had that things were definitely turning for the better and a couple more warm days would be the difference maker.

Meanwhile, since we were at home and not on the road in another state, I was able to keep the boys in their basketball games. It was also their championship week which was really important to them. Randy was even able to help coach Oakley’s Monday night game, and it turned out to be a really good game for Oakley. He was so proud that dad could be there to see it. We were also home to be able to get haircuts for them and my hair done, as well. (I just had to throw this in because Randy got one of the best Flattop haircuts ever the week of the Classic! Mr. Joe, his barber, is the Bomb and keeps Randy’s OCD over his hair in order!)

Friday, the first competition day of the Classic, came and he was excited about going out to see what the day would hold. It turned out to be a decent day, and he ended the day in 12th place. Day 2 was also a decent day, and he moved into 11th. He told me it was a good day, and he thought Sunday was going to be really good because the fish were really biting at the end of the day on Saturday with the warm weather.

So what kind of feeling did we have before he went out on Sunday? I could see that he was excited about going out to catch some fish because they were really biting. But did I get the feeling that he thought he was going to win? No. It was more of an expectancy that the fishing was going to be good, and he was looking forward to seeing what the day would hold. He told me where he was going to start and that I should come watch him.

I left take-off to go watch him, and when I crossed the bridge he said he was going to start at, the blue King’s Home/Livingston boat was not there so I went to get some breakfast at Waterfront Grocery. While I was there, I received a call from a friend that said I needed to get to the Spring Creek Bridge ASAP. He said Randy had three fish and one was a 7-pounder. Needless to say, I only took a few bites of my biscuit!

I headed to the Spring Creek Bridge with my boys and our aunt that was with us. We had the awesome opportunity to watch Randy catch most of his fish on Sunday. Little did we know that he was catching the winning fish. Looking back, it is one of the most special parts of this life changing event. The boys will never forget the experience of watching dad catch fish after fish, of friends with us cheering him on, and the excitement of knowing that’s their dad! However, did we believe that he was going to win?

I never knew without a doubt that he was going to win but I knew that I was watching something special. I made the comment to one of our friends that he looked so calm. In times past, when winning was a possibility, Randy’s nerves could be seen outwardly, and I could feel the anxiousness that he had, too. But, on Sunday, he never exhibited the anxiousness I had seen in him in the past. Maybe that nervousness was absent because he was in 11th place starting the day; or maybe his 11th place standing was ordered by God so that peace would prevail. Either way, his calm and confidence were evident in his body language which was pretty cool to see and experience with him.

Was there ever a point that I knew he was going to win or had a chance to win? When he came off the water and said he had 28-plus pounds, I had a feeling that it might be a possibility. However, from past experience, I have learned not to jump to conclusions or create an excitement that could end in disappointment. It’s kind of a coping mechanism that I have learned so that I don’t create unnecessary feelings for him or me and the boys.

So after about 30 minutes of driving toward Birmingham and the weigh-in, when he asked what I thought about his chances, my answer was, “Do you really want to know?” He looked at me with a surprised look and said, “Yes, what does BASStrakk show?”

When I told him it showed him in first place the whole day, his eyes got a bigger and we both smiled. However, in the back of our minds, there was a hesitation to believe it completely because BASStrakk is an unofficial estimation. We have learned to avoid the “sure of it” thought pattern because the letdown is magnified if it doesn’t work out in the end. Hope was still there, though, in both of our minds; and Hope is what keeps the world going.

For the rest of the ride, we didn’t talk about what ifs. We held on to Hope and the belief that God allowed things to happen for a reason and that He is faithful no matter the outcome.

As I sat in my seat at the weigh-in surrounded by friends and family, I was filled with joy, excitement, anxiousness and an inward peace. I knew there was nothing I could do to change the outcome, and my only option was to believe that God’s timing is perfect and to TRUST. There is one thing that Don Barone said to me during the weigh-in that I will never forget. He said, “You know that whatever the outcome, it doesn’t define who Randy is.”

I knew this already but so many times it doesn’t mean anything until it fits the situation. I knew, at that moment, he was right. This didn’t make the nervousness go away though.  Don Barone will attest to this: When Paul Mueller came up on stage to weigh his bag, it was as close to fainting as I have ever come! I had been told he had 26 to 27 pounds, and mathematically that would beat Randy’s weight. When his fish weighed less than expected, there was about a 1,000-pound weight that fell on the floor off my heart! At one point, Don Barone thought he was going to have to get me some medical help.

 
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Finally, when Edwin weighed the final bag of fish, and Randy was declared the winner, 21 years of hard work and belief that it could happen flashed before my eyes and was overshadowed by a peace that surpasses all understanding. I think it is human nature to try to imagine what it would be like to win the Classic and to imagine how it would feel. These imaginings always led me to feelings of nervousness. However, in this instance, it felt like I was in a world by myself looking at it from another location, like a peaceful dream. I actually had to watch videos yesterday to realize what was going on around us. I heard his song, the roar of the crowd, and the voices around me in the videos but during the actual event, it was like silence was surrounding me.

It is now a few days after the win, and I am completely overwhelmed with joy, excitement, gratitude, and so many other things that can’t be described. The one thing I can express is that looking back at all of the past Classics Randy has fished, it wasn’t his time to win. You always hear people say that when it is your time, things will fall into place perfectly. There is no doubt it was his time to win, and God orchestrated every part of it. It is such a blessing and an honor to win a Bassmaster Classic but to win in your home state is even more special than we could have imagined. We are so happy that our King’s Home family could be a part of this special event and hope that through all of it, they will be blessed as much as we have been blessed by them.

We are going to work harder than ever to represent the sport of bass fishing with excellence. We are so humbled and honored to read and hear all of the messages and emails we are receiving from so many friends, family and fishing fans. In fact, Randy said I could quote him on this just this morning: “I am going to need to carry a fanny pack with Kleenexes in it everywhere I go!” If you know him, you know it is accurate. ‘Til next time, take care and SMILE, it can change the world around you!

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