Dateline: The Vince Lombardi Service Center, NJ Turnpike, third stall on the left.
A few miles south of here, with the cruise set on a moderate 83 mph, I was minding my own business driving through the New Jersey Pine Barrens, somewhat watching the road ahead while scanning both sides of the woods for Bigfoot, Jimmy Hoffa, or the winged horse-like New Jersey Devil, when a Kangaroo stepped in front of my minivan.
And the Kangaroo was wearing a BASS hat.
You'd be surprised how quickly you can close on a Kangaroo in a BASS hat in the middle of the New Jersey turnpike.
And then I noticed something odd.
As I went to swerve into the next lane my escape was blocked by 11-long-haired friends of Jesus in a chartreuse microbus.
Which I took to be strange.
Until a voice filled my minivan, and the voice said to me .
And I realized, that no there was no kangaroo in the road, or Chartreuse Microbus next to me, just a lady with a bouffant and cell phone in a Jets stickered red Mercedes SLK.
Time to pull over wouldn't you say.
It was about hour 11, and 600 or so miles north of the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, I had been driving home alone from Greenville, S.C., since around 6 a.m., and was tired.
For some reason, and if you are a psychologist, a psychotherapist, a psycho or kangaroo, don't email me as to what sort of deep-seated problem I may be harboring, but whenever I get tired when I'm driving, I see kangaroos.
Most don't wear BASS hats though (one did have on a Buffalo Bills throwback ball cap, but I was driving to Grandma's house in Buffalo for the holidays and just took that to be the Christmas kangaroo).
So I took the first turnoff I could, which turned out to be the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop, parked the minivan in the nearest handicap spot, because you know I just saw a kangaroo on the Jersey Turnpike, so I would think that would more than qualify me, quickly walked up to the building, glancing every once in awhile for any more loose 'roos, walked past some guy trying to sell fake designer sunglasses on a cloudy day, some circus wagon thing holding big pretzels, 42 vending machines selling 25-cent bags of chips for $1.75, a few signs warning me not to even think of pumping my own gas, into the men's room, past two yellow mirrored out-of-order-since-the-1960s weigh yourself scales, scanned the bottom of all the stalls for the presence of any long marsupial tails, and entered the third stall on the right.
And called home.
"Hi." Damn caller ID, my wife ordered it the last time I called and told her I was Oprah inviting her to the show.
"I'm sitting in the Vince." We've been married 34 years so I can talk in shorthand.
"More road visions." She does too.
"Yeah, with hats "
"Get some coffee."
" and a red-haired bouffant driving a red Mercedes with a JETS sticker on it "
"Make it real coffee, none of that Latté stuff."
" but the AFC East isn't a Mercedes conference."
"Order a Grande."
I left the Vince, some Jolt drink in my right hand, Grande in the other, minivan keys in my mouth trying to use my chin to get the beep-beep to open the doors, as I took random shots of each drink I sat in the parking lot thinking about Vince Lombardi, and Skeet Reese.
Which is probably why they should put a label on those drinks not to do what I'm doing. Back in the day when I worked at ESPN, we had all sorts of sayings floating around that would fire you up and make you run out and cut the best damn highlight as if your life depended on it, which usually it did.
I remember one boss would always quote Vince Lombardi, and since he always wore a Packers jersey, and had one of those big "G" stickers on his bumper, I figured he would know when he said once, "If you can accept losing, you can't win. That's what Coach would always say."
The boss announced it like my grandmother used to quote the Pope while blessing herself and looking at me with one eye, the other scanning for the cops.
It was Day Two of the Classic, Skeet and I were in the media room talking and paying attention to the hot dogs, hamburgers, and not the media. His first day out, the dude caught 3 fish for a total of 11 pounds, 5 ounces, which frankly in Buffalo wouldn't even be considered a good fish fry.
Today was different 5 fish 17 pounds 2 ounces, only two other people that day caught fish that weighed more, out of 50 plying the waters.
So I figure it's safe to talk to the AOY, having not been almost skunked again, so I asked him, "So how'd you do," knowing exactly how he did figuring the more knowledge I have the easier it is for me to duck.
Here's what he said, basically verbatim, as best I can remember.
I'm chewing a hot dog, which at times like this is the best way to follow up that answer. "Uh-hum, hold this." And I hand the AOY my hamburger to hold.
"But I wish I was up there."
Something Gram used to say as well, "Huh, give me that, up where, don't even think of biting that ah Skeet up where "
And I followed his eyes, past me, past the media, past the food spread, past the camera's to what he was staring at. Up in front of the room, before a curtain of BASS sat the three people who were leading the tournament and Skeet couldn't, wouldn't take his eyes off them.
