Of a Classic veteran and a rookie

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Larry Nixon has been in this position 25 times. James Kennedy will soon find out what all the fuss is about.

Both men are part of the 51-angler field that will compete in the 36th annual CITGO Bassmaster Classic which begins tomorrow on Lake Tohopekaliga in central Florida.

At stake is a $500,000 first prize and the prestige that goes with winning the biggest event in competitive fishing.

Media from around the globe have descended upon this area to cover the action and the anglers know that good showings at the Classic have launched careers and caught the attention of fishing fans worldwide.

Nixon has felt the glare of the celebrity spotlight since he made his first Classic appearance in 1977. He finished second to Rick Clunn that year on Lake Toho — the same lake the anglers will fish tomorrow.

Nixon, who hails from tiny Bee Branch, Ark., became a household name in the fishing community when he posted his lone Classic victory on the Ohio River in 1983.

The attention the Classic draws today certainly surpasses what the tournament received in 1977. But Nixon, who will be making his 25th Classic start tomorrow, said he still gets jittery before the event begins.

"Well, I think I probably get more nervous now than I got back then," Nixon said. "I didn't know any better then. I will say that in my first couple of tournaments, I was shaking so bad, that I could hardy drink my coffee in the morning. Now, it's a different type of nerves. You always get them when you're getting ready to fish the Classic. I guess it's more like anxiety."

Kennedy has shown a great deal of poise in the days leading up to his first Classic appearance. The Lacombe, La., resident earned entry into this tournament via the Federation Championship where he led the Central Division.

But even though he is currently surrounded by the biggest names in bass fishing, Kennedy said he hasn't felt pressured by the hoopla that comes with the Classic.

"I don't feel any of it," Kennedy said. "I feel like it's just another tournament, though it happens to be the Classic. The pressure can be overwhelming if you let it be, but it hasn't bothered me. When I back the boat into the water tomorrow morning, I don't know.

"But in the end, this is fishing. The best man wins."

Media scrutiny of the anglers' moves on the water is not new to the Classic. Nixon recalled there was a pool of outdoors reporters that followed the anglers from tournament to tournament when he first began fishing on tour, but said the coverage was always ramped up at the Classic.

"I was kind of in awe the first time," he said. "Your job is to fish. But when we get to the Classic, it's overwhelming — the media you have to talk to, the pictures being taken, the cameras shoved at you. I was just a kid from Arkansas. I had never seen anything like that."

Kennedy, 40, said it took some time for him to get used to reporters' questions and the television cameras following his boat. He said he received a primer on what to expect at the Classic when he vaulted up the leader board at the Federation Championship.

"On the last day of the championship, I had a camera on me," Kennedy said. "For the first hour or so, I was a little nervous. I think it was more me having to stay focused on what I was doing. But in practice here for the Classic, I had a local TV crew on me for about half an hour, asking me questions. You answer as well as you can and go about your business. But the media aspect of it is pretty neat. When you're approached for your feelings, it's nice."

Nixon, 55, has been through the experience before, but his senses haven't been dulled by the attention. After four decades of professional fishing, he would love to win here in Florida. Nixon said it might be his last Classic as the time constraints of being a tour angler have become increasingly difficult as he ages.

"The Classic, to a tournament fisherman, is everything," Nixon said. "People grow up dreaming of winning one. The publicity you get, it's just tremendous. The $500,000 is great, but being the champion means so much.

"But I'm probably done. I've been doing this for so long. But I would love to go out with a bang."

Kennedy, who only recently left his job as an auto mechanic to fish full time, said the significance of making his first Classic appearance isn't lost on him.

"All the guys in the Classic, all the elite contenders, every one of them have just been so grand to me," he said. "I've talked to the majority of the field and they've been as nice as they can. There were a lot of congratulations to me for making it from the Federation to here."

But Kennedy said he'd like to do more than just make an appearance and a quiet exit from the Classic. He feels confident he can give the elites a run for the title.

It's only happened once before — in 1994 when the late Bryan Kerchal qualified through the Federation and won the Classic.

"I'm a dark horse and I realize that," Kennedy said. "But my wife (Bonny) said to me something I've been thinking of. She said 'You know, you're not expected to win this thing, but you know that you can.'

"I have high hopes,"

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