RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — The pain on Dean Rojas' face as he made the short walk past the hot seat and down the stairs to the back of the stage represented six years of disappointment.
His eyes were slightly bloodshot and saturated, and his face lacked any kind of muscle structure as he passed the reporters who were watching Boyd Duckett celebrate on a television backstage, ignoring the Day Three leader who walked behind them.
Rojas eventually stopped in an open space and stared into a distant nothing. The former BASS heavyweight title holder is well past the point of anger and he's mostly through with frustration — at this point in the game, he's just, by his own account, "flabbergasted."
"It's getting very, very old," said a visibly upset Rojas. He had just weighed-in 9 pounds, 5 ounces and finished fourth in the Bassmaster Legends presented by Ramada Worldwide on Lake Dardanelle in Arkansas.
Up until Sunday, Rojas had been far and away the most consistent angler. Despite the move from the river to the six-hole course and a change in weather conditions, he hadn't weighed-in under 14-8 all week, and he had built more than a pound and a half lead heading into the final day.
Everything was working in his favor. This was his fourth time to make the top 12 in the six total majors fished on the Elite Series in two years, which is more top finishes than any other angler on tour (Greg Hackney, Kevin VanDam and Jason Quinn all tie for second with three appearances).
On top of that, Rojas had also finished in the top 12 in both of the Elite 50s in 2004 (ninth) and 2005 (12th) that were fished on Lake Dardanelle.
The only thing that was working against Rojas was his history. He hadn't won a tournament since winning two in 2001 and more than money, a trophy or prestige, Rojas just wanted to taste victory again — but it was a past, and a history with the Majors, that he just couldn't shake.
"I learned how to lose in all those," he said before taking off on Suday. "I don't want to lose, I want to win. I'm going to give everything I've got today, eight and a half hours to give everything I've got. I want to win so bad, I've been there so many times."
After the weigh-in he admitted that he wasn't so eager to hit the water — he just saw it as another chance to lose a lead, which is exactly what happened.
"It's bad because even after the third day, I was like, 'Man, I don't even want to go out tomorrow' — because I was afraid of what was going to happen today," he said. "I mean, how bad is that? Knowing that I can catch them, but because of the past history I've had on the final days, it was like I didn't want to endure it, I didn't want to go through it again."
But he had no choice. Rojas stood backstage as Classic champion Boyd Duckett celebrated his second mammoth victory of the year merely yards away, in front of a nice-sized crowd.
"I'm just so flabbergasted by it all because I don't know what to change because every final that I make something happens," Rojas said. "It's stunning the crap that happens every single final day for me.
"I fish well all week long and then I get the finals and everything falls apart."
This week, it was his favorite bait, the SPRO Bronze-eye Frog, that just wouldn't make it one more day. Rojas had caught the majority of limits the first three days on the bait he calls "Kermit," but a bright, hot day on Sunday hurt his chances with the topwater bite.
"I flipped a lot, I mean, I didn't commit purely to the frog," he said. "I threw [the frog] periodically throughout the day, but I knew that with this high sky, I needed to flip — and I did, and all I caught were 13 and 14 inchers."
The 15-inch minimum on Lake Dardanelle had plagued most of the anglers throughout the week, but Rojas had filled limits all of the first three days. VanDam tried to console him as the two talked backstage.
"I'm really sorry, man," said VanDam, who caught 16 pounds on Sunday and finished in third place. "If you just would have hit a couple docks, that crankbait bite was on."
Rojas shrugged off the advice as too little, too late, and VanDam just shook his head with sympathy for his friend.
"I know how many times he's been really close with the frog," VanDam said about Rojas. "It's a great big-fish bait, it's just hard to be consistent. And I've been there close many times too, and if I can't win, Dean's a friend …
"All these guys are friends. We're different from other sports in that we are competitors out there on the water, but when we get off, we hang out together and we try to help each other out."
Timmy Horton, who could only manage two fish on Sunday and finished in sixth place, said he's been in the same place Rojas is now, and he knows the veteran angler will recover.
"Dean's a competitor, and he knows this kind of stuff happens," Horton said. "He'll be in second or third one of these days and have a big day and win it. It's tough being this big of an event, but he's been in enough rodeos, he knows how to handle it."
It may take more than a few days to shake this one off, but even in his disappointment, Rojas knew he would come out the other side.
"It's just something you have to deal with," he said. "I'm a fighter, you know, and it took a lot to get to this point.
"I don't know what to say … I fished as hard as I could today … this has just been the story of my career."