With the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic quickly approaching, I thought I would go back and share my memories from my first Classic. When I fished my first Bassmaster Classic in 1997, I was 23 years old, had been fishing at the tour level for three years and was pretty much broke. I’d finished 9th in the points that year, which I considered a big breakthrough, but the Internet wasn’t nearly as developed as it is today. We didn’t have all the great “.coms” and as a result not many people knew my name.
The Classic week is a busy one every year, and one of the biggest days is Media Day. This day gives all the national writers a chance to meet the pros and do interviews and pictures for the upcoming year. My first media day was very exciting and intimidating to say the least. When the day started, the writers and photographers all converged on the big names like Guido Hibdon, Larry Nixon and Rick Clunn, and I was left sitting at my table twiddling my thumbs alone. Finally, at the very end of the session, the late Tim Tucker took pity on me and sat down to ask me a few memorable questions.
“How many interviews have you had today son?” he asked.
I responded meekly: “Including you – one.”
“Do you consider yourself a pro who will be around for a while?”
Again, I was confused and a little bit intimidated, but I was resigned to make the most of this opportunity. “Yes sir,” I said.
“And if you don’t make it,” Tucker continued, “What is your Plan B?”
I sat there for a minute before I finally gathered the courage to respond.
“I’ve never had a Plan B,” I said.
“That’s why you’re here son, that’s why you made it,” he said…with faint praise. “ That’s the kind of attitude and determination it takes to make it in this sport son, because it ain’t easy!” I’ve never forgotten those words of wisdom from Tim. They mean more to me now than they ever did back then.
As I approach my 13th Bassmaster Classic, and the first as a Classic champion, I’ll never forget that first championship. So much planning and anticipation led up to it, and even though I finished in a tie for 19th place, just getting there felt like a monumental achievement. So many key things happened in the year leading up to it.
For instance, I spoke at a Southern Comfort Team Jesus Tournament in 1996 and got my first good paying sponsorship, with the Southern Comfort Fishing Team. They gave me a conversion van to drive and introduced me to Earl Bentz. He decided to take a chance on me with the boat company he was just starting. Nineteen years later I’m still with Triton. The material benefits were greatly appreciated, but looking back on it I realize that the true lasting value of their actions was, for the first time, I recognized that people finally believed in me. That took a little pressure off of me and allowed me to focus on fishing.
Of course, in my mind, I’d been preparing for the Classic since I attended my first one in Richmond, Va., in 1989. At that point, I was still living in North Carolina. My parents were busy running their marina, so they couldn’t take me, but my high school basketball coach was kind enough to haul me up the highway to see Hank Parker win. That sparked the dream, and I told him that someday I’d be there, too. When I stepped on stage at the BJCC in 1997, that same coach was there to cheer me on.
The Classic was unlike any other tournament I’d ever fished. Every night there was a different sponsor dinner. I was meeting so many people. It felt like I was drinking from a fire hose. Still, I had a good practice and was excited for the tournament to start. As I drove up the river the first morning, I passed under a bridge and there were spectators holding banners cheering on their favorite pros. I got chills seeing that.
When I stepped onto the stage in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center (BJCC) that first afternoon to weigh in a limit, I was blown away by how loud and crazy the crowd was. Ray Scott could see that I was about to lose it, so he put his arm around me, but I busted out in tears anyway. It was so embarrassing. Tournament director Dewey Kendrick handed me a fish towel to wipe my eyes. As embarrassing as it was then, I know now that it was worth it, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world.
Now everything seems to have come full circle. God is so AWESOME that he directed my paths to ironically collide where it all started in Richmond, Va., where I attended my first Classic. It was the host city for the Northern Open that I won and it qualified me for the 2014 Classic. Just as fans held banners from a bridge at Logan Martin, so too did fans at Guntersville get to cheer me on as I fished the Spring Creek bridge. I weighed in my winning fish at the BJCC, the same place where Ray Scott put his arm around me 17 years earlier. Additionally, I shed the same tears when I won as I did when I was 23 years old. So much in my world has changed since 1997, but deep down inside the Classic still means as much to me now as it did to that kid in Littleton, N.C., who dreamed of fishing against his heroes.
And, for the record, I still don’t have a Plan B! Psalm 37:4.