"That's where I should be," he said more than once, four times actually. I let him have the burger.
And that's when he just had a monster day fishing. It would not have been good enough for Vince; it was not good enough for Skeet.
If you do not have the good fortune to be around champions, that moment in time is what makes them champs, and me and you, just us.
And of all the pomp, circumstance and BASS that is the Classic, that look is the one thing I will always remember when I think back to the 2008 Bassmaster Classic.
It's the one I'll tell the Grandkids about.
Crossing the George Washington Bridge and back in to Pilgrimland, I made one last call home.
"Hi. More 'roos."
"Nope be home soon."
"Just down the road about two looks ."
Which I was told in Greenville, S.C., is, "You drive as far as you can see once, then drive again as far as you can see, you be there in two looks."
And I was.
I survived, maybe
GREENVILLE, S.C. I have a disease.
Guys/gals in white lab coats in shiny buildings, would you please study this?
I have had my arse handed to me on this assignment. Backwards, sideways, upside down, MY BUTT HAS BEEN KICKED.
I don't feel less macho telling you that; blogs/columns are supposed to be honest — how you feel things — and truthfully I feel like crap.
In case you don't know it, you are reading the column/blog of a bald, wrinkly, old, donut-shaped body guy with a few pounds of titanium in his ass, ankles/wrists that don't start working until an hour or so out of bed, a back that when I finally go I will donate to a torture museum, bad sinuses, bad hearing, bad up-close vision, digestive gas issues from anything that isn't mush, a cough that is so deep I think I hacked up a lung of the guy in the room below me, and when I'm on the road, I have one whole bag just for the pills.
I'm just like you. Some way or another.
So last night, I got in early, 9:30 p.m. (left the hotel at 4:30 a.m.), ate a bad fried chicken dinner, sat on the bed to take my shoes off, and woke up at 4 a.m. in my pants, shirt, ESPN baseball cap, with one shoe on and the other still clad in a sock.
That's an arse whooping right there.
I woke up because I have clock-in-the-head disease, and for the past several days, that is the time I have been getting up. But I turned the alarm clock on the nightstand off, did not order a wake-up call, and yet, BANG, 4 a.m., there I am, P.O.'d, and awake.
Lab coats, get on that, please.
I have survived 50-mph boat rides in 38-degree weather, bustin' in on strangers in Porta-Potties, very young looking South Carolina State Cops, a possible UFO abduction, a duck named Bob, directions that include, "Down Yonder," take-your-chances drive-through fast food, a total eclipse of the moon, wearing a tie, talking to bosses, Vampire Fog, K-Pink, dinner with my sister (Missy, I didn't really mean that, and I love you dearly XXXOOO), no wife, no son, no dog (hey Riley!), roomful of people chewing tobacco and spitting it into cups I almost picked up to use, a bazillion young ladies in the hotel for a dance contest, Mike Suchan's Expo parking, an outdoor expo filled with just about the entire population of Greenville, S.C., Bowman, a parking garage arm that came down on my minivan five times as I had to get out of the minivan to get the let-me-out-of-here-card I dropped out the drivers window, and losing my reading glasses, which means I can see the computer screen, but not the keyboard letters themselves.
What I probably won't survive is covering a fishing tournament and not writing about fish.
Just in case that's what you are looking for here, I Googled 2008 Bassmaster Classic standings, and got 185,000 hits in 0.08 seconds.
Granted, many of those hits are duplicates, but not a one will lead you back to this column/blog.
I'm a new guy in an old business: ClubFish. I have been told that I need to "tone down," my writing. Sorry. I'm only going to "ramp it up."
I'm a weird looking long-haired David Crosby look-alike in Hawaiian shirts with a hula girl on my dash in a world of brush cuts, combed gray hair, and shirts with epaulets. These are very nice people, the backbone that built this business, but they are not me, and I am not them.
I won't be joining the club.
In case this career change is short-lived, I would like to ask you to do three things. Put them on your bucket list:
1. Pay attention to this bass tournament fishing sport
I'm not saying this because this sport is currently paying the mortgage, I'm saying this as a guy who has covered all sorts of sports for more than a decade and a half (2 great years at WPXI in Pittsburgh covering the Steelers/Pirates/Penguins, plus 14 years at ESPN), and once you UNDERSTAND this sport, and realize the physical pounding and strategy these athletes go through, you will come to respect it and like it as I do now. Come watch, if you can, get involved — you'll get hooked, I have no doubts.
