KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Like many dedicated bass anglers, Brandon Card dreamed of fishing a Bassmaster Classic. He checked that one off his list a decade ago and has gone on to fish four more. He failed to qualify the last time the big dance was held here in Vol Country, but wrapped up a space in this one with a 41st place finish in last year’s Elite Series Angler of the Year standings.
A growing family. A solid career. A chance at immortality in front of his hometown crowd. The deeply religious Card felt blessed. He felt that at 36 years old he’d established himself in the sport, and with that came a certain stability. It felt like Christmas every day.
But then around Christmas, he was struck unexpectedly by a case of viral meningitis which begat Bell’s Palsy. He suffered crippling headaches and partial facial paralysis just as the Elite Series season was set to start.
From a professional standpoint, it was the cruelest punishment imaginable, hatefully ironic, and not in the Alanis Morrissette sense of irony. Bass fishing has no disabled list. It has no injury timeouts or paid disability. Yes, there exists the possibility of a medical hardship for regular season events, but the Classic is a standalone event. Save for a pandemic – which this clearly was not – it cannot be delayed or rescheduled, especially just not for the needs of one competitor.
House of Cards
Card is here in Knoxville this week, reminders of the Bell’s Palsy in his expression, mindful of the good care he needs to take of his physical plant. The six days he spent in the hospital are a semi-distant but still-painful reminder of what could have been.
“It was the worst week of my life,” he said. “The sleep deprivation was the worst part of it. I was only sleeping a couple of hours a day and that was taking a toll on my body. That was my physical and emotional low point. I kept quoting Bible verses to myself and one that I kept repeating was ‘Cast all your cares on him because he cares for you.’ I knew God would take care of the situation.”
While Card is used to addressing unforeseen circumstances on the water, the hospital was all new to him.
“I was talking to my dad the other day and we realized that he’d never stayed overnight in the hospital until this incident,” said his brother Jordan, also a tournament angler. “It was a complete shock to him, especially mentally. I had been in for broken bones, my appendix, things like that, but he didn’t have that experience to draw on.”
While Jordan said that Brandon is enough of a veteran to temper the ups and downs of daily life on the road, Kelly Card – Brandon’s wife and the mother of their 18-month-old son, Davis – was “being pulled in a lot of different directions. We were taking it one day at a time. If he had a good day he was on top of the world, but then something would happen and he’d be back down again.
It Takes a Village
While the on-the-water performance is still strictly within Card’s own control, he’s gotten to this point via not only his faith but also through the attention of friends and family. That started with his brother Jordan, who helped him get his voluminous tackle options under control. Kelly, who has a successful career of her own, kept the household and childcare obligations in check.
“Davis (their son) is too young to understand what it all means, but I think he knew something was going on,” Kelly said. “Brandon’s mom and brother came to help out and my parents watched Davis a lot.”
She characterized her husband as a “procrastinator” – a side effect of being easygoing – which meant that even after being home from the hospital for three weeks, he’d still not gotten everything ready for a Florida swing that would present more challenges than usual. That’s why Jordan got involved, and it still went down to the wire.
“If he prepared two weeks in advance maybe he wouldn’t have been so successful,” she added, optimistically.
After he qualified for Day Four at Okeechobee, Steve Bowman drove him and his rig north to Seminole, to allow him to catch up on rest and mentally and physically prepare for three more days of practice, plus competition.
Meningitis is not terribly uncommon. Screen stars including George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have suffered from it. It’s not a stranger to the Bassmaster tour, either. In 2005, Kentucky pro Mark Menendez experienced a case that was by all accounts worse than Card’s. He’d already been on antibiotics for something else, and that may have tamed it a bit, but he still spent 17 days in the hospital – seven of them comatose — and had to take a medical hardship from B.A.S.S.
“Each case affects the individual differently,” Menendez said on the day before this Classic was to start. “You can lose limbs, lose your eyesight, lose your hearing. It depends on each person. But still, I knew what kind of hill he was going to have to climb.”
Despite the differences in severity, there are parallels between the two Elite Series anglers’ traumas. At the time he was struck, Menendez had a 6-month-old daughter, and his wife was pregnant with their second child. Card, as noted above, has a toddler. While Menendez couldn’t speak for both of them, he recalled that his role as a father was a big part of what enabled him to recover.
“I remember laying in that hospital bed thinking, ‘I don’t want anyone else to raise them,’ he said. “I’ve got to get my ass out of this bed. My eyes opened right then.”
It also changed his perspective on life, and on tournament fishing’s place within it. He remains at the top level of the sport today, but 18 years later he recalls how it impacted his mental approach.
“That changed my sense of urgency, it changed my thought process,” he said. “I was 40 at the time. Brandon is almost there now. I realized that I didn’t have to do everything for everyone. I had been doing 90 to 100 promotional days a year and I cut that back to about 50. I started saying ‘no.’ I want to spend those extra days with my family.
Despite the offseason setback, Card has gotten off to an incredible start on the 2023 Elite Series trail, finishing 7th in the opener at Okeechobee and following it up with a 19th-place finish at Seminole.
