Top competitors in any sport tend to be control freaks. They want to have a say in every variable within their orbit and some that aren’t. Sometimes it seems that the great ones can impact the weather, change the spin of the ball in midflight, or so severely cripple their opponent’s mindset as to render him a non-competitor.
The one thing none of them can affect, though, is their birth date. Once you’re out of the womb, there’s no going back inside.
For some, the randomness of their date of birth is a gift. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would likely have been Hall of Famers no matter who they competed against, but the fact that they had one another as foils, in college and throughout their pro careers, made their achievements even more extraordinary and memorable.
On the other hand, some stellar athletes would be thought of more often, or in more favorable terms, were they not overshadowed by their even more exceptional contemporaries. The examples that pop into my mind first are boxers Roberto Duran and Tommy Hearns, who were both world champions in multiple weight classes, but whose legacies are overshadowed by those of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. Duran and Hearns participated in many of the greatest fights of that era – Duran beat Leonard once and Hearns tied Sugar Ray once – but their long-term impacts somehow pale in comparison to the other two.
If the bass fishing history books were concluded today, I feel this latter problem is the one that would befall the entry on Tommy Biffle, who turned 55 a couple of weeks before this year’s Bassmaster Classic.
No one who follows the sport closely can deny Biffle’s numerous achievements. With B.A.S.S. alone, he has earned 7 wins, 18 Classic appearances and over $2 million in winnings. He bolstered each of those totals on the strength of his recent Elite Series win on the Upper Mississippi River. Add to that a PAA win, an FLW Tour win, eight appearances in the Forrest Wood Cup and over $600,000 in FLW winnings, and it’s a career probably 80 to 90 of the current Elite Series pros would covet.
But he’s not Denny Brauer.
As I’ll describe in further detail down the page, nothing I write here is meant to knock Biffle, but if you ask most casual fishing fans who is the best flipper and pitcher of the past 20 years, the past 10 years or even the past 5 years, most of them will point to Brauer. There’s good reason for that – Denny’s credentials are truly extraordinary. In fact, if you were creating your own personal Mount Bassmore, after you chiseled out the visages of Roland Martin, Rick Clunn and KVD, no one could take serious issue with you if you chose Brauer for the fourth slot. Again, just look at his B.A.S.S. stats – in a handful more tournaments than Biffle, he won 17 times, qualified for 21 Classics, won a Classic, was the 1987 Angler of the Year, and cashed checks totaling over two and a half million bucks.
That doesn’t include his FLW accomplishments, which while not quite up to Biffle’s level (partially because Brauer didn’t fish both tours for quite as long), added over two hundred grand in winnings and another AOY title, which resulted in his grinning face on the Wheaties box. Biffle has never been on a cereal box (side note: If Biffle does ever represent a cereal company, I sincerely hope they come up with a breakfast food called “Biffle-O’s”).
Brauer was even on the David Letterman show. The closest Biffle came to show business was this disturbing commercial for Gene Larew Lures.
Indeed, Biffle’s demeanor may contribute to the fans’ general failure to recognize his greatness. While Brauer could occasionally be a grouch, he was also masterful at turning on the charm at just the right time, and with exactly the right amount of playfulness. Biffle, on the other hand, is all business all the time. No matter how many AOY titles or Classics he wins, no major network is ever going to have a prime time “Tommy Biffle Variety Hour,” featuring the comedic stylings of Wayne Brady and musical guest Justin Bieber.
In the end, Biffle may not care about how he is remembered or how he is thought of in the eyes of fans he’s never met. He may be too busy fishing tournaments every waking moment – he continues to fish both major tours, along with Opens and PAA events as time allows – to consider how his epitaph will read. If my hunches serve me right, though, in the coming years Biffle is going to create his true legacy. That may sound silly, since he’s qualified for more Classics, won more B.A.S.S. tournaments, and won more money fishing than all but a handful of his past or current peers. Isn’t he already distinguished? Of course he is, but I believe that the Tommy Biffle who is written about in the history books will define himself by the atypically upward trajectory of his career.
