How to be an Elite

" … fill my heart with gladness … "

Dateline:  Union Station, Montgomery, Ala.

At first, I never saw him.

Just felt his gentle tug on my sweaty shirt.  Thought the shirt was sticking to me, so I just moved around to unstick it, and went back to leaning up against the wrought iron bars.

Soon, came the tug.  Again.  This time I turned around to see if my shirt was caught by a tiny piece of iron.

And then I heard him.

"Mr. db …"

And I sort of freaked, normal when you are all sweaty and the wrought iron bars of the train station are talking to you.

"Mr. db … "

And came another gentle tug on the front of my dripping shirt.  When I looked down all I saw was a tiny hand holding a black Sharpie.  Just a hand.

And a black Sharpie.

So I took a step back being that I haven't been able to bend down to small hand level since about 1987.  Took a couple steps, out to where they were staging the Elite All-Star boats as the anglers got ready to climb up onto the B.A.S.S. stage.

And then, I saw him.

A young child.  A boy.  A boy with big ears on which rested an adult Bassmaster Elite hat.

"Mr. db … would you please sign my hat," said in a tone so soft you knew it floated on the future.

So from the tiny hand I took the black Sharpie and adult hat and while trying to bend I asked him, " you want me to sign it db … or Don Barone … "

"… Mr. db … " at which point I started writing the d and the b … "Mr. db, how can I do that?"

And the tiny empty hand pointed behind me, and when I turned and looked I saw Skeet Reese and Casey Ashley up on the stage.

So I finished the bottom part of the b on his hat, and handed it back, then with both hands, for support and fat gut reasons, then with both hands I grabbed the wrought iron bars to help lower myself to child eye level, and asked, "Do you want to be an Elite guy like them?"

I asked that just to make sure he wasn't looking to somehow position himself for Dave Mercer’s host job, but he wasn't, he shook his head yes and asked in a voice the substance of a cloud, " ... how can I be an Elite?" And then, he lowered his head so I saw only a hat bill on tiny feet.

Gripping the wrought iron bars as tight as I could, I pulled myself right up to his whisper space, and to the baseball cap bill and tiny feet, I said exactly this …

"… love."

And the cap bill raised up and the eyes underneath looked at me, the look of a child who has just figured out that some adults are best not asked much.

So I pulled myself closer, and faked like I was kneeling, and I told the young child, told him eye to eye, past to future, " … love son, because every Elite angler friend I have has told me one thing … they do this because they love it."

Tournament Director Trip Weldon hangs on.

" … take away my sadness … "

Now, certainly catching fish helps, catching big fish one at a time up until you have five big fish, that will go a long way to getting you to the Elites.

But it won't keep you here.

Won't take you from the Louisiana Bayou of the Bassmaster Classic to the historical Montgomery Union Station, where the Elite All-Stars now stand.

Love builds the stage the Elites stand on. 

There are a group of individuals who schlep that thing, in all its cartons and boxes, set up, tear down, set up, tear down all over the country starting in the early morning with flashlights strapped to their heads, and work until sunset, then do it all over again.

When we are off celebrating the latest Elite win, the crew are still loading boxes on trailers with fork lifts.

No trophy is raised on stage without the love of this sport that fires up that crew.

I have spent four years now around the guys who run the tournament, Trip and Chuck, and I have to tell you tournaments are hallowed ground for these two.

You couldn't see it, but last year as Trip, the tournament director, stood behind the podium on stage weighing fish, he pretty much stood there on one leg.  I know this because I could see from back stage his grimace when he turned around to hand off each bag of bass.

His hip was falling apart, but he never missed a weigh-in.  That is how you honor a sport, that is how you love a sport.

If you want to be an Elite, you have to love it enough to work late into the night rigging your tackle for the next day.

" … ease my troubles that’s what you do … "

If you come here for a job … go away.

If you come here just to fish … go away.

Bring us experience which is good, but bring us heart, which is better.

The heart of this thing we drag around the country from lake to lake is a dude named Jerry McKinnis.  I call him a dude not out of disrespect, but because he has told me to not call him an owner, so when an owner tells you not to call him something even if what it is that you are calling him, owner, is correct, you are somewhat forced into calling him dude by his own making.

