My dinner with Dean

Don Barone
Dean Rojas and family

About the author

Don Barone

Don Barone

db has been in the reporting biz for over 30 years, won some Emmys and other awards, but is proudest of his four-decade marriage, his two kids and the fact he founded Tackle The Storm Foundation to help children.

"I guess we're big and I guess we're small ... "

Dateline: Kentucky Lake Greyhawkin'

I wish you were there.

At dinner.

With me. And Dean.

Dean Rojas.

Cajun chicken, for Dean.

For me, Buffalo Wings, mild.

Both of us ordered a salad ... honey mustard dressing, both. Dean ate the croutons. I didn't. I pushed the onions to the side, too.

Dean went with the baked potato, me, French Fries. Had to wait for the ketchup.

Sweet tea for me, a cocktail for Dean. First booth by the door, the Celtics and Lakers were shapes in plasma above our heads. Dean chewed on a swizzle stick, I fiddled with a bendable straw.

Dropped my napkin.

Dean bought.

I've got the next one.

You want to know one of these anglers, get them off the dock, get them off the stage, get them away from the interview space at the bottom of the stage steps.

Get them in a booth.

With the Lakers and Celtics in plasma running above their heads.

With Cajun Chicken and Buffalo Wings. Mild.

With swizzle sticks and straws.

And a tall cold glass of sweet tea.

" ... if you think about it man you know we got it all ... "

It's pre-opening night at the new restaurant up on the hill above the Fishtale Lodge in Paris, Tenn.

The anglers and guests have been invited up for dinner.

We're practice. The joint goes off-limits for mistakes, tomorrow.

Dean has shown up showered, hair combed, business casual.

Not me.

I have been at the Day Two weigh-in for hours ... the temp outside melts your deodorant no matter how much extra-strength non-stink stuff is in it.

The humidity ... you could fish in the air. It is so humid that the metal around here will still be dripping with Thursday sweat a week from now.

And I have no water.

In the Greyhawk, the $3.75 water plug went plugless. Blew. Water, water, everywhere, 'cept where I need it to be.

So Dean is fresh ... I'm smelling of a curious mixture of CVS baby powder and an old bottle of Brute I found rolling around in the rig.

A desert shower.

Two guys in a restaurant bar, unopened menus between them, two guys talking this and that, like guys do, the dance of "how's those Arizona Cardinals doing?" "How's those Buffalo Bills doing?" Me to him, him to me.

I know how Dean feels, he has a cocktail in front of him. I have a reporter's pad and pen.

I win.

I've done pretty much no background on this dude. I know his friendship, not his stats. I don't care much about the "frog" bait thing he is known for, I'm not much of an amphibian, plastic or otherwise, kind of guy.

I know this, Dean was in the running to finish in the top 12, and fish in July in Montgomery, Ala., for the Angler-of-the-Year hardware.

Today, just a couple of hours ago actually, he finished 71st in the Kentucky Lake tournament. Dean came into the event at number 10 out of 12. Don't know for sure, but my guess is, that's not how he will leave the event.

Here, eavesdrop on the conversation:

db: "So, you going to leave tomorrow and head to Oklahoma? (the next and last regular season Bassmaster Elite tourney).

Dean: "Nope."

I don't say anything, just click the top of my pen so the business end is locked and loaded.

Dean: "I'm going back out on the lake again tomorrow and find out what I did wrong. Fix it."

The young waitress brings the glass of water I never drink.

I unclick the pen, start writing in my memory, not the pad. And we talk of this ... finishing 71st out of 90-something. The ice in my sweet tea melts between the start of the conversation, and the next time I say anything. Dean has both arms on the table, leaning forward, saying stuff I'm only sort of listening to.

We're friends so I get to interrupt sooner than I would if we were just unknowns to each.

And this is what I say ... pretty much exactly as I said it and you were in the booth behind us pretending not to listen but hearing none-the-less.