2. Give the WBT anglers a chance
I know, I know women's sports, women athletes are always an issue in some circles. GET OVER IT. These ladies of the lake are very good at what they do. Guys, I know it's tough to give it up to the other sex when it comes to learning something new, ESPECIALLY fishing, but give them a chance. I did and I still have my balls.
3. Take someone fishing
If there is one thing on your bucket list, it HAS to be this. Take someone outside. Spend a day with them. Your wife, your husband/son/daughter/father/mother/grandparents/friend/cousins, ANYONE. Give the gift of the outside. The gift of fishing. PASS IT ON. You'll find out, as I have, it's not about the fish
it's about YOU. About all of us.
Anglers no more
I'm back behind the curtain where the wizard lives.
The Internet guys, and lady, who somehow get the stuff I write in my computer into your computer. Warts and all.
You never see them, or hear their names. Until now. Matt Barnette, Fred Lalande, Mike Suchan, Perry Brooks, Belinda Dougan, Jon Walker.
Public shout out to you.
These are the folks, a few of just many, who make us look good, or in my case, strange.
Teamwork. The team that brings you the coverage of the athletes out on the lake.
And yes, you read that right, ATHLETES.
From this moment on, which for you anal retentive types is precisely 7:17 p.m. on Friday 2/22/2008, I will never call the Bassmaster Elite Series Anglers, "Anglers" again. Period.
For the past 14 years I've covered all sorts of athletes, good and bad, on all sorts of fields of competition, and those guys out there in the fiberglass rockets have every right to be thought of, spoken to, and respected just like them. Athletes.
I just talked to Skeet Reese, the Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year, in other words, this sport's MVP, and the guy who almost killed me Tuna Fishing.
When you almost have someone pulled overboard and lost in the Atlantic after you hand them your reel with a big arse fish on the other end, you pretty much tell him mostly the truth when he asks you something, plus he knows I know his wife, Kim, and she DOES tell me the truth.
This was his schedule as told to me as we leaned against a cement pillar in the bowels of the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.:
• 3 a.m. Got up to begin a stretching ritual and getting focused.
• 4 a.m. Got on a bus to be taken to his boat.
• 5:30-6: a.m. Skeet and his boat hit the water, I don't know the actual time because Steve Bowman brought donuts to the Media Trailer and I had to excuse myself a minute.
• 7 a.m.: I confirm he's on Lake Hartwell because from somewhere at the end of the dock I hear "Hey Boner," shouted out which is what he calls me and WON'T stop.
• 7:15 a.m. He casts off, or leaves the dock, or heads out, or whatever the term is but I know he's leaving because he gives me a thumbs up, or some other digit.
• 3:15 p.m. He comes back to the dock, I was getting Starbucks but I saw it on the net and I believe everything I see on the net.
• 5ish He's sitting on his boat ready to be introduced to the crowd in the Bi-Lo Center (actually he's sprinting down a hallway in the back of the Bi-Lo Center heading to the John, he may deny that but I have witnesses and couldn't resist typing it).
• 6 p.m. He's talking to the media and doing some radio commercial where he howls at the end (frankly sometimes he scares me).
• 6:13 p.m. I looked at my watch because by this time I knew I was going to write this and needed to start paying attention.
Skeet and me are leaning against that above mentioned cinder block, and I ask him this, "Dude you done." Skeet: "You lazy ba-----d, DONE, I've got to get back in the truck and take it back to the boat yard "
A few minutes before I heard him up on the stage announce this to the crowd, "I'll be over at the Outdoor Expo tonight come on over I'll sign some autographs and talk some fishing with you."
So since he said that all public like I asked him about it: Me, "What are you nuts." Skeet, "No, no big deal Boner."
Me: "So what time will you get back to the lockeroom eh the Hyatt." Skeet: "About 9:30 p.m."
That folks is being on your game for 18 1/2 HOURS.
With no breaks between innings. No breaks between quarters. No halftimes. No commercial breaks on the water. No toweling off between sets. No time outs. No mind-numbing stoppage for instant review which is actually never instant.
K-Pink came over to where I was typing and sat down with a warm cup of coffee, and him being a writer too, and a friend also, I didn't mind him piping up as I was typing: K-Pink: "That's pretty much about normal, don't forget practice we're out there probably 14 hours a day before the tournament."
Then we talked as friends, he told me that all the while on the water he never stopped ... never ate anything never stopped standing and fishing. That would be from 7:15 a.m. until 3:15 a.m. 8hrs or a 32-QUARTER athletic performance.
