GREENSBORO, N.C. — Kevin Wirth seemed shaken. It was moments before the weigh-in on Day Two of the Bassmaster American presented by Advance Auto Parts, a tournament that would bestow a quarter-million dollars on the winner. Wirth took a smoke behind the Greensboro Coliseum. He wasn't going to weigh fish, so his first-day total of only two fish and 3 pounds would stay.
He didn't mind. He had been through a very long day.
"It makes you re-evaluate your priorities," the old Kentuckian said.
When Wirth left the launch point at 6 a.m. Friday morning, he was accompanied by a young observer named John Clift. It was still early when Wirth headed to a point near the shore, instead of turning toward open water, as he had been considering. The two arrived at an area near a dock about four miles away, near the High Rock Dam.
Wirth had made about six casts when he heard a noise from the back of the boat, a grunt, and a thud. He turned in time to see Clift's head overboard, sinking. "I'm thinking he just slipped," Wirth said. "We do sometimes."
Wirth ran to the back of the boat. It took a second for the bubbles in Clift's rain suit to buoy him. When he resurfaced, he was on his side, with his face in the water. "I could see where he was in convulsions," Wirth said.
Stiff winds were pushing Clift toward the dock, away from the boat's stern. Wirth rushed back to the front of his boat, frantic. "When I run back to that trolling motor," he said, "I have to get swung around and all the way back to him. It seemed to me, just the way the wind was, it was like a strong current sucking him under the dock."
By the time Wirth could spin his boat and charge toward the dock, Clift had drifted an arm's length under the dock and sunk a foot below the surface. Wirth thought: "He's going down." He crashed into the dock and reached for Clift's hood, and turned him on his back.
"He's purple," Wirth said. "No breath of air. He's lifeless, totally lifeless." Wirth pulled the cord on Clift's life vest to inflate it, and Clift gasped. He coughed. Some blood came up, and suddenly, Wirth had a hold of a man whose body knew it was drowning. He began to struggle.
With the wind still pushing Wirth's boat, and with Clift between the moving boat and the dock, Wirth wrestled Clift around the side, so he could use his trolling motor. He charged toward a nearby ramp, maneuvering the boat, clutching Clift. As the ramp met the bottom of his boat, Wirth, on his knees, pulled the trolling motor out. "I drug him dead up on the boat ramp," he said. Then he ran for his phone.
He tried to give rescue personnel precise directions. He talked with BASS officials, who were the first on the scene. With Clift breathing, they worked to ensure he didn't suffer hypothermia. In the 45-degree morning chill, with a 10 mph wind blowing, Wirth worked Clift out of his wet clothes and covered him with his own fleece, rain suit and dry towels. They massaged the color back into him.
Clift was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was deemed fine, BASS officials later said. Efforts by ESPNOutdoors.com to reach the 24-year-old were unsuccessful Friday night.
Wirth was done fishing. A wiry ex-Kentucky Derby jockey who himself weighs 140 pounds soaking wet, he had exhausted himself with the intensity and the struggle of handling a man he estimated at nearly 100 pounds heavier. He went for a bite to eat, then back to his hotel.
"My body was drained," he said. "My knees buckled for the next three hours."
Word of the ordeal had spread by the time anglers weighed in. One, Greg Gutierrez, weighed in his fish and praised Wirth to the crowd, and afterward, voiced deep appreciation for the poise Wirth showed.
"Kevin hasn't been trained for this, and suddenly its in his lap," Gutierrez said. "That he had the whereabouts to get him to shore — that's the fight or flight instinct. And he chose fight."
(For what it's worth, Gutierrez recommends that anyone who works near water to take a CPR class. They're free at the Red Cross, he said.)
Back at his hotel, Wirth encountered a housekeeper named Sunday. Without knowing anything else about his day, she noticed that he looked forlorn. She wrote for him a note, which Wirth took from his pocket Friday afternoon with trembling hands, and read.
It began with the old bromide: Work like you don't need the money, Dance like no one is watching, Love like you've never been hurt. At the bottom, she added, "Everyday above ground is a good one."
In a few steps Wirth caught up with her, and hugged her hard.