Put yourself in a Bassmaster Elite Series pro angler's shoes for a second.
It's a few minutes past noon on the Friday before the top 50 cut. You're eating wind in a motorboat at 60 mph, on the way to another spot. Suddenly a boom shakes your entire boat and your once-humming motor grinds to an alien squeal.
Your biggest fear has come true. It's a breakdown.
Every second that passes could ruin your chance of catching that fish to put you into the tournament cut. And if you can't return to fishing, it may cost you the points to make the Classic or even jeopardize a potential deal with a sponsor.
In 2007 alone, some form of boat breakdown occurred at least 64 times at BASS Elite Series tournaments. That's why, at every Elite Series event, a group of 12 men (and an alternate) were available with a backup boat.
They call themselves the Dirty Dozen, and among those who closely follow the tour, they're almost the stuff of legend. On the first day of the Sunshine Showdown presented by Allstate Boat Insurance, Dirty Dozen founder Harry Potts' 20-pound, 8-ounce bag — tops among all competitors for the day — thrust them further into the fore.
"We're like the Elite pros' own personal pit crew," Potts said. "We recognize the fact that these guys are out there to make a living, and we're happy to help them succeed any way we can."
The Dirty Dozen has been carrying replacement boats as part of a sponsorship deal with BASS at tournaments across the country since Potts first hatched the program at the start of the 2004 season. With 11 Series events and three Majors in 2007, each Dirty Dozen member has tallied more than 20,000 miles on the road this year alone.
The Dirty Dozen consists of retired fishermen, law enforcement officers, ironworkers, and construction foreman. Most have served in the United States Armed Services, in some capacity. Potts himself is a retired Major in the Army, Jim Hill a retired Army medic and alternate Walt Stringer is a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot.
Elite Series pro Gerald Swindle gave further recognition, not only for their service on the tournament trail, but specifically for the Dirty Dozen's service to their country.
"These are all incredible Americans," said Swindle, whose father, Jimmy, and uncle Tommy are among the Dozen. "Some of these ol' boys have enough shrapnel in them to fill a piggy bank."
The other grizzled members of the Dozen include: Frank Mealer, Joel Etheredge, Glen Barberee, Mike Hollinhead, Jimmy Sparks, Harry Parten, James Jones, Eulon Lee and Mike Frazier.
"I've never had to use their boats, knock on wood," Elite Series pro Kevin Short said. "But it's been comforting to know the past couple of years that these guys are always there."
The anglers are required to use these boats upon making the Top 12 on a tournament's final day. It stands to reason that with BASS' decision to allow anglers to use their own boats in future seasons, that the Dozen's role may change, though BASS has not yet made that decision.
Gerald Swindle has begun trying to organize his colleagues to raise money to help BASS alleviate costs should the Dirty Dozen become endangered.
Even if things were to change after next season, Potts said, "it's been a real honor and a great run."
"These guys have really become a part of our family," Elite Series pro Mike Wurm said from his Arkansas home. "Their extra boats and vehicles have become our No. 1 insurance policy out there."
In fact, even Kevin VanDam had to cash in on that insurance policy. VanDam used Potts' boat the entire length of a tournament this year after experiencing technical problems. Greg Hackney once used Potts' boat at Lake Amistad, returning it almost a full week and a half later after pre-fishing for a subsequent tournament.
Potts described their simple logistics. "There's Truck One that lines up with Trailer One and Boat One and so on," he said. But sometimes amidst the hectic pace of a tournament, there's the occasional miscue.
When Matt Reed's boat broke down at a tournament a few years back, the Dirty Dozen sprung into action. Reed told Potts to get his truck — "the Ford with the tailgate down."
Potts complied, hitched up the truck and took the boat into town to be serviced by the technician. Only Potts had grabbed Edwin Evers' Ford by mistake. Once Potts realized the error and put $10 of diesel fuel into Evers' ride, he returned Reed's boat to the dock. "I told Edwin a few days later," Potts said. "And all he could do was laugh."
Surrounding themselves in promoting and servicing professional BASS anglers, these seasoned veterans know how to work hard. There's been more than one long night working on a rig to get it ready for a pre-dawn launch.
"We're talking about a gang of guys in their 60s or 70s working out in that 100-plus heat everyday, with no complaining or anything," Gerald Swindle said. "They don't have to help us move tackle or work on our equipment, they just do."
It's not all hard work, though. Each Dirty Dozen member can fish on the co-angler side of each tournament. Passionate fishermen in their own right, these guys can bag some serious fish from the back of the boat.
Guy Eaker thinks it's a real treat when he sees he is paired with a Dirty Dozen member. "They are all excellent fishermen," Eaker said. "You just know they are going to catch fish when you're with them."
In fact, Mike Frazier (a.k.a. Frank the Tank) was in the back of Eaker's boat twice, with a co-angler win at the Potomac and a second-place finish in another tournament.
"We all joke about not having them in our boat because we all know they're all going to do well," Short said. "I remember at Clarks Hill, Jimmy Swindle just showed up with two rods and a paper sack. And sure enough that was all he needed to boat 'em all day long."
Driving through the countryside, the Dirty Dozen has become the local face of the profession, an honor Potts' crew takes seriously.
"We are the P.R. when we roll through a town," Potts said. "One time in a small Mississippi community, the mayor and a few city councilmen flagged us down for pictures and to shake hands."
Said Gerald Swindle: "These guys are the true disciples of our sport. They are the ones spreading the word for the sport of bass fishing at the grassroots level."