— from "In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Bill Lowen had put himself in position to win $100,000 after two days on Old Hickory Lake. But 15 minutes prior to Saturday's 6 a.m. launch, Lowen held his head in his hands as tears rained from his eyes. And rained, and rained and rained.
It has been almost seven years since one of Lowen's best friends, Billy Backman, died of a drug overdose at the age of 21. That pain remains fresh, but it was only half the reason why the 33-year-old Lowen had been overcome with emotion at such an unlikely time.
Almost two years after their son's death, as they were finally starting to rebuild their lives while trying to cope with every parent's worst nightmare, Bill and Lori Backman asked Lowen to come by their house for a meeting.
"I immediately thought something was wrong," Lowen said Saturday morning as he sat in his bass boat, recalling the incident, while preparing for his third day of competition in the Bassmaster Elites Series "Tennessee Triumph" tournament.
As soon as those words left his mouth, Lowen broke down. The North Bend, Ohio, native wouldn't have been there Saturday if not for Bill and Lori Backman and the meeting that took place at their house approximately five years ago.
That's when the Backmans told Lowen they'd provide the financial backing for the hard-working flooring contractor to live his dream and pursue a professional bass fishing career.
"I don't have a main title sponsor that helps me out — they're it," Lowen said, after regaining his composure Saturday. "How do you ever repay someone for that?"
So it was not just sorrow, but an overwhelming sense of gratefulness that combined to produce Lowen's tears. In coping with their grief, the Backmans decided to help Lowen pursue the dream that he and their late son had shared since they were teenagers.
"They always talked about fishing the Bassmaster Classic together," said Jennifer Lowen, Bill's wife.
"I'm living a dream for two people," Bill Lowen said. "That just gives me a little extra drive every morning, every tournament."
William D. Backman III, 54, is the president and chief executive officer of Aurora Casket, the largest privately-held casket manufacturing company in the U.S. His great grandfather founded the company in 1890 in Aurora, Ind.
He and Lori never experienced any major troubles from their son, William D. Backman IV, who spent most of his free time fishing and hunting, and much of that with Bill Lowen.
Lowen and Billy Backman had become acquainted as teenagers after bumping into each other while fishing local tournaments on the Ohio River. Ironically, both of their fathers had allowed them to pursue their love of fishing the same way when they were early teens: Drop them off at a local boat ramp with no keys to start the boat's outboard motor, but with the ability to use the trolling motor and fish as long as they wanted.
It only took about two months of "running with the wrong crowd" to end Billy's life. He overdosed on MDMA, better known by its street name, Ecstasy.
As you would imagine, it's a subject Bill Backman is reluctant to talk about. He does so only because "if it stops one person and makes them think about it before trying it, it's well worth it, as far as I'm concerned. That's the way I've got to think about it."
The Backmans have one other child — a son, Nicholas, who will turn 21 this month, and who loves to fly fish and saltwater billfish.
"Losing your son is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy," said Bill Backman, in describing how he and Lori came to the decision to have that meeting with Lowen. "You tend to recoil from the things you love. I love hunting and fishing. But you sort of go into a shell for awhile."
Therefore, the Backmans didn't see Lowen very often in those first two years after their son's tragic death. As Backman describes it, "One day (Lori) and I looked at each other and said we know somebody that could use our help right now. He's a darn good fisherman, and I think he could make it. Lori said, 'I totally agree.'"
Shortly afterward, Backman asked Lowen to come by their house for a meeting.
"It was pretty emotional," Backman said. "We told him we wanted to sponsor him to be able to move forward with his professional fishing career."
Lowen is quick to provide the details of how it would have been impossible for him to be tied to that dock at Old Hickory Lake on Saturday morning, sitting in fourth place in the Bassmaster Elite Series Tennessee Triumph, on his way to a top 12 cut later that day and a chance to fish for the $100,000 first prize Sunday.
"I was a flooring contractor before I started this," Lowen said. "I'd bust my ass to get a job and get enough money for entry fees (in local tournaments) and pay the bills.