"Dude ... I've been told there is something like 40 MILLION fishing licenses in the United States ... and if the feds somehow got a hold of the issuing process and started numbering them from, you know, best, to me, your fishing license number would be in the double digits out of however many digits there are in 40 MILLION."

And he smiles, stirs the cubes in his drink, pretends to look at the menu, then looks up ...

"db ... it has always been my dream to do exactly this ... to do exactly this."

And before the young waitress comes back with fresh sweet tea, I say this, "I know you want to be No. 1, we all do, but think of this, how do you think the dude with fishing license number 40,000,000 thinks about what you have, what you do ... I bet he thinks, you about ... got it all."

" ... cause we're all we got on this bouncing ball ... "

The salads come.

And sit.

Twenty minutes, easy, before the honey-mustard hits the leaves. The forks stay wrapped up in the napkins. Water rings and elbows the only movement on the table.

Two guys talkin'

"You know db I remember the EXACT moment when I knew that I wanted to do this, fish, fish for a living."

I say nothing, EXACT is a keyword I know never to interrupt.

"I was 13 ... I used to ride my bike over to Chollas Lake near my house in San Diego. It was a kids lake ... if you were under 15 you could fish there for free. We lived about a mile from it and this one day I rode my bike over there and the people who ran it had drawn the lake down about 10 feet, and while I rode around it on my bike, I could see, the water was crystal clear, I could see the bass in the lake plain as day, and I knew I wanted to catch them, had to catch them."

Thirteen years old. On a bike. By a lake a mile from his home, and as the water level dropped, his dream came into focus.

"The moment I saw them that day, I was hooked. Have been ever since."

I was a little younger than that when the universe drained my lake. Brought my dreams into focus. My Aunt Irma lifted me up and sat me down on a couch, the kind of couch where you could feel the flowers in the shinny fabric. And from behind her back she drained the lake by pulling out a book ... "Tom Swift and his Jetmarine," and I saw the sub, and the big Octopus, and I opened the page and started reading, and sounding out the new words, and my brain got all jiggly and happy as the story played out under my 1950's brushcut.

And even though I didn't know what it was, or how it got to be, like Dean, I knew just one thing ... I wanted to make books ... make stories ... I was hooked.

When you remember the exact moment, decades later, it was because, it was meant to be.

Two guys.

Water rings on the table.

Elbows on the edge.

Salad waiting.

Both remembering.

Both sharing stories ... life.

And the booth behind us ...

... went silent.
Listening.

" ... here's a riddle for you

find the answer ... "

What brought you to where it is that you are at?

If you stayed in bed some Tuesday, would you be somewhere different? Took the left turn, not the right? Never got the nerve to talk to the girl who is now your wife?

What brung you?

Here.

Two guys in a booth, talking.

Two guys eating around the cucumbers in their salad.

Extra honey-mustard on the side. A lone crouton off my plate.

"I was a peanut vendor ... for 9 years ... at The 'Murph. I worked there at night so I could get the money and time to fish during the day."

I fork a second crouton off my plate. Hate the little crunchy things.

If you happen to have gone to Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego in the early 1990s and a 16-year-old-kid who sort of look like he could grow into an adult Dean Rojas tossed a bag of peanuts your way, you bought peanuts from a future Bassmaster Elite star.

Funny world, huh?

"I was there for Tony Gwynn's entire career, for Rolling Stones Concerts, for all the Charger and Padres regular season and post-season games ... I was even there standing behind home plate, with my peanut basket resting on the railing, watching and listening to Roseanne Barr sign the national anthem ... things went pretty bad by about the ninth word into the song. I was even there for when Mark McGwire won the home run derby. WHACK, man that ball went out ... "

"What was your favorite event?"

"The Mickey Thompson off road events and Supercross motobike stuff."

I'm not going to give away how this ends, but you might want to remember that quote there, instead of having to scroll all the way back as this gets to near the end. Just a heads up.

A good night of peanut hawking would net Dean about $100, coming in to the stadium around 5:30 p.m. and leaving about four hours later. That is, before he moved up from selling peanuts to being the cotton candy guy.

