People tell me I look good for my age. Whether that's true or not, I can’t say. But whenever it's mentioned, I'm quick to credit clean living.
The truth is, though, I burn the candle pretty hard from both ends. Like a lot of touring pros, I've had my share of ailments. Tendonitis, torn ligaments and cracked ribs — years of rough water boat rides have left me pretty banged up. But I can deal with all that. It's what happened to me back in 2003 that scared me the most.
During that season I developed a severe case of neck and back pain. At times I could hardly turn my head. By the end of the season, I couldn't even cast. It affected the way I fished; worse, it affected my confidence. I wondered if my career might be over — the prospect of which really concerned me.
I desperately wanted to stay in the game, and I genuinely believed my best fishing was still ahead of me … if I could only get that chance.
When the season ended, I sought immediate medical help. Resulting tests revealed blown out discs, both in my neck and lower back. "Bone on bone!" the doctors told me.
When I looked at the scans, they made me sick. The doctors gave me a couple of options: surgery or physical therapy — neither of which guaranteed positive results. One suggested putting off the surgery as long I could tolerate it, as new advancements in those types of procedures showed great promise.
With referral in hand, I sought out Marty Huegel, head therapist for ReQuest Physical Therapy Center. Marty is the top guy for all of the University of Florida sports programs, including the Gator football team. Learning that, I knew I'd be in good hands.
Marty was friendly, but driven right from the start. He put me through a battery of tests to check my range of motion and threshold for pain. He told me I was wise for not choosing the surgical route, that those procedures are risky and frequently cause more damage than good. He said it could even be fatal!
ReQuest offers all the latest in technical equipment. But before utilizing any machines, therapy begins with a strict regiment of stretching exercises. Their motto: "Stretch and strengthen!"
Once I was comfortable with the prescribed stretching routine, he moved me to a series of machines — most of which are weight and resistance type apparatus. Repetition with gradual increases in weight or resistance is the goal ... that and lots of stretching.
After several months of therapy, I slowly regained nearly all of my mobility. Most of the pain had subsided also. I worked out nearly every day of the week, both with free weights and machines. By spring, I felt like I was in the best shape of my life.
When the 2004 tournament season kicked off, I was a different angler. And my fishing reflected it — I made the money in nearly every event that year, ultimately qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. It was an incredible turnaround, and I had Marty Huegel and his staff to thank for it.
It's been nearly a decade since my treatment, and though I've had some trying seasons, I'm still out there pounding away.
Am I one hundred percent? No, but I feel good and my work ethic remains strong. The guys I travel with acknowledge my efforts. They know my credo is "Go early and stay late!" As long as there's light, I'm on the water trying. If not, I feel like I'm slacking off.
Yes, competitive fishing has its price. But it also keeps me outdoors. And for me, that's the key to a healthier lifestyle.
When I run into old friends — guys from high school and college — they frequently ask how I managed to stay so healthy. I tell them, "Clean living!" The truth is, if you want stay in the fight you better stay healthy. And that's what I try to do.
Like the old South Bend advertising poster says, "Fish and Feel Fit!" And for me, those are words to live by.