MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. — Everyone remembers the day a parent dies – where they were, how they got the news, their first reactions. Thursday evening when Julie Roumbanis told her husband, Fred, that his father, Kelly, had passed away, his first reaction was to get on a plane and fly to California to be with his mother.
“My mom wouldn’t let me,” Roumbanis said Friday. “She’s strong. Stronger than me.”
Oftentimes the best thing we can do under trying circumstances is simply surrender. When we do, we’re able to recognize miracles in our lives. We can see them even through tears.
James Niggemeyer approached Roumbanis’ boat before Friday’s 6:15 a.m. Day 2 takeoff of the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament at Lake St. Clair. He didn’t know Roumbanis’ father had passed when he asked, “Permission to come aboard?”
“My dad was into sailing,” Roumbanis said. “The polite way to get on somebody’s boat is to say, ‘Permission to come aboard?’ That was the phrase my dad always said. I’d never heard another person say it. I just looked at him. It was almost like my dad spoke through him for a minute.”
Said Julie, "For James to say that exact phrase that Kelly had taught his boys, Fred and Michael, at that exact moment was evident that Fred was not alone (Friday)."
Although his first thought was to be with his mother, Roumbanis needed to compete Friday. He’d posted a 34th-place weight of 18-12 on Day 1. Roumbanis is an example of the numerous storylines in this final regular season event. He entered ranked 70th in Toyota Angler of the Year points. Only the top 70 are assured of re-qualifying to compete on the Elite Series next year.
It’s been a long year for the Roumbanis family. Fred, Julie and their two young boys have moved from Bixby, Okla., into a new home near Russellville, Ark., and Lake Dardanelle. Julie’s father recently underwent heart bypass surgery. Fred has been suffering with near-pneumonia for almost two months.
But Fred simply couldn’t keep his head in the game on Day 2 at Lake St. Clair. He was struggling with the mental stress that is smallmouth bass fishing on this unusual smallmouth bass lake, which features 430 square miles of a shallow, sandy, relatively featureless foundation. Smallmouth bass move with the whimsy of the wind. A nomadic fish becomes even more so. And Roumbanis kept thinking about his father.
“I couldn’t concentrate, so I switched to largemouths because they’re easier to catch,” Roumbanis said. “You can just go down any bank, and you don’t have to think. When I was out there drop-shotting and stuff for smallmouths, I just couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t slow down, just couldn’t fish normal.
“I had to resort to what I know best. I hadn’t thrown a frog in practice. I pulled up and made probably one of the best casts I’ve made in my life. I skipped a frog between a boat and a seawall and caught one right away, first cast. I just felt like my dad was there.”
Kelly Roumbanis, 77, wasn’t a fisherman, but he loved the water and sailing. He had been a cable car conductor in the San Francisco Bay area. He had seemingly recovered from cancer. His death was unexpected.
“I talked to him (Wednesday night) and he sounded fine,” said Roumbanis, fighting back tears. “But he wouldn’t have ever let me know. He was just that strong of a man. I just hope I can be a father to my kids like he was to me. Mom said he went peacefully in his sleep. And he had a great day with her the day before. They got to eat at their favorite restaurant.”
Through those tears, Roumbanis realized he was just where he needed to be Friday.
“I’m just so thankful I’m here with my Bassmaster family,” he said. “Everyone of these anglers has given me a hug, prayed for us. I love each and every one of these guys as brothers.”
Added Julie, “The outpouring of love has been unbelievable.”
Here’s the final little miracle of Fred Roumbanis’ day after his father died: When the Elite Series began the season with 110 anglers, the field was cut to the top 51 anglers after two days. But with only 108 anglers here, for the first time this season only the top 50 would qualify to fish on Day 3 at Lake St. Clair.
By switching to largemouth bass, Roumbanis managed to weigh 16 pounds, 7 ounces on Day 2, giving him 35-3 for the tournament. That was good enough for, of course, 50th place.