But it was as the Peanut Hawker, that he found fame for the first time.

"I was the National Peanut Hawker Champion of 1993 at the MLB All-Star game that year at The Murph."

Fourteen or Fifteen MLB teams sent their best stadium Peanut Hawkers to The Murph that year to compete ... 3 events ... Distance of how far you could throw the peanut bag ... Accuracy ... could you toss the peanut bag into a basket about 100-feet away ... and Freestyle, "I did it all, behind the back toss, under the leg toss ... "

And the young Dean Rojas WON the whole thing.

"It was the first time I won ANYTHING, did it in front of about 500 spectators, got this plaque that said I was the Champion Peanut Hawker of 1993. That award still hangs on the wall in my house, up there with the other awards I've won fishing, but that one will never come down, never, in fact I still have the smock that I wore from back when I was a peanut hawker. I'll never get rid of that either."

And the young waitress came and took what was left of our salads.

" ... there's a reason for the world ... "

We are about two hours into dinner. Every 20 minutes or so we are asked if we need anything.

We don't.

We both brought what we needed.

We brought life, our lives, with us to the booth.

Two guys talking.

Two guys eating chicken.

Two husbands.

Two dads.

"I'm a motorhead you know."

Remember I told you the off-road racing remark would come to play.

"I have a passion for high-performance muscle cars, you know from back in the day."

I know, I was driving them back in that day when they were just cars that went pretty fast from stop sign to stop sign.

"Actually, my wife Renee and I went out and bought a Concourse original 1967 Ford Shelby Mustang that we keep under lock and key in storage. We have all the original documents that came with the car, including the bill of sale that shows the guy who first bought the car traded in a T-Bird for $300 on this Shelby which listed out at around $3,500 new including the $600 option for air conditioning."

There is a Buffalo Chicken Wing frozen in air about halfway up to my mouth. That car, that car, that would be pretty much my World Record Bass catch right there.

"I bought it for my boys ... Cameron who's 10 ...and Austin who's 8."

The Buffalo Chicken Wing hasn't moved, I want this guy to adopt me right now since he is somehow going to let a 10 and 8 year old boy drive an original SHELBY.

"We bought it and put it away to use it to help pay for the boys college education."

The Buffalo Chicken Wing finally meets Blue Cheese.

This love of muscle cars explains why Dean jumped at the chance to be Brian's and Kevin's, from IRL, guest at last month's Indianapolis 500 race. The whole Rojas family got backstage for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Dean was there for practice, in the pits, in the garage, up close with the drivers and their cars ... the muscle of all muscle cars.

So I asked him this, "Dude ... what was your favorite part ... the coolest thing of being at that race?"

And his answered floored me, will be something I will never forget, and probably will never be forgotten by the people in the booth behind us either.

Dean's greatest memory, at the Greatest Spectacle of Racing came down to this ...

... a touch.

On his shoulder.

From his 8 year old son, Austin.

"We were in our seats and Austin was standing up in his seat with his small hand on my shoulder, and when the cars took off I could feel his fingers tighten, and when the cars came around the corner I could feel his hand grab my shoulder, and I could feel his excitement through his tiny hand on my shoulder. I will never forget that feeling, ever ... I'm like 38 years old, and yet the touch of my child made me feel like a child all over again."

Two guys.

Two chicken diners.

A cocktail.

A cold tall sweet tea.

As we left, I told Dean that should we ever get back to California together, we need to walk the lake of his childhood.

Walk The Murph of his peanut hawking days.

We stood up and shook hands, with our left hands on each other's shoulder.

And felt the touch of a child.

As he looked down from his bike and saw the bass in the lake.

As he sat on a shiny couch with flowers you could touch and read his first big boy book.

And learned the answer to the riddle, that is life.

"You and I"
The Riddle
Five for Fighting

Don Barone is an award-winning outdoors writer and a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Guild of the U.K. You can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com.

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