‘Losing it’ with Mark Davis

This may be sacrilegious for a writer to declare, but this year I’m working diligently to remove certain words from my vocabulary. Specifically, I’m trying to limit the use of “lost,” “loser” and “losing” from my articles.

As in, “Paul Mueller lost the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic when he failed to catch a limit on Day 1.”

As in, “After losing four Classics, Aaron Martens is due to win one.”

As in, “Mark Davis lost the recent Elite Series event on Table Rock by a slim margin.”

Yes, I know the old cliché that “second place is the first loser,” but it really doesn’t ring true in any of those anglers’ cases. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a good word choice in fishing in general. “Lost” suggests a binary equation – one winner, one loser. You can lose a boxing match. You can lose a basketball game. But did Mark Davis really “lose” a tournament in which he beat 106 of the world’s best anglers? It seems like a poor way to describe it.

“Failed to win” might be better, since at first glance it appears that there can be only one winner of any B.A.S.S. event. But even that falls a bit short. Yes, Mike McClelland took home the winner’s trophy and check, deservedly so, but in finishing 2nd Davis built upon his Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year lead. That’s worth something. They can’t be cashed in yet, but the futures market in Mark Davis would seem to be a vibrant one, since we’re coming into the time of year and the portion of the schedule when he’s expected to do best. If he can hold onto the lead he’s established in this still-young season through September, it will certainly ease the sting of losing – or rather, not winning – last week in Branson.

For Mark Davis to win another title at this stage of his career would be a win for the sport. He’s one of the classiest, most widely-respected anglers out there. At just 50, he’s been fishing for a living (first guiding, then competing) since before he shaved. He’s an old 50, a grandfatherly 50. Not old as in “get off my lawn,” but rather as in “revered,” as in the pro other pros go to for advice, even those older than him. When I first met him nearly a decade ago, when he was younger than I am now, that was my perception of him and it has only hardened with time and evidence.

For those of you who’ve never been around him, Davis has every bit as much charisma and presence as Gerald Swindle or Mike Iaconelli, it just manifests itself differently. Where Swindle is rapid-fire punch lines and Ike is all northeastern grit and nervous energy, Davis will spin a story as slow as Arkansas pond water, building and building and building toward a conclusion. Ask to hear about his trip to the White House or tricks he’s played on Greg Hackney and you’ll get a tale worthy of Mark Twain, full of pithy asides and knowing winks.

He certainly can still tell you about the year that he won both the Classic and the AOY title, but at 19 years in the rear view mirror, the story is quickly turning into one for the history books. That’s why I was so dismayed when I asked him on Day 1 of this year’s Classic what it would mean to him if he were to win another title. It would mean, he replied, that he could retire and do a lot less bass fishing and a lot more crappie fishing and deer hunting. It was hard to know whether to take him seriously – whether he was truly tired of the sport or just tired of some of its related grind. Nevertheless, the thought was unsettling.

New pros come and old pros go every year, and if Davis were to retire back to Arkansas to the pastoral life he implied, there would no doubt be a youngster ready and willing to fill his place. Still, there are few pros who were born to fish the way that Mark Davis was born to fish. KVD is the only one I can think of who comes close, and I think even that Kevin’s reason for being out there has more to do with sheer competitiveness than just his immense fishing talent. If he hadn’t found the outdoors, he would have been equally competitive selling insurance or playing basketball or flying fighter jets. By contrast, Mark is certainly a competitor, but it’s more about the outdoors itself, and fishing in particular. I recalled the words of Mark’s wife, Tilly, from nearly six years ago, when I asked her whether he’d be more likely to give up fishing or hunting if forced to choose one: “Probably hunting. He knows he has a God-given talent for fishing and he wants to make the most of it.”

[Note: In a subsequent interview with their twin sons, Hunter and Fisher, I learned that Mark’s head is considered a unit of measurement in the Davis home, but that’s a story for another day].

There are lots of fish left to weigh before the end of the 2014 Elite Series and there’s no guarantee that Davis will make the top 50 or qualify for next year’s Classic, let alone win Angler of the Year. Still at this point, given his big lead and renewed fire, you’d be a fool to bet against him. If he were to win the title, a lifetime removed from his last AOY, we can only hope that he will do what’s best for his family – and for selfish reasons we should hope that doesn’t mean leaving the sport.

Very few athletes go out as winners. For every Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Bjorn Borg or Rocky Marciano who retires after winning a championship while still able to compete, there are dozens who can’t resist coming out of retirement “one last time” when they really shouldn’t. What sports fan doesn’t want to forget Willie Mays as a Met, Michael Jordan as a member of the Wizards or Sugar Ray Leonard losing to stiffs who he would have treated as a punching bag in his prime? In our sport, the last one to voluntarily leave as a champion was Hank Parker.

No fan would be happier than me if Mark Davis were to run away with the AOY title.

No fan would be sadder than me if he were to win and then retire. An Elite Series without the steady hand of Mark Davis competing against and beating anglers who were in grade school when he won the Classic would leave all of us – pardon one last use of the word – as the biggest losers.