- Don Barone, Outdoors
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"If I had ever been here before on another time around the wheel I would probably know just how to deal with all of you"
- David Crosby
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Dateline: Here and There
If time were a road, where would you go?
Ahead, or back?
Your future, your past. Choose.
I'd go back, because the past is the future.
I'd stop to see my parents, give them another hug before they're gone.
I'd whisper in the cribs of my children of the joys to come.
I'd feel my heart leap when my bride of 35 years first said hello.
I'd watch stone turn to pyramids, watch the dinosaurs roam, be there when we became us.
Time was, time is, time will be.
Life is lived in the crossroad of what was, and what is to come. Today is dead center. Push, pull, forward, back. The stuff of choice.
No one is feeling those forces any stronger right now than Elite Series rookie Mark Burgess.
And this is his crossroads, The Diary of an Elite Series Virgin.
Dreams are what take us back and forth.
Time travel in our mind.
We fly, we love, we become King or Queen.
In our dreams.
A young man dreams of becoming President, and becomes one.
A young woman dreams of becoming President, and will become one.
Every cast floats on the dreams of past big fish, and future bigger ones. Time stands still as the reel unwinds. Everything that is possible rides on that line.
Right now, out on Wheeler Lake in Decatur, Ala., 99 guys are living their dream, La Vita Bass.
One may be having dreams of a different sort.
Dreams of falling, dreams of not having the homework done, dreams of dread, of "what have I done?"
I first met Mark at the beginning of his dream, at a boat show in Hartford, Conn. There he stood, all proud-like, you could see his success, feel it even. Straight of back, eyes up, never down, a handshake fed by confidence.
A guy who has done what you hope to do.
Forty-nine years old, married, the father of three boys, a New England guy and regional sales manager for Skeeter boats. Norman Rockwell in a tournament jersey.
This was his time, his place, he owned this patch of the convention center. And you knew it. Here was "The Pro."
A rookie in name only, as he told me, "I've been fishing tournaments around the country for a decade now." He spoke of having charts of all the upcoming Elite lakes, of spending several hours a day preparing his tackle, his boat, his self.
Bass was his language, he spoke of large and small of mouths, of boats and motors, of flippin' and pitchin', crankbait and other Bass nibbles, and of reverence of becoming a Bassmaster Elite Pro and, "Fishin' for a livin'."
And this is what I said to him, exactly: "Uh huh ... good ... well dude ... welcome to the NFL."
Looking out the ear hole
Several years ago I spent a few days at the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. Myself, and the "Media Man," my camera guy from the local NBC Affiliate WPXI in Pittsburgh.
We lived with the players, we joked with the players, we ate with the players, we showered with the players (which frankly was a brutally humbling experience), we practiced with the players — them running around smacking into each other, me on the sideline hiding behind the huge tight end Eric Green so I wouldn't get crushed.
In between the hash marks, dreams were made, dreams were broken. In front of me stood human beings with physical skills you can't imagine until you hear it up close, smell it up close, fear it up close.
Stars in midget football, high school football, college football, from towns where everyone knew their name. Always the best, always beat you, a higher plane of feet, legs, arms, hands and eyes working together as physiology meant it to be.
Spartacus in cleats these folks. The swagger of being able to move through time and space, effortlessly.
But as good as the new players were, they had never seen anything like this before. In their lives. Ever.
Ring, ring, wake up time. Mr. Good meet Mr. Great. It's a long way from the school hallway, to the Hall Of Fame.
A guy who I did some work with back then, who pretty much scared the hell out of me most of the time, Pittsburgh Hall-of-Fame Linebacker, Jack Lambert, once told me what it took to be here, and here meant, to be a professional:
db: "Ah Jack, er I mean, Mr. Lambert ... No. 58, sir ... ah what's it take to be a pro?"
Mr. Lambert is just looking down at me, sizing me up. It's why I know how a crankbait feels. He leans in and this is the exact answer he gives me:
No. 58: "Everything."
A few weeks later I was on the sidelines at Three Rivers Stadium for the home opener of 1993. I don't remember who the other team was, what the score was, or much else about the game, except this one small moment in time.
I was standing as close to the Steelers bench as you could get without stepping over the white line the NFL police put down. Eric Green was about a foot or two away, just in case.
The sound of large men running into each other mimics the sound of sofas hitting the ground after being tossed out of five-story frat houses.
Then a noise like a hubcap spinning on pavement, but muffled in leather