We all have people in our lives that are special to us — people who help, encourage and support us yet expect nothing in return. I know they're in my life.
I’d like to tell you about one of those people who had a major impact on my life and my career.
His name is Bert Tate, and he was my roommate in college, best man at my wedding and godfather to my first son.
From the beginning
I met Bert through some mutual friends during my sophomore year at the University of Florida. I remember it like it was yesterday. Bert was cool, casual and didn't have a care in the world.
In short time, we got to know each other better and ended up splitting a lease on a small two bedroom apartment near campus.
Although we came from vastly different backgrounds, we shared a passion for sports and the outdoors. I surfed and fished; he liked ball sports. As time passed, however, our interests blended. He taught me about racquetball and tennis, and I got him closer to the water.
Bert was a true sports fanatic. He studied the sports page daily and watched every worthwhile athletic event he could catch in person or on TV. He loved football, baseball, basketball and hockey. But perhaps his favorite (at least at that time) was motocross, where he was both fan and competitor.
I played as many different sports with him as I could, but the outcome was almost always the same — he would win. The only place I had the upper hand was in the surf or on a boat. But in time, even that separation narrowed.
During my junior year in college, I joined a bass club. When I practiced for club tournaments, Bert would sometimes tag along. After graduation, my thirst for competition grew, so I ventured into regional and statewide circuits — one of which was the Florida Draw Trail, where I won my first big tournament. I remember beating some of the biggest names in Florida, and there, by my side, was Bert to share in the victory.
That win helped launch my career. When the season concluded, I won Angler of the Year and was awarded a fully rigged bass boat. Soon after, I won another. The next season, I became the point leader in the Red Man Tournament Trail for the State of Florida, which helped propel me onto the national scene. All along the way, Bert was there, encouraging me.
Soon, Forrest and Nina Wood offered me a sponsorship with Ranger Boats, which included entry fees for all the national B.A.S.S. events. The offer came so quick, it scared me. Up until that point, I was fishing purely for fun. I knew by accepting their offer that could change.
With some encouragement from Bert, however, I took the leap and began a career as a professional angler.
As time passed
While traveling across the country learning to compete on unfamiliar waters, Bert watched from the sidelines — cheering me on when I found success, reassuring me when I didn’t.
At the same time, his involvement with motocross expanded. He was now competing across the southeast in the 250cc class and doing well. I recall attending one of his races at Gatorback, where he won.
On his victory lap, he circled the track to the last and highest jump, directly in front of the crowd and, in true Bert Tate fashion, proceeded to lose his grip on the handlebars. Airborne some 20 feet above the ground, he and the bike were no longer one.
The landing wasn’t pretty, and from that point on his nickname was “Dirt” Tate.
When I married Kim, Bert stood as my best man. When our son Daniel was born, he agreed to be his godfather. Soon after, I served as his best man when he married Jean Sochar — his soulmate.
Jean loved everything about Bert, and she shared his love for sports and the outdoors. By the time Kim and I had our second son, they conceived their first — a boy they named Tyler. Not long after, their second son, Shawn, came along. There we were, living parallel lifestyles.
As time progressed, my fishing career became all consuming. I was doing well and my list of sponsors had grown. With that, however, came increased demands on my time — which put distance between me and my family and friends. In spite of the separation, Bert remained steadfast.
One time, on a trip to the Ranger Boats factory, I took Bert along. He wanted to meet Forrest Wood in person … and how that meeting unfolded is a story I’ll never get tired of sharing.
After asking to see Forrest, Bert and I were escorted to his office and told he would be with us shortly. Sitting there patiently, taking in all the photos, awards and mementos adorning the room, Bert suddenly stood and commenced to do the unthinkable: He walked behind the desk and sat down in Forrest's chair — the chair of one of the most influential men in the industry — as if it were his own.
Then he propped his feet up on the desk.
No sooner did he get comfortable when — you guessed it — Forrest entered the room.
In complete horror and embarrassment, Bert sheepishly smiled and removed his feet from the desk. Forrest, true to his character, simply smiled and said, “I see you’re making yourselves at home.”
There, together, were two of the most important people in my life. Neither knowing the other before that encounter, but somehow coming together in an awkward, friendly exchange. I couldn’t have scripted a better introduction.
A season to share
In over 30 years of competitive fishing, this past season has been one of my best. Throughout it all, Bert Tate has been there, watching and supporting me from the sidelines.
But it couldn't have been easy. Last year Bert was involved in a car wreck that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Being a fighter by nature, he gave everything he had to regain some mobility, to get some of his life back. But repeated bouts with secondary infections eventually took their toll and, on August 31, 2015, Bert died in his home surrounded by family and friends.
I reached him just before his passing. I’d been traveling for the past five weeks straight and finally got a brief window to fly home. Jean said he was waiting for me … and I believe that’s true. Either way, I’ll be forever grateful that I got to be there with him at the end … just as he had been for me all along.
Much of what I've accomplished in my life and career, I owe to my best friend Bert Tate. There will never be another like him.