Jerry and I have this love/like/wanna-beat-each-other-up relationship. 

Sometimes I have this affect on him where, if both of us were, you know, young guys, instead of, you know, not, we would be chasing each other all over the B.A.S.S. events throughout America.

Sometimes I would chase him.

Sometimes he would chase me (probably leans more this way I'm suspecting).

But know this, not only is he not to be called owner, he is also a FAN of this sport.  And while right now he is still in the sort of discovery phase of just what the heck he may or may not have bought as a may or may not owner, know this, he is one of the best stewards of a sport of any owner I have ever been around.

And I have been around plenty of owners who have wanted to chase me around their parking lots.

I believe this with my heart, I believe this with what I see in his eyes, Jerry McKinnis … is the Robert Kraft (the NFL Patriot owner who insists you know he is the owner) of this sport.

I have interviewed Robert Kraft about football and when he speaks of his sport, he does so in the same tones, in the same reverence, I hear when Jerry talks tome about B.A.S.S.

...and you, those who come to watch.


" … oh the morning sun in all its glory
greets the day with hope and comfort too … "

Then, there are the players.  The Elites.  A bunch of whacked-out head cases … TRUST ME on that.

And that is as it should be.

Love makes you whacky. 

Love makes life interesting.

Sport, is love.  You don't want to be watching athletes trying to do athletic things without love for what they are doing … that's called gym class … not sport.

There is not an Elite angler out here who doesn't do this for the love of the sport … I'm telling you I could take a 55-gallon drum, fill it with water, and within minutes I'm going to have 99 guys pitchin' to it.

If the sport you love is being played without love … don't honor it with your presence.  There is only one lockout in sports that will have any effect, and that is when YOU lock out THEM.

Screw 'em if they are not playing with heart.

Screw 'em if they do not play for the love of it.

You want to not love something, not love working 8 hours plus mandatory overtime screwing bumpers on trucks … you have every right to not love that.

But when you are given the chance to go out on a field of play and you don't honor that field, don't honor that sport, get your ass off the field.  Get out of my sight.

Then come here, give these guys a chance.  You'll stay.  I can't say that as a guy who fishes, but I can say that as a guy who has covered not just athletes, but the sport of the athlete as well.

I have covered the SPORT of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, auto racing … and to that list I have no problem adding competitive fishing.

And specifically, The Elites.

If nothing else, these Elites honor their field of sport, and if you are going to spend your time to invest in being a fan of a sport, find a sport where those who play it, are fans as well.

Like these guys.

" … and you fill my life with laughter
you can make it better,
ease my troubles that’s what you do … "

And then there is you.

The greatest part of this.

People think I'm crazy when I say B.A.S.S. stands for America, but stand backstage and look out front, and you will know that statement is true.

We who schlep this roadshow around the country are working stiffs and professionals.  Blue Collar, white collar, T-shirts.  We are young, we are old, we are women, we are men, we are rainbow of color and nationalities.

Like you.

Those guys up on that stage, they are you.  They lay tile in the offseason to be up there, they landscape in the offseason to be up there.  They work and compete for long hours at a time, and they are just as tired and torn as you are, some more-so, some less-so.

The all have mortgages, car payments, medical bills, like you, some have lots of cash, most do not.

I have never in almost two decades of covering sports covered a sport where the athletes of the sport so closely match the demographics of the fans of the sport.

If these athletes were not up on the stage, they would be down there with you.

But the really cool part of all this is that you, YOU could be one day standing up there with them.  Pretty much not going to happen in whatever sport you plop yourself down on the couch and watch no matter how you think you look standing in front of your mirror.

So for that young man who asked me how to be an Elite … this is how son.

Honor what you do.

Honor those who do what you do.

Honor those who come to honor you.

Respect what you do.

Respect those who do what you do.

Respect those who respect you.

But most of all … love.

Love life.

Love those around you.

And do what you love.

Then, no matter what it is that you will do in life, you will be an Elite.

But if you can catch fish and if you do so young man with honor, with respect, with love, then know this …

… we'll have a stage waiting for you.

" … fill my heart with gladness."

Have I Told You Lately

Van Morrison