The last athlete to have his fish weighed this night was Steve Kennedy. He told Mike Suchan, who I trust completely (he edits these stories, so whenever I have a chance to bribe him, I do) he got up at 3:50 a.m. (Mike was told this about 7 p.m.) and that, "I won't be getting my 8 hours tonight." Not even close.
As Skeet was leaving he put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in and said to me, " Tomorrow we do it all over again."
And he smiled, the same smile I've seen on hundred's of professional athletes when they talked about their sport, took to their field, walked down the long hallway in the bowels of a stadium all alone
thinking only of the next TD, the next at bat, the next turn four, or, the next tournament cast.
Classic Day 1
Outside my minivan is a South Carolina State Trooper, or whatever the cops in the wide brim hats are called around here.
It is exactly 5:03 a.m. on my dashboard clock, but since that's the "can't be late" ESPN time, and 10 minutes fast, it is 10 minutes worse than that time outside where that cop is standing.
In the pouring rain. Coming off in streams from his wide brim cap.
And under that hat, what looks like to be a brush cut 15-year-old. Young, man, young. And he's not smiling.
This is what he is looking at: Me. db. Which at pretty much anytime of the day can be a shocking sight but much more so at 5:03 a.m. minus 10 minutes.
I have on a $1.99 CVS Buddy Holly style reading glasses, one part of the lanyard holding my media-let-me-in-badge is actually stuck up under one ear the cop side ear my ESPN cap is on backwards, which my wife says is stupid looking but I don't wear hats much and every time I see the brim it shocks me, I'm mid swill of my morning coke with vitamins (which I unfortunately just popped into my mouth with the cop outside), to keep me awake I have ZZ Top playing on my iPod and the volume slide indicator is all the way over to the loud end, and just about 5 seconds before the cop walked up to the minivan my dashboard hula girl's grass skirt came undone.
The cop's eyes are dancing back and forth from me to the dashboard hula girl as he approaches the minivan, which at that very exact moment I hit the down button for the window just as the windshield wipers sweep the windshield clean, and straight on to the cop.
"Where you going?" the cop says, with each word the brim of his hat launches raindrops my way so I raise the window half way, not actually seeing his hand on the sill there.
And then he leans INTO my half open window, sees my Media Badge, which I'm trying to find forgetting it's actually around my neck and left ear, and this is what the South Carolina cop says to me: "You go right on in and you have a nice day (then he leans in farther and sort of says out of the side of his mouth) and you tell them BASS boys out there good luck and to be careful. We thinkin' of them."
Welcome to the Bassmaster Classic, South Carolina Style.
It's a Toyota Minivan weather gauge 36-degrees out there, and something I can only describe as "pouring mist." If you've been in it you know what I'm talking about, wild mist that seems to get the water everywhere regardless of what kind of rain gear you may think will protect you.
It's dark. I can hear the lake, but I can't see it. I see no faces, only clouds of breath shooting out from under hoods. I see no hands, only finger tips which tells me the people are here to work, not watch.
You can't see the reflection of the spotlights in the puddles on the ground, now it's a nasty mist. Grass is becoming mud, pavement revealing lakes, no one saunters, it feels like even the sharp breeze is looking to get inside.
And into all this, 50 anglers and their boats are being backed, one by one into the dark where the lake is. The water and mist shrouding the prize.
As one boat goes in, an empty trailer gets towed out, the water from the lake mixing with the water in the air to form a river on the ramp.
You hear voices, but see no lips, a choreography of fiberglass boats and Tundra Trucks, of anglers and observers, of photographers and fans.
And the air gets madder, the rain turning up the speed so much so you can hear it bang on your hood. But the Classic dance of boat and truck never stops.
Trust me, it's nasty, most heads are bent, most hands shoved to the end of the pockets, feet moving to keep warm, and hopefully dry. And the pomp goes on, Rock-n-Roll music blares as the fiberglass rockets launch, a helicopter rushes over head, its blades in beat with the song, a 30-foot-high air filled balloon thing in the shape of a Mercury engine sways in the wind, four young guys, naked from the waist up, each one with a letter painted on their back:
B A S S.
And the rain gets madder.
Parts of the tent over the launch dock starts to leak, streams cascade onto the slats of wood. People everywhere. A sea of Red, Blue, Yellow, Black, Camo rainwear, and yet the people are still wet. Soaked.
And then, through all this spectacle, I notice something, a tiny thing, one sight among thousands, but the one I will never forget.
I was under the leaky tent leaning up against one of the poles that may or may not have caused the leak, and I was looking back toward shore. The muddy shore.
I was watching a garbage bag. A white one. On a rock.
