Maybe Tripp Norton saw something special in a then-unsung Casey Ashley. Maybe the future Bassmaster Classic winner saw something equally inspiring in a young fan who’d been dealt a tough hand.
One thing’s for sure, with Ashley competing again in the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods on Lake Hartwell, he has a special fan with a special connection cheering for him.
The story traces back a decade when a 9-year-old Norton was about 5 years into a liver disease that required surgery. The young fan from Central, S.C. told his parents that seeing his local hero standing by his hospital bed when he woke from surgery would mean the world to him.
“I was a big fan of Casey Ashley because he was from the area,” Norton said. “I was never a football, baseball or basketball fan. My sports hero was Casey Ashley.”
Well, things didn’t turn out exactly as Norton had hoped; but for good reason — and one that would yield an even more meaningful moment.
“My dad told me that Casey Ashley’s dad called him and told him that Casey has a really big heart and he didn’t know if he could handle seeing a little kid with tubes in his throat, IVs in his arm and looking really sick,” Norton recalled. “So, he actually came to my house and that was really cool.
“That was better, I think, because, instead of just sitting in the (hospital) bed talking to him, he gave me one of his sponsor shirts, some hats and stuff. We went outside and he showed me some casting techniques. I’ve always been an outdoorsman and it was awesome to see that these guys on TV are really down-to-earth.”
Norton's dad, Ross, said Ashley’s visit brought a much-needed dose of brightness during a dark time.
“Tripp has had some really rough times and fishing was one of the things that kept him up, and Casey's visit was definitely a highlight,” Ross said. “At that time he couldn't have named a football player or any other traditional athlete. His sports heroes were anglers and the top three were Casey Ashley, Steve Kennedy and Skeet Reese. Casey showing up at our house would have been like Hank Aaron showing up at mine when I was that age.”
Since then, Ashley’s career has skyrocketed, much to the credit of his 2015 Bassmaster Classic win on Lake Hartwell. However, those who know him, know that the full-time fisherman/part-time country singer has the same heart of gold he had a decade ago. What he believed then, he believes even more so today.
“I’m 34 years old and to think of a kid looking up to me like I used to look up to Roland Martin, Mark Davis, Larry Nixon and David Fritts when I was young, is very humbling,” Ashley said. “I try to do whatever I can, but the most important thing is to just go talk to kids. The smallest things that you could every think of can go so far.
Now, we’re not going to imply any connection between Ashley’s visit and Tripp’s health, but the 19-year-old fan has been in remission since 2013. Nevertheless, while celebrity visits probably don’t actually heal the body, they most certainly do encourage, inspire and motivate the heart, soul and mind.
A senior at Daniel High School, Norton works a part-time job delivering pizzas, serves as a Volunteer Firefighter and takes night classes to earn his EMT certification.
Even before officially starting his EMT training, he learned basic first aid techniques while earning his Eagle Scout badge. Notably, he put this knowledge to work by performing the Heimlich maneuver to safe a junior high classmate who was choking on potato chips. His heroism earned the Boy Scouts’ Medal of Meritorious Action.
His busy schedule will likely prevent him from attending this week’s Classic weigh-ins, Friday-Sunday at the Bon Secour Wellness Center; but Norton will be watching remotely and pulling for the pro who cared enough to visit him.
As Ashley seeks to add another Classic win to his resume, Norton sends this message to his fishing hero: “You can do it. You did it before. I believe you can do it again.”