The Experienced Sophomore

GREENVILLE, S.C.—It's been a full year since a 45-year-old "rookie" from Alabama won the 2007 Bassmaster Classic. Even though Elite Series pro Boyd Duckett has been tournament fishing since 1977, last year he was technically still a freshman on the sport's top tournament circuit. The defending champion has experienced a whirlwind of increased notoriety and exposure as a result of his yearlong triumphs. But observing the Elite Series pro over days leading up to this year's Classic tournament, Duckett's mastery of fan interaction has truly been something to observe.

 Last year at this same time, media day left Duckett relatively unmolested by writers and photographers more interested in those Elite Series pros more recognizable. By qualifying for the Classic through the 2006 Opens, Duckett hadn't yet reached the stature he now enjoys. This year was noticeably different.

 On Thursday's media day, interviewer after interviewer waited for a sit-down with Duckett, like the mobs of political press corps flocking to speak with a remaining Presidential primary candidate. Lines encircled the angler as each writer waited for the metal folding chair beside Duckett to become vacated. Inside the sprawling ballroom at Greenville's downtown Hyatt, photographers swarmed the angler, snapping pictures from all angles. But Duckett took his time with each interviewer. When necessary, he smiled or posed for the BASS paparazzi, but he never hurried through an interview. Sometimes, Duckett would talk for so long that an anxious writer-in-waiting would quickly move to the next table after eying an open seat.

 Just a week before the Classic, Duckett made an appearance at Bass Pro Shops near Atlanta. With a tremendous boost of sponsor signings, this appearance was just one in a number of sponsor obligations as the 2008 Classic drew near.

 Fifteen minutes before the official start of the "meet and greet" session with fellow Classic qualifiers Mike Iaconelli and Ish Monroe, the tall, slender Duckett stood in the lobby of the of the megastore as if he were just another shopper — albeit one adorned in a sponsor-laden tournament jersey and a signature baseball cap pulled low. He was speaking to a group of fishing industry reps who had him surrounded. But Duckett's posture suggested he was merely having just another conversation while he leaned against an oversized chair in front of a crackling fireplace. His presence in the lobby was noted by most passersby, as mothers and fathers whispered to their children a "Bassmaster is standing right there."

 As scores of fans approached the autograph table, Duckett was first to greet them. He smiled cordially the way an uncle would greet his niece or nephew, then patiently awaited the first awkward words that usually came from a parent.

 "This is my son, Michael," one fan said, placing his hand on his son's head. "Boyd, we're all big fans." He placed a caring amount of emphasis on the angler's first name. With a humble "thank you," Duckett offered to sign a placard for anyone in the family who would like it. Next, he began making funny faces at the little girl, who was half hiding behind his Elite Series gear-clad mother. With one eye on Duckett, the 6-year-old, named Amy, eventually revealed her name and warmed to Duckett's silliness. Soon she was making faces back at him.

 Duckett laughed.

 Soon an older man shuffled up to the seated angler. He slowly began to raise his shaking hand, a sign everything wasn't well for the octogenarian. Duckett immediately sprung out of his chair, threw out his hand and leaned forward as the man prepared to say something.

 "Boyd," the old man said, "I wanted to congratulate you for last year."

 Duckett was visibly humbled.

"Well, thank you, sir," he said, nodding. "I'll need it again this year."

 "Well, good luck, then," the old man said, satisfied that he had said his piece.

 Duckett watched the man pass down the line of anglers and slowly took his seat. With Day One of the Classic beginning on Friday, it would be the last time this angler would want to sit down over an extended period of time.

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