The Classic’s unsung heroes

Volunteers pose on the arena floor before the Classic
Jesse Dolan, associate, B.A.S.S. Events and Host Activations (gray shirt) with the dedicated volunteers to help the Bassmaster Classic happen.

Among thousands of people attending bass fishing’s biggest event is a small group wearing brightly colored shirts with all-access credentials. They are not VIPs there to enjoy the perks. Instead, they are highly regarded by the B.A.S.S. Event Operations team for what they do behind the scenes. 

What they do is best described as filling in pieces of a logistical and operational puzzle otherwise known as the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic. 

The Classic is undeniably the sport’s biggest event, in 2019 drawing a record crowd of 153,809 spectators to Knoxville, Tenn., where it will be held again March 24-26, 2023. The size and scope of the Classic is why B.A.S.S. values this group so much. 

Meet the volunteers from Tabernacle Baptist Church, in Cartersville, Ga. Up to 30 members pay their own expenses to volunteer at the Classic, a mission outreach the church has supported each year since 2012. 

The volunteers perform numerous tasks at the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic Expo, Media Day, during the weigh-in and elsewhere. They serve as hospitality hosts at the Classic Club, Sponsor Lounge and B.A.S.S. Life Member Lounge. They function as roving information resources on the Expo show floor, offering help to the fans. You name it, they do it. They are on duty from daylight to well after dark, when the weigh-in concludes and at closing time for the Expo. 

“They do every task, big and small; they don’t need direction and take the intuition to fill in anywhere that’s needed,” said Jesse Dolan, associate, B.A.S.S. Events and Host Activations. “There is no limit to what they can do, and they go beyond that even more, every year.”

“They are like family; like guardian angels,” said Dolan, the liaison between B.A.S.S. and the volunteers. “We can’t do it without them.” 

This group of special volunteers is so valued by B.A.S.S. that department managers request specific volunteers by name.

Coordinating the Classic mission

Steve McCombs, missions outreach pastor, coordinates the church’s mission trips that span the globe, with church members in the field in faraway places like Europe, the Middle East and here in the U.S. 

“Missionary work is in our DNA and serving gives us an opportunity to represent Jesus Christ wherever we go, whether it’s sharing friendship with other people, or the Gospel,” said McCombs. 

In the field, traditional mission trips center around ministering to youth camps, at summer Bible schools and more. The Classic is unique with the church viewing it as an opportunity to be servants of their faith while serving B.A.S.S. 

“We don’t aggressively push our message on anybody, unless anyone asks, then we view that as an opportunity to share the message of Jesus Christ,” said McCombs, who’s attended all 10 previous Classics. 

Getting started

The church connected indirectly with B.A.S.S. in 2001 at the ESPN Great Outdoor Games, a hybrid Olympic Games of sorts for outdoor sports from timber sports and canine agility competitions, to sporting dog field trials and bass fishing. 

The search for volunteers led to McCombs and Tabernacle Baptist Church, which sent a group of 30 youths to assist ESPN’s event operations team. Those games were held in Lake Placid, N.Y., coincidentally the location of the 1980 Olympic Games. 

Eric Lopez, at the time assistant director of the Great Outdoor Games, was curious as to why a group from the South would travel to upstate New York for such a mission. Any skepticism was overcome as the volunteers proved their worth. 

“What immediately stuck out was how friendly they were to everyone,” said Lopez, now director of event operations for B.A.S.S. “And then Steve (McCombs) volunteered for them to come back the next year.” 

Volunteers rarely work the same event again, and more often as individuals requiring training each time. Lopez valued the ongoing event familiarity and experience provided by the assembled group from Tabernacle Baptist Church. The group returned year after year until the games ended its run. Little did Lopez (or McCombs) know, the relationship would continue elsewhere. 

Fast forward to 2011 at a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on West Point Lake. McCombs was on a fishing trip at the Georgia impoundment when he ran into Lopez at the weigh-in. Through coincidence, or more than likely divine intervention, the relationship was renewed, and the church began its annual mission trip to the Classic the next year. 

“It’s like they are professionally trained, but they are not. They developed their volunteer skills through missionary work, but it’s much more than that,” said Dolan. “They take their calling of faith seriously, and you see that in their outgoing and ever-present compassion, friendliness and willingness to help everyone.” 

Working together

Dolan, 32, began working with the volunteers at age 23. He values how they embraced his youth early on and to this day, treat him like one of their own. 

“They know my strengths and weaknesses, and especially when I get stressed,” he said. “I’ve spent much of my life growing up with them; they know that positive affirmation is a strength.”

One volunteer recognized that strength early on, reacting in faith by sending a daily text message of positive affirmation each morning of the Classic. The text messages continued for the next six months. 

The feeling is mutual with McCombs and the volunteers. 

“What keeps us coming back is the opportunity to represent B.A.S.S. and the opportunity for us to represent Jesus Christ in everything we do,” said McCombs. “It’s a great opportunity to see God at work and to renew our fellowship with the B.A.S.S. team.”