BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For the second time, Todd Faircloth had a shot at a major career title and for the second time, Kevin VanDam walked away with it.
Two years ago, Faircloth was leading the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race, only to falter at the final tournament on Lake Oneida, leaving the door wide open for VanDam to claim his fourth title.
"I felt like I gave it to him almost," Faircloth said. "That was probably the worst tournament of my career and it came at the worst possible time. You are going to have to take it from him, you can't give him anything."
This past weekend on Lay Lake, Faircloth was within ounces of claiming his first Bassmaster Classic title going into the final day. On Sunday, VanDam slammed the door shut with a huge Day Three, leaving Faircloth outside the winner's circle once again.
"The Classic is a career-changing award, so this is bittersweet," Faircloth said.
Standing inside the media room after the final weigh-in, Faircloth stared off into space as the rest of the top five conducted interviews with reporters. More emotional men would have been reduced to tears by then, but the only sign of a heartbreaking day were his bloodshot eyes and slumped shoulders.
Faircloth has been known for his emotional strength and steadiness, traits that serve him well along the highs and lows of professional bass fishing. With the unique way Lay Lake played out over the course of the tournament, every ounce of his strength was tested.
Many of the top contenders in the Classic were fishing in Beeswax Creek, where the field launched during the tournament, including Faircloth, VanDam and second-place Jeff Kriet. With all the anglers and spectators crammed into a small area, the mental side of fishing was in play at all times.
"Not only do you have to have blinders on, but earplugs as well," Faircloth said. "We are accustomed to not knowing the results, but here, you hear someone hollering and you know you are getting behind. I feel like a basketball or football player on the field. When the crowd starts cheering, you can't block it out — the emotions start to get to you.
"When the other team hits a 3-pointer at halftime, you know you are in trouble. This morning I knew I was getting behind. I could hear Kriet or Ike hollering and you say to yourself that you know you are getting behind."
Even with the mental distractions, Faircloth knew he fished a clean tournament. He didn't lose a fish or make any costly decisions, it just came down to having too many people sharing the same area.
"I found the winning fish, they just got split up too much," Faircloth said. "Kevin had the whole back end of the creek to himself and that showed today."
Even on the final day, when the victory started to slip away, Faircloth still made a big decision that helped him catch most of his 12-pound, 5-ounce stringer. After catching a few fish right off the bat in the morning, he went through a period from 8:30 to 10 without getting a single bite.
Faircloth decided to make a 15-mile run down the lake to an area he boated a quick limit on Day One.
"I pulled up and it was just as dead as where I left," Faircloth said. "There was no shad activity and I didn't get a bite, so I ran back to Beeswax and when I pulled up there, I caught three fish real fast in the first 15 minutes."
Although Faircloth made the right adjustments and was on a winning spot, he wasn't able to have it to himself like VanDam. But Faircloth learned more about the keys to success every time he got on the water.
"I have the utmost respect for Kevin — he is a phenomenal fisherman," Faircloth said. "He has confidence and you get that confidence from winning. He has won so much, he is full of confidence. He makes the right decisions at the right times. It's almost like he can see into the future to do the right thing."
Faircloth has seen his fair share of winning over the past few seasons, winning two Elite Series events in two different parts of the country, but the bigger titles of Angler of the Year and the Classic have eluded him.
"You try to learn something from every experience you have on the water," Faircloth said. "I feel like if I keep putting myself in a position to win, eventually, I will turn the page and break out. The more you win, hold that trophy up, the less pressure you feel."
As for right now, Faircloth will continue to work from the position of the underdog.
"I'm like everyone else in here — I want to beat him," Faircloth said. "There are a lot of people that root for the underdog. I'm the underdog — everyone's the underdog compared to him."