A 19-year-old kid almost won the Bassmaster Southern Open tournament on the St. John's River in Florida last weekend. In a sport where the last three Elite Series Rookies of the Year were ages 25 (Derek Remitz in '07), 37 (Steve Kennedy in '06) and 30 (Dave Wolak in '06), a teenager at this level of the circuit is borderline astonishing.
But more than his youth, what made this teenager's second-day lead and third-place finish so noteworthy it was his last name: VanDam.
Jonathan VanDam admits he felt the burden of that famous surname in Palatka, Fla., last Friday morning as he prepared for takeoff at the first of three Southern Open events this year. Jonathan is the nephew of Kevin VanDam, the 40-year-old, three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year. Kevin VanDam — or KVD, for short — is indisputably the most famous name in modern professional bass fishing.
"I was definitely nervous (Friday), with Kevin being who he is," Jonathan said. "I was just hoping to live up to the expectations he created."
That's pressure, especially when you consider the Southern Open field included successful Elite Series pros like Florida angler Peter Thliveros (who overtook the young VanDam to win the event), Palatka residents Preston Clark and Terry Scroggins, and Mike Iaconelli, just to name a few. Iaconelli would probably rank as the second-best known name in the sport, after winning the BASS 2006 Angler of the Year title. Thliveros won his second $250,000 Elite Series Major last year, giving him a half-million in earnings from just those two tourney wins.
In other words, the 200-angler competition wasn't just fierce and experienced, it was filled with years of local knowledge about Florida's St. John's River.
So what, realistically, could be expected of a 19-year-old kid from Kalamazoo, Mich.?
"Basically, this was his first (BASS) tournament," said Mark Zona, a host of ESPN's Bassmaster coverage and a longtime friend of the VanDam family. "That kid had a lot of pressure on him just because of his last name. That's a lot of weight. What he did was pretty special."
After two days of the tournament, it looked like the kid might go ahead and win the thing. He was in first with a Saturday five-bass limit weighing 24 pounds, 1 ounce, giving him a 40-3 two-day total weight, and a 3-pound lead over second place.
"My phone started ringing like crazy," Jonathan said. "Kevin called three or four times, just trying to make sure I stayed focused the next day and didn't start second-guessing myself. Kelly Jordon called to congratulate me and wish me luck."
Ultimately, Jonathan dropped to third with a limit of 10-7. But his third-place finish was nearly the story that a victory would have been.
Kevin VanDam was almost an instant hit at age 22, when he started fishing the pro bass circuit; it took him only until age 24 to win his first Angler of the Year title, in 1992. KVD sees similar potential in his nephew.
"Nobody told (Jonathan) he wasn't supposed to win," Kevin said with a laugh. "He doesn't know any better. He has a tremendous amount of confidence and not much experience. Confidence can overcome lack of experience. But I can promise you, he's still got some tough lessons to learn."
Maybe no one was more impressed with Jonathan's third-place $19,137 check than Jerry McKinnis, host of "The Fishin' Hole," which had a quarter-century run on ESPN, and president of the JM Associates production team that has brought so many professional bass tournaments to television over the past three decades.
"I could give you enough information to convince you that what (Jonathan) did can't be done," McKinnis said. "What he's attempting to do is totally illogical. A young person in our sport — a rookie — is normally from 30 to 37 years old.
"We're constantly talking about needing more young people in our sport. But there's no support system there to groom young talent."
McKinnis, who played minor league baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, mentioned baseball, football, basketball, golf and tennis, and how they all have some form of system in place to develop young talent.
Kalamazoo has its own great example of that. Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees all-star shortstop, moved with his family to Kalamazoo at age 4. After becoming a star at Kalamazoo Central High School, Jeter turned down a scholarship offer from Michigan when the Yankees took him with the sixth pick of the first round in 1992's Major League Baseball draft. He benefitted from four years developing in the minor leagues before becoming the Yankees' opening-day shortstop in 1996 and earning the American League Rookie of the Year title.
When Kevin mentions the tough lessons awaiting Jonathan on the pro bass circuit, think about the strikeouts and errors Jeter made in the minors before being called up by the Yankees.
And Jonathan doesn't have the luxury of skipping college to pursue his sport. A freshman business major at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, he took 16 hours of class last semester and has 13 scheduled this semester.
