As emergency room personnel were cutting the camouflage hunting clothes off him on Jan. 21, Cliff Pace looked at his wife, Brana, and said, "I'm going to find a way to fish the (Bassmaster) Classic."
Brana, who works as a nurse, probably knew that wasn't going to happen. But she also knew it wasn't the time to share her professional opinion with her husband. Pace's prognosis became obvious the next day, when he underwent surgery to repair two breaks in his lower left leg – to both the tibia and fibula – and a torn left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
Pace fell from the ladder of his deer stand on Jan. 21 as he was climbing down from it on an unusually cold morning in southern Mississippi, near his hometown of Petal, a suburb of Hattiesburg.
Pace was released from the hospital the following Tuesday. B.A.S.S. officials quickly decided to extend Pace's 2014 Classic qualification, earned as the defending Classic champion, to the 2015 Classic. Pace was resting – uncomfortably – at home Sunday when he described his ordeal.
"I'm sitting here watching the Disney Channel right now, just because it's too painful to get up and find the remote (control) to change it," Pace said. "But I'm feeling better than I did two weeks ago."
Not only will he miss the chance to defend the Classic title he won on Oklahoma's Grand Lake a year ago, he will miss the entire Elite Series season. (Editor's Note: It's official. B.A.S.S. has granted Cliff Pace a hardship for the 2014 Elite Series season.) One lower leg bone shattered near the kneecap; the other splintered. Pace said it was a bone splinter that severed his ACL.
"I'm on crutches," he said. "I can't put any weight on the leg for six to 12 weeks. The doctors don't know how long it's going to take to heal because there weren't clean breaks."
He's suffering from another "break," too.
"The thought of missing the Classic and the Elite Series this year is just heartbreaking for me," Pace said.
Adding to the mental burden, Cliff and Brana welcomed their first child into the world eight weeks ago, a daughter named Jordan Baylee.
"I can't even pick her up out of the crib," Pace said.
The bright side? He can't change any diapers either.
There is a bright side of this accident, too. It could have been worse, as in deadly. Pace didn't arrive at the emergency room until 2 1/2 hours after his fall.
"It was probably 16, 17 degrees that morning," said Pace, whose love for deer bow-hunting is second only to his passion for tournament bass fishing. "It was the first time I'd ever put gloves on in a deer stand."
Pace estimates he was 6 feet down a 20-foot deer stand ladder when one of the gloves slipped off his hand and he went crashing down. As a former commercial roofer, Pace, 33, has taken dozens of falls from equal heights. He once fell from a six-gabled roof that measured over 100 feet at its peak — bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, ooph.
"It was so steep, I couldn't stop," Pace recalled. "I got up, dusted myself off and went back to work."
This time, Pace's left leg landed in hole when he hit the ground.
"I could see the bottom of it," he said. "It was more like a cupped depression in the ground."
He stood up, tried to take a step and fell on his face "in a mud hole."
It was cold, he was seriously injured, and he was now wet.
"A friend was hunting with me," Pace said. "I called him on my cell phone, and he went to get my four-wheeler. It was the most painful ordeal of my life. I thought I was going to pass out."
Pace dragged himself out of the mud and found a branch to bite.
"I bit down on it when I thought I was going to pass out, just so it would take my mind off the pain," he said. "I puked a couple of times. I was going into shock. I got real cold."
With help from his friend, Pace was able to get on his four-wheeler and drive himself out of the deer woods.
Pace noted that he's "caught a lot of grief on Facebook" for not wearing a safety harness in his deer stand.
"I've probably taken as many steps on a ladder as some people have taken in their house," Pace said. "I'd never had an issue or a scare.
"And I always wear a harness for safety purposes. But it's a harness you have to disengage from to climb down. Since (the accident), I've researched the harnesses that are connected from the ground up, so you rappel down. I'll have one of those the next time I get in a deer stand."
With Mississippi's 2014-2015 archery deer season opening in October, Pace might climb back in a deer stand before he fishes another bass tournament.
"When I told my physical therapist what we did (the rough boat rides, standing with a foot on the trolling motor pedal for hours), he said if I fished another event this year I was crazy," Pace said.
And that's about to drive him crazy.
"The deer season opener is a special day that's marked on the calendar every year," Pace said. "But I love tournament fishing 50 times more than I do deer hunting."
It's going to be a very long 2014 for the once defending and now defenseless Bassmaster Classic champion Cliff Pace.