“I felt that starting the season was the best thing for him,” Kelly said, implying that it wasn’t a certainty that option would be on the table medically. “It’s good for our minds to be busy, to work. Mentally and physically he needed to get out there.”
The paralysis caused by the palsy required some specialized gear and also raised some safety concerns. Early on he wore a patch over the affected eye. Later Kelly bought him ski goggles. “They’re definitely not stylish,” she said. “But they allow him to drive the boat and keep that wind out of his eye. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” More recently he acquired a pair of polarized sunglasses that seal tightly to his face to protect his eye. It’s a constant matter of experimentation and iteration.
In addition to the debilitating headaches and the lasting facial paralysis, Card’s other resulting physical maladies have been blood clots in his arms and overall fatigue. He’s finally ready to get off of the blood thinners, but the antiviral meds have continuing impacts.
“They make him very tired,” Jordan said. “He has to take naps throughout the day. Two and a half to three months removed from the incident he still doesn’t feel 100 percent. In those first two events, he was pretty much running on adrenaline. Now he’s learning how to manage his rest better.”
The cold weather exacerbates the fatigue and wore him out during practice, but with comparative warmth expected on the competition days that should be a help.
Buster Feels the Pain
Card isn’t contagious in any way, but he still certainly didn’t want other family members to experience the same troubles he’s suffered lately. Unfortunately, another family member got a crippling headache on the final day of practice – Buster, the family’s yellow lab, went in the boat and took a three-trebled jerkbait to the ear.
“Kelly doesn’t travel with me much but when she does she brings Buster,” Card said. “He likes to go in the boat with me. It’s fun having him hang out there. It’s even beneficial – it used to be that I didn’t like losing 5 to 10 minutes when he had to go up on the bank, but I’ve learned to use that time to assess my practice day and process the next several hours.
“That’s actually the second time Buster has been hooked,” Card continued. “The first time I caught a big striper on a crankbait. He used to like to lick the fish. He jumped up and got stuck on the back hook, with the front hook still in the striper. It was mayhem. He wound up breaking the split ring. Have you ever tried to do that? I don’t know how he did it. After that, he stopped licking fish.”
Card tried to remove the jerkbait the traditional way, but concluded that “maybe the braid trick doesn’t work on dogs.” Eventually, Buster was free, apparently none the worse for wear. Card is not sure if he’ll be back in the boat, but if he is it won’t be on a competition day, as that is no longer permitted. Oddly enough that rule came about in part because Menendez brought his yellow lab, Barkley, on the boat during a Classic.
Eyes on the Prize
Hospital stays are temporary, Classic wins stay with you forever. While a droopy eyelid may not be the most photogenic way to celebrate a career-defining achievement, one of the known treatments for beating facial paralysis is exercising those muscles – a perma-smile will go a long way towards helping the Card family to forget this trying few months.
There’s debate over whether Card is truly a local. Yes, he lived here for much of his early life before leaving for college, but didn’t fish this stretch of river often.
“We grew up 45 minutes north of here on Norris,” Jordan said. “We also fished Cherokee and Douglas a lot. We probably fished Loudoun the least.”
However, during the pandemic, Brandon, who now resides in North Carolina, returned to Knoxville for a period of time and spent just about every February and March day learning this system intimately, in the expectation that BASS would someday return.
“It helped him in the 2021 Elite Series tournament,” Jordan said of his brother’s 4th-place finish. “I think it’ll help him this week, too.”
Menendez recalled that while his own recovery was painful and prolonged when he finally returned to BASS competition in May, his first tournament back was an Invitational on West Point – and he won it by 7 pounds.
“I had four days of practice,” he said. “I fished hard for three in a row, but then on the fourth one I slept in. If I hadn’t of done that, I couldn’t have fished the full tournament. I remember that I was catching some on a spinnerbait because that’s all I could throw. My arms, elbows, and hands hurt on every cast.”
Again, Menendez cannot speak for Card, but his explanation for his own success upon return was that he felt a new sense of gratitude and purpose.
“You know you’ve had a second chance,” he said. “If you do it right, you’re probably stronger than before. Brandon’s good results in Florida could have been a coincidence, but I don’t think it is.”
Chad Pipkens, one of Card’s running buddies on the road, likewise knows that his friend has experienced a mindset change because he went through the same thing. He broke a wrist snowboarding, and then had a plate and seven screws put in when he broke a collarbone. In both cases, he returned to enjoy some of his best finishes as a pro.
“Brandon is taking it day by day,” Pipkens said. “He knows that he’s fortunate to be fishing, and sometimes just being relaxed makes you fish better.”
Card agreed that the scare – and its ongoing effects – are foremost on his mind most of the time.
“When you’re healthy, you take it for granted,” he said. “When you’re not, it’s all you want.”
He’s not quite 100 percent, but as a veteran, he’s ready to do more with less.
“The more classics you attend, the calmer you’re going to be,” he explained. But he’s never been to a Classic after suffering from meningitis. He’s never been to a Classic with Bell’s Palsy. He’s never been to a Classic as a first-time father. This is all-new ground for the non-local local favorite. Tomorrow competition begins and he’ll be back in his comfort zone.