It was late Sunday in the concrete-walled bowels of the Bi-Lo Center. The swarm of media had mostly fled, and a 100-hour workweek seemed to be winding down for the ESPNOutdoors.com crew, which worked like government mules to crank out stories and photographs and all sorts of pretty Web pages.
Alton Jones was on a plane headed from the Greensville, S.C., airport to Bristol, Conn., where he'd be run through the ESPN wringer in the morning. The rest of us schmoes were about to go home.
Then photographer James Overstreet got a call on his cell phone. When he hung up, he announced to the room: "Alton Jones may have won the Bassmaster Classic, but I'm going home with the trophy."
I had made a wisecrack just minutes earlier to Alton, when I saw the small bag he was toting onto the plane. "Pretty impressive," I said, "getting the trophy in there."
It didn't really occur to me that he wasn't taking the trophy, nor that if he didn't take the trophy, someone would have to. As it turned out, the trophy had to come back to Little Rock, Ark., for a studio shoot Wednesday. Someone somewhere had the brilliant idea to hand the trophy to James, who would be making the 12-hour drive back to Arkansas.
When James got the call, I immediately thought: Stanley Cup. So I ditched my flight back and told him I'd ride shotgun with him, to help chronicle the trophy's ride from South Carolina to Arkansas, figuring shenanigans were inevitable.
We didn't have to wait long. The next morning James picked me up at the crack of 10:15, and as I loaded my gear in the back of his black Suburban, a gentleman of perhaps 75 noticed the tournament-caliber boat James was towing.
"Well," he asked, "did you win?"
"No," James said. "But I do have the big trophy." He pointed to the Classic trophy, that handsome Lucite pyramid, reclining in the rear of the SUV, atop James' coat.
"Well!" the man said, extending his hand to shake James'. "Congratulations!"
"Thank you, sir," James said.
"Where's your wife?" the man asked.
"She's at home," James said. "One of us has to work for a living."
We piled into the front seats of the truck, giggling. "I wish you could have got a picture when that old man shook my hand," James said. "I'm gonna have more fun with this trophy than you can run and jump over."
As we pulled out of the parking lot, we noticed Elite Series angler Edwin Evers' massive truck parked at the Cracker Barrel next door. Might Evers want to see the trophy? Probably not, at least, until he captures it for his own. Kevin VanDam had said on stage that he wouldn't touch the trophy until he won it.
We, on the other hand, had no such reservations, and set our minds spinning as to what Southern institutions we could introduce to the Classic trophy. Inspiration struck when we saw a sign for Talladega National Forest. A quick exit from the interstate, a few minutes driving past the myriad campgrounds advertising hot! clean! showers, and there we were, at the gates of the racetrack that made Ricky Bobby famous, Talladega Superspeedway.
It occurred to us, as James and the trophy posed at the huge sign out front, that we might have made history. Thirty of the 38 Classics have been won by a Southerner, but we didn't know of any of them who had the urge to drag it to a NASCAR track.
"This will be the only time I get to do this," James said. "Because after this, they'll never let me have this thing again."
When we stopped to gas up, that gnarly knob at the top of James' neck started working. "You know where I would take this thing, if it weren't such a hassle?" he asked. "Graceland."
"We're going through Tupelo, right?" I replied. "What about Elvis' birthplace?"
The King and Us
Across from the shotgun shack where the King of Rock 'n' Roll came into this world, the red brick St. Mark United Methodist Church's marquee reads: "Worship the real King and see Elvis in Heaven."
We parked James' rig and the boat across seven spaces in the church's little lot and unpacked the trophy. As James cradled it mere feet from where little Elvis played in the dirt, a man and two women approached.
"What trophy is that?" one of the women asked.
"Bassmaster Classic trophy," James said. We didn't want to dawdle, so we shuffled over to a statute of Elvis as a boy, holding a guitar, in the pavilion outside the museum. "Me and baby Elvis," James said. "Come on. This thing is heavy."
As I snapped photos, one of the women asked if she could get a photo with James and the trophy. That sent James into the most convoluted explanation I've ever seen him offer, about how we were just babysitting the trophy on the way to Little Rock and that we'd been showing it around the Deep South along the way.
They wound up not taking the photo with James.
It was about time to go, we figured. But as James packed the trophy into the back of his vehicle, an older man called from across the street: "VanDam didn't get you, huh?"
We'd been recognized. Sort of.
"Not this time," James replied cheerfully.
"He said he was catchin' 'em," the man said. "You from Mississippi?"
"Arkansas," James said.
"What's your name?" the man asked.
James whispered from the back of the SUV: "What's my name?"
I offered him the only thing that made any sense: "Alton Jones?"
Home, at last
The rest of the drive to Little Rock was uneventful, unless you count a pit stop at a roadside Dairy Queen to be an event, and after 11 hours of driving, we certainly did. The trophy went home with James — check out the photo gallery for that full story — and then, on Wednesday, it went into Alton Jones' arms. James was the one to hand it to him at the TV studio, as Boyd Duckett had on stage at the Bi-Lo Center on Sunday. (It'll next make an appearance on the Classic highlight show at 9 a.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2.)
It was an emotional moment for all involved, not least the trophy. It may be consigned to a mantle at the Jones home for the rest of time. But it'll always have Tupelo.