When grown men cry

When Greg Hackney won Angler of the Year recently and teared up on stage, it got me thinking deep-life thoughts about the emotions we see fairly often on the Bassmaster stage.

I realized there in Escanaba, Mich., that I find it inspiring and moving when these strong, gritty anglers cry. It’s one of the things I love about this sport.

Hackney got so emotional on stage he had trouble speaking. But he’s not the first or the last angler to do that by any means. When Randy Howell won the Classic this year he was moved to tears. In fact, the Classic was such a powerful moment for Randy that a week later, visiting the Bassmaster office, he wept again when talking about the experience. Randy joked he might need Kleenex as a sponsor. Todd Faircloth is another Elite angler I’ve noticed showing emotion on stage. I’ve thought for a while that every time Todd talks about his family he chokes up just a little.

These are tough guys whose chosen occupation is more physically and mentally demanding than most people realize. Hackney’s wife, Julia, said to Dynamic Sponsorships’ Alan McGuckin, “I’ve seen him cry three times in our 15-year marriage — when our oldest was born, when our youngest was born, and today when he won Angler of the Year.”

Why do I find these displays inspiring and humbling? I think it’s because I worked for nearly 30 years outside the fishing industry and I don’t remember any situation where someone cried in public about a success or failure. Part of my career was spent at HGTV, or Home and Garden Television, during a period of spectacular growth. There was a lot of heavy lifting, plenty of smiles and maybe some high fives, but I don’t remember tears.

I have some theories on why professional anglers cry during their big moments:

They are truly worn out by the end of a four-day bass fishing tournament, and that brings most emotions closer to the surface. They’re up at 4 or 5 in the morning, fishing all day, then up late getting their tackle ready for the next day, and working with sponsors. Plus there are the practice days, and the travel required just to get to their job. All three of the guys mentioned above drove more than a 1,000 miles to reach the AOY Championship.

Elite tournaments are very, very hard to win. The best in the business go years between wins. For Kevin VanDam, his last win was the 2011 Classic. Faircloth won one in 2013, and one in 2012, but you have to go back to 2008 for his previous win. Hackney won one this year, but his most recent Elite win before that was in 2006. In other words, when a guy wins one of these it’s a huge deal.

The dollars. Financial insecurity goes with the territory for professional anglers. After paying entry fees, travel and equipment costs, this is an expensive occupation. For successful anglers, the financial upside is great. But when a guy fails for a while, the downside can be bankruptcy. Winning a tournament brings joy, attention from sponsors and financial relief.

The family and the sacrifices. Most pro anglers spend a lot of time away from their families traveling to tournaments. Most have dreamed about making a living fishing for a long time. When they win, they remember the wife and kids, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who’ve enabled their dreams. “I break up on stage when I try to talk about my family, because I miss them so much,” Faircloth told writer Don Barone. “I have such a soft spot for my kids; they are near and dear to my heart. I wasn’t a very emotional guy until I had children; my kids gave me that soft spot.”

I started thinking about my own family while sitting in a walleye boat on Lake Michigan with photographer James Overstreet. We were covering Hackney on the day he won the 2014 AOY title. It was a beautiful late September day in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 60 degrees, sunny, with fall colors popping. The previous three days had brought brutal winds, waves and chilly temps, forcing B.A.S.S. to cancel competition. I knew from experience that Michigan could be a harsh mistress, but also one that offers a glorious day like this one.

Way back in the 1980s, I lived in Michigan for four years and experienced both ends of that spectrum. Soon after moving to the state, I learned I had rheumatoid arthritis. For a while I could barely walk or shake hands. And as a native Southerner, I suffered through the long, cold winters. Those were some hard years. But I also got to experience the glory that is summer in Michigan, fishing on the Great Lakes, swimming and boating in crystal clear inland lakes. And I met my wife, Gretchen, in Michigan — she’s a native of the Wolverine state. More than 27 years later I realize she’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Thinking about those highs and lows, I got a little emotional.

So I can see why guys cry when they win a tournament. Maybe the lesson I’ve learned is the hardest things in life can bring the most rewards, and perhaps the most emotion.