If somehow you found yourself brushing your teeth next to Kevin VanDam, you can be certain he’d try to finish faster, and have his shining brighter than yours.
VanDam is a tenacious competitor. Which is what makes his heartfelt stealing of B.A.S.S. emcee Dave Mercer’s microphone to talk about his experiences with Make-A-Wish, moments after finishing a disheartening 63rd on his home lake, even more impressive.
In the wake of defeat and disappointment, VanDam brought the equivalent of a 25-pound bag of class and compassion to the stage following Day 2 of competition at the Plano Bassmaster Elite on Lake St. Clair.
He also brought 15-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient Max Venchus to the weigh-in platform and introduced to him fans in attendance at St. Clair’s Metropark.
“You know the funny thing is, Make-A-Wish is supposed to be about the kids, and making them feel good, but every time I’ve participated in one, it always seems like it's me that gets as much out of it as the kids,” VanDam told fans over the microphone.
Max Venchus is still taking treatments for leukemia, but wears a grin wider than the rear beam of VanDam’s Nitro boat, and he fishes nearly every day in ponds around his Chicago area home. No surprise, like KVD, he says shallow crankbaits are among his favorite lures of all time.
Backstage, VanDam, who is always tugged at for time and attention from media and sponsors, no matter how high or low his place on the leaderboard, continued to make Max top priority and reminisce about the day they spent on the water a while back.
“The waves are what I remember most,” grinned Max.
“Yea, I’m not gonna lie, I took you to Traverse City because I really wanted you to have the chance to catch some big smallmouth – but the wind blew so hard that day it got kinda hairy,” remembers VanDam.
Max’s brother and dad were also on the trip, and have since befriended VanDam with “Good Luck” texts prior to tournaments, and custom “KVD” signs and plaques from the family’s wood and cabinet shop.
“The signs Max’s dad made for me decorate each side of my tackle room – they’re really detailed and perfectly done – you ought to see them, they’re awesome,” said an obviously appreciative VanDam.
The Venchus family wasn’t the only Make-A-Wish family VanDam had as backstage guests at St. Clair. The Schmitt family was also on hand. And although their son Mitchell, a Make-A-Wish recipient who is now a healthy college student at Iowa State, was too busy with academics to be at St. Clair, well, they showed up for the Bassmaster Elite without him, based purely on the friendship the whole family has formed with VanDam.
“My Make-A-Wish experiences have reminded me that while all of us are guilty of getting caught up thinking our own worlds are such a big deal – that there are families out there just trying to get through tomorrow amid these battles they’re facing,” says VanDam.
“And you know what … it always seems like these setbacks happen to some of the greatest families I’ve ever met – maybe it’s because they’re strong enough to deal with it,” reflected VanDam at dinner later that night, surrounded by his bride, and two healthy twin sons eating the Twisted Rooster’s mac & cheese, now 18, but born extremely premature in 1997.
“I remember Make-A-Wish actually offering to buy Mitchell Schmitt a bass boat at the time, but he said he’d rather fish with Kevin,” remembers VanDam’s wife, Sherry.
How could you blame him? Bass boats are just fiberglass. But VanDam is the greatest bass angler who's ever lived – and he comes loaded with two livewells full of class, compassion and lasting friendship.