Listen to Crews, come out of your shell on autism

Sometime in May, Bassmaster Elite Series veteran John Crews will hand a snazzy-looking trophy to the pro who wins the title “Autism Angler of April.”

It’ll go to the angler who catches the most pounds of bass in two April Elite Series events, while also raising the most money for autism awareness.

Those numbers will be easy to figure. You’ll only need a calculator.

But the numbers won’t tell the whole story.

Autism is a brain disorder that affects the mental and social development of children.

The realization that a child is autistic hits some parents like a freight train — and somewhere out there right now, there’s a diehard fishing fan who also happens to be the father of an autistic child.

He’s a hardnosed guy – the kind who never wants to admit he has a problem. Since his child started showing signs of autism, he’s wrapped himself inside a ball of anger and depression that no one can penetrate.

The guy is fiercely protective of his child. If you don’t believe it, just cross him on the matter.

But he doesn’t want to hear the word “autism” in casual conversation — and he certainly doesn’t want to say the word or ask questions about the disorder that now affects one in 68 children.

That guy — and thousands like him —will listen to people like John Crews.

It’s just true of our society.

Some people are more easily reached by comedians, golfers, football players or someone else whose talents they respect.

For some reason, a guy with a flipping stick in his hand has more potential to reach some folks on certain issues than a doctor in a white lab coat.

Because of that, we’ll never be able to fully quantify what Crews has accomplished by bringing his heroic autism awareness efforts to the Elite Series.

There have been plenty of tangible numbers.

You could’ve counted the anglers who’ve placed stickers on their rigs representing “My Little Buddy’s Boat” — an incredible autism charity started by Crews’ friend, Eli Delany, in honor of his young autistic son, Luke. 

Likewise, you could’ve counted the anglers who left Guntersville City Harbor during an Elite Series event two years ago with autism awareness flags attached to their light poles.

But we’ll never know how many seeds have been planted with parents who desperately needed to face their child’s autism struggles head-on — for their own good and the good of the child.

All I know for sure is this: You can start the count with me.

I am the beyond-proud father of two amazing autistic daughters, and I’ve lived inside that awful cocoon I mentioned above.

For almost two years, I didn’t want to discuss their condition with anyone other than their doctors and therapists.

Those folks can inform you. But you don’t just need information, you need support.

You need to feel like someone else cares about the daily struggle — and I don’t know that I ever truly felt like that until that day at Guntersville City Harbor with all of those flag-carrying light poles motoring away from the dock.

Since then, I’ve become good friends with Dave Mercer — the Bassmaster tournament emcee who glows like a lightbulb at the mention of his 13-year-old autistic daughter, Cadance. I’ve learned things from him on tournament Saturdays that I’ve used to make my daughters’ lives better the following Monday.

It’s still a struggle sometimes.

There are moments during every autism conversation with Dave when I feel myself welling up, simply because I want the absolute best for my little girls.

I took my daughters to a birthday party recently that was attended almost exclusively by children with autism and other developmental delays. I didn’t make much eye contact with anyone there, and I never felt comfortable enough to chat with any of the other parents.

Autism often means redefining your expectations as a parent — and it isn’t always easy.

Even after you man up and confront the issue, you’ll have your tough times.

But when I have one, I remember how thankful I am to have my daughters in this world. 

Then I remember that John Crews, Dave Mercer and a whole bunch of folks from the Bassmaster Elite Series have got my back.

You remember…they’ve got yours, too.