"If it wasn't for them, there's no way I could be here."
It wasn't just because of Lowen's friendship with their son that the Backmans made the decision to back him. Backman estimates he's known Bill Lowen for over 20 years. He's observed the work ethic that has characterized Bill and his entire family.
Jennifer and Bill Lowen's relationship tells you everything you need to know about him. When Jennifer was 16 years old, she told her mother, "I'm going to marry that man."
Bill and Jennifer's brother-in-law were hunting and fishing buddies, so Bill knew how Jennifer felt about him. But he didn't ask her for a date until she turned 18.
"He was afraid of my dad," laughed Jennifer.
But it's more an indication of Bill's natural inclination to do the right thing. He's seven years older than Jennifer.
They've been married now for four years. No matter how his season finishes on the Elite Series, it's going to be a special year: The couple has a Sept. 13 due date for their first child.
Jennifer has known Bill long enough to remember how "devastated" he was when Billy Backman died. She thinks it has been a form of grief therapy for all involved since the Backmans made Lowen's fishing dream come true.
Bill Backman was convinced he wasn't putting his money on a longshot.
"He's a helluva fisherman," Backman said. "He can catch fish out of this mud hole here on the Ohio River. I think he can catch a fish in a parking lot."
Lowen proved his worth as an angler fairly quickly. With the Backmans' sponsorship, he started fishing both BASS and FLW lower circuits to qualify for their top-tier series. He earned the chance to fish both after two years, but the choice to fish BASS was an easy one.
"It was my dream and (Billy's) dream to make it to the (Bassmaster) Classic one day," Lowen said. "So it was kind of a no-brainer to pick BASS."
Lowen's rookie year was the initial season of the Elite Series, and he qualified for the Classic based on his 26th-place finish in Bassmaster Angler of the Year points. He was 33rd in the 2007 Bassmaster Classic, which Boyd Duckett won on Alabama's Lay Lake.
Lowen didn't qualify for the Classic last year, after placing 50th in the AOY points race. But he's well on his way to qualifying for the 2009 Classic. With the top 38 in the AOY standings at the end of the year earning an automatic berth in the Classic, Lowen was ranked 32nd coming into the Old Hickory Lake event, but will move up considerably when the final points are tallied here.
Through almost three seasons now, Lowen has nine top 20 finishes, three in which he's placed in the top five. He has $239,112 in BASS career earnings.
This season he's been ranked as high as fourth in the AOY race, after the two Florida events to open the season, and as low as 34th, after the two blue-back herring dominated lakes in Georgia and South Carolina.
"It seems like lakes with blueback herring in them just kick my butt," Lowen said. "You could take the lakes that have blueback herring in them, drain them and make golf courses out of them for all I care.
"The bass in those lakes don't act like typical bass. They act like stripers. I can't keep up with them."
But Lowen has felt right at home on Old Hickory this week. It's a 22,500-acre impoundment on the Cumberland River that fishes much like his home waters of the Ohio River. Lowen has stayed among the top six anglers in this event through three days by flipping in shallow water — water so shallow he's constantly stirring up mud with his trolling motor, just like he and Billy Backman used to do back home.
"I'm guessing that he's fishing the way our son taught him to a little bit," said Backman, who talks to Lowen on the phone almost every night of a tournament. "He said he's got an old buddy helping him fish this week."
— from "In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Those last two lines of English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson's most famous work are often taken out of context as dealing with a romantic relationship. The poem, completed in 1849, is actually an expression of Tennyson's grief over the sudden death of a friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, at the age of 22.
Bill Lowen doesn't recite Tennyson every morning before a bass tournament. But every day he spends on the water is dedicated to the memory of his friend. And every day on the water has been made possible by his friend's parents, Bill and Lori Backman.
Those facts he always holds close to his heart. And that's why his emotions may come instantly flooding to the surface whenever Lowen is asked to talk about his late friend, Billy Backman.
"I'm living a dream for two people," Lowen said.