Every time an angler boat went by, the garbage bag stood up. And out of it came a tiny hand, and it waved at every boat that went by.
The garbage bag may have been 4-feet high, hard to tell from where I was standing, but as the boats came by faster, the white garbage bag just stood there and waved.
And from the lake, from the boats, a wind blew, and the garbage bag bellowed out, and back, and out from underneath it came the face of a child.
On that face, a huge grin. The smile bigger with every boat.
And suddenly, the weather didn't matter any more.
Beaten by a wave, a smile, and a child in a white garbage bag poncho.
This little piggy
So, what do you say to a local angler who FORGETS to latch the launch ramp Porta-Potty door?
A Porta-Potty that, just for sake of argument, you needed to get to quickly after a cold/bumpy/wet media boat ride, the main overall result of which was getting your morning coffee to kick in.
Coffee that makes you a tiny bit not as observant as you should be and in a huge semi-hurry making you fling the door open wide.
So wide that you jump on in only to find the local angler sitting there, with his Camo Bib overalls down around his white-sock-ed ankles and frankly, not camo-ing anything.
And as an addendum here, I might add that should this ever happen to you, it might be best to IMMEDIATELY shut the door instead of standing there with it all open and hanging out, so to speak, trying to apologize for the "morning coffee run."
Because the local angler may seem to forget about being all nice and friendly to the bass guys when they have their tidy-whitey BVD's sitting about mid-calf.
So consider yourself warned.
And there I stood, just me and the cold late morning breeze. And this local angler with just his ownself, mid-toilet paper pull.
Oh: Also, if you find yourself in this situation, it's best to think quick on your feet and not let your eyes to go a wandering while you think of something to say. I assure you other local Greenville, S.C., anglers have instructed me about the correct out-of-town-while-being-a-fish-journalist-invading-your-town/toilet etiquette since.
But this being my first Classic and all, I need to find out a lot of information for my several thousand bosses down here so they can justify putting me in the Hyatt and not Bob & Betty's Fake Knotty Pine Motel/Kennel down the road.
I remained a dedicated fishing journalist. Instead of saying, "oh crap sir, sorry, sorry, sorry" and "yeah I know it's cold out here " and discussing all that cold can do
But in reality this is the only thing I could think to say to the man with the BVD's around his ankles: "You fish much?"
Now, mind you, I don't have the door open just a crack or so. (Did I mention that I WAS IN A HUGE HURRY, MORNING COFFEE AND ALL?)
I had just flung the gray plastic door wide open. I was just going to jump right in, only to find this local angler already over his spot, so to speak. Instead of being all polite-like and closing it to give the man his due, I stood there with the door open, asking him a fishing question. And I don't even live here.
And this is what happened next: HE ANSWERED THE QUESTION. Honest to God, I'm really starting to love this Southern hospitality stuff about now.
The mid-poop local says this to me, "Yep sir, on it about 2-3 times a week for the past 20 years or so."
NOTE: So as to not have the reader assume anything while I'm sure that answer would suffice for being on the crapper what the "on" stood for was Lake Hartwell, which was just about 20 yards behind and down wind of the local on the toilet.
I was politely shutting the toilet door on the local but if I wasn't so new at all this and still very concerned the fish/outside/BASS bosses are re-thinking this hiring-Barone thing with just about every column/story/blog I send in I wouldn't have RE-OPENED the door on the guy.
Thankfully, he was not any more advanced in what he was doing. I asked him what's called in this biz the "follow-up question".
db: "I hate to bother your again, but you know, since I have you here, any advice on what you might think would win this thing? You know, dude so I can lock in my fantasy picks?"
And this is the 20-years-of-BASS-fishing-Lake-Hartwell advice the local angler gave, on the toilet: "I'd use a Pig & Jig just a little bit off rock formations on the shore, and if it gets the cold spell we're expecting, I'd still use the Pig & Jig but just back it out into open water because the fish will move out from the banks just a bit to stay warm. Might be mindful of the dam, if they open it up, that will cause the fish to move as well."
Southern Hospitality right there, at its best. Some guy who knows the lake stopped what he was doing sort of and gave me some great inside advice.
And then I shut the door, jumped in my hula-girl-on-the dashboard minivan and shot over to the nearest convenience store, where I knocked real hard on the door before lunging on in.
True Story except the part I left out about buying two bags of those little white sugar frosted donuts as I was leaving the store, since I promised my wife Barb I would, "Try to at least lessen my donut eating habit."
For her, at this point, I will say, "Not true, honey. I just did my business and left the store all the while — only thinking of you."