The formula is simple for Randy VanDam, 47, Jonathan's father: no fishing at the Elite Series level until Jonathan completes his degree
"My wife and I have already told him, hey, this semester we'd like to see some improvement in those grades before Santee Cooper," Randy said, referring to the South Carolina reservoir that will host the next Southern Open, in May.
That would prove that this Southern Open deal is compatible with a college education, especially since Jonathan missed a week of classes to compete in Florida last week.
Alabama's Lake Guntersville hosts the third and final Southern Open event in October. If VanDam finishes among the top five in points for the three-tournament series, he'll earn a berth in the Bassmaster Classic next February.
"I've always wanted to fish in the Bassmaster Classic," said Jonathan. "I would be competing against my uncle and all these other guys, and my whole family would be there to see it."
When Jonathan says "all these other guys," that's worth an explanation. Along with the pressure of being Kevin VanDam's nephew comes the support system of being around other pros since Jonathan was old enough to crawl.
During his past two summer vacations, Jonathan has fished three Bassmaster Elite Series events as a co-angler — in the back of the boat with whichever pro drew his name that day. One of his most enjoyable days on the water was listening to Texan Kelly Jordon's long string of funny stories two years ago at New York's Lake Oneida. The friendship developed that day led to Jordon's call before the finals in Florida last week.
And Jonathan will be the first to tell you how much he learned from being a co-angler with Tommy Biffle two years ago. VanDam thought he knew a little about how to flip bushes until getting a lesson from Biffle.
"I have to tip my hat to the guys on the tour," Randy VanDam said. "They've all been great to him."
VanDam has been a solid co-angler. From his three entries, Jonathan scored a fifth-place finish at Lake Champlain last year and 16th at Oneida in 2006. Overall he has entered four Bassmaster events — three as a co-angler, one as a pro — and has finished in the top 10 twice and the top 20 three times.
Competition is in the kid's blood; Kevin and Randy's parents, Dick and Nadine VanDam, raised a fiercely competitive set of kids. (Stephen Gould, Jonathan's cousin, a high school senior, is another VanDam family member with Elite Series co-angler success on his resume and a likely future pro.)
McKinnis has seen that VanDam competitiveness in action. At fishing tournaments, the JM crew carries a Baggo set in its equipment trucks. The game is similar to horseshoes, only you're trying to throw a bean bag into a round hole cut in a plywood box. There's a typical matchup on the Elite Series tour - McKinnis and VanDam vs. Zona and Mike McKinnis, Jerry's son.
"I've seen Kevin compete in Baggo after the third day of a tournament, when he's fishing for $100,000 the next day, and it's like he's playing Baggo for a hundred grand," Jerry McKinnis said. "It's unbelievable how into that Kevin is. The intensity is incredible."
Apparently, it's that way in everything around the VanDam family.
"I think it comes from my mom," Kevin said. "It doesn't matter what it is - cooking, recipes, sports, talking about the weather. My wife, Sherry, always says, 'You VanDams are all so competitive.'
"It's our greatest quality or our greatest flaw, however you want to put it."
No one in pro bass fishing considers it a flaw. Ask anyone whose been just ahead or right behind VanDam going into the last day of a tournament. They're as nervous as zebras with a lion on the prowl.
Jonathan's been in plenty of those VanDam family fishing shoot-outs - on the pond near their homes.
"We'll have drop-shot only or jerkbait only tournaments," Jonathan said. "There's no money involved — it's all about competing with each other. It's a pretty big deal."
Randy VanDam started Kalamazoo's D&R Sports Center in 1982, when he was still in college at Western Michigan. Kevin is seven years younger, so he grew up in that tackle store that evolved into a full-line outdoors center, including boat dealerships. That's exactly the pattern Jonathan has followed — washing boats as a youngster, working in the store selling fishing tackle and talking to anglers as soon as he hit his teenage years.
"A lot of people give Kevin credit for Jonathan's success, and he deserves it," said Zona, who has known the family for over a dozen years and feels like part of it. "But that kid has been in a family of fishermen since the day he was born. Think about that nonstop knowledge you are soaking in every day of the year. It's staggering."
Then again, Jonathan VanDam's has always done things early. In August 1988, Randy and Janice VanDam traveled to a California boat show when Janice was six months pregnant. The first night there, Janice went into labor. Jonathan was born three months premature. It would be six weeks before Jonathan and Janice could be transported back to Michigan.
Randy, a Tracker Boats dealer, says, "I almost named him 'Nitro,' but my wife wouldn't go for that."
Nineteen years later, that name certainly would fit.