What I mean by that is that most bass pros seem to peak within five years of age 40, in one direction or the other. Brauer is an example of this phenomenon. While he didn’t win his Classic title until he was 49, between the ages of 35 and 45 he missed only one Classic. He won his first B.A.S.S. event less than a month after his 35th birthday, and won a total of eight by the time he was 45, nearly one a year. He’d won 12 by the time he was 50, keeping up that pace. Of course he won five more, most recently a 2011 Elite Series tournament on the Arkansas River, but clearly he slowed down later in his career. Classic slots that were once automatic were less so – after defending his title in 1999 at age 50, he only made four of the next 13. That’s good, but not Denny-Brauer-prime-good. I don’t think that he lost his desire to compete, but in later years Brauer made clear that multiple surgeries and three decades behind the windshield of a tow vehicle had taken their toll on his body.
Brauer competed quite well for a mortal in his post-50 years. If you look only at the six-year, 65 tournament Elite Series stint that comprised his swan song, he finished in the money 55% of the time, made the top 12 cut 14% of the time and became the oldest Elite Series winner at age 62. By no means did he go softly into the night. The “retiree” even added to his legend by winning an EverStart tournament on Toledo Bend earlier this year, at a time when most people his age are more focused on the early bird special at the local diner.
Writer’s note to himself: Here we are, over a thousand words into an article nominally about Tommy Biffle, and the focus so far has been Denny Brauer. If that alone doesn’t make Biffle the Rodney Dangerfield of bass fishing, it’s a good starting point for building your case.
Now, before all the Denny Brauer fans start bashing me, read the following sentence: Nothing in this column is meant to take away from Brauer’s vast accomplishments. I’ve fished with him, ridden in his boat, talked with him at length and studied his resume, and from close up or far away you never want to challenge his abilities on the water. Nevertheless, over the next decade I think Tommy Biffle has an ability to separate himself from his peers and simultaneously get out from the Brauer cloud. Biffle may not win as many B.A.S.S. tournaments as Brauer. He may never win the AOY title. There’s a chance he’ll never finish higher than 2nd in the Classic, a dubious honor he’s achieved twice.
The place where Biffle has a chance to really distinguish himself, not only from Brauer, but from other first-ballot Hall of Famers like Rick Clunn and Roland Martin, is that after his 50th birthday his game seems to be improving. He seems to be impervious to time. Since turning 50 in February 2008, Biffle has earned a check in 61% of Elite Series tournaments, has finished in the Top 12 in over a quarter of them, and has won three times. He’s made 5 of 7 Classics, including the upcoming 2014 championship on Lake Guntersville (by virtue of his recent win in Wisconsin). He’s also won an Open on the Arkansas River and a PAA tournament on Cherokee Lake.
Look at other ultra-accomplished long-term pros to understand how rare this is. Rick Clunn has only won twice in B.A.S.S. competition in the approximately 17 years since his 50th birthday, and hasn’t won since he was 56, over a decade ago. Clearly Clunn can still be competitive, as he showed earlier this year at Falcon, but I believe that he would be the first to state that he’s not what he once was – that would be a nearly impossible standard for anyone short of KVD to live up to, but there does not appear to be a fountain of youth for any angler.
Of Roland Martin’s 19 B.A.S.S. wins, only three came after his 50th birthday. He hasn’t fished B.A.S.S. at the tour level since 2005, at the remarkable age of 65. In many respects, this is a young man’s sport – you have to be not only physically and mentally strong and tough enough to deal with the challenges, but also just dumb enough to overlook the naysayers, the impediments and the logic that would make any practical person say “I’d be better off selling insurance.”
I’m not guaranteeing that Tommy Biffle will ever win again. He might not persist as long as Clunn or Martin, or even Brauer. He could break a hip tomorrow while retrieving his AARP magazine from the mailbox. But from my 10,000-foot perch, anyone, young or old, who thinks he’s going away soon or is incapable of competing going forward, need only look back to the recent Elite Series tournament in La Crosse, Wis., where he came from behind to take the trophy. He didn’t do it flipping, either, just like he didn’t flip for his previous Elite Series win, in 2010 on Fort Gibson. Just as Brauer was unfairly maligned as a one-trick pony when he could actually do a lot of things quite well, when viewed objectively it’s clear that Biffle continues to incorporate more and more tactics into his skill set. Drop shotting may not be his forte, but I bet he can do it better than you. Rather than atrophying with age, he’s snowballing, becoming a hungrier, more efficient winning machine – all while fishing more tournaments than most competitors half his age could manage.
If you’re an Elite Series pro, whether you’re 10 years older than Biffle or 10 years younger, or anywhere else on the age spectrum for that matter, that should be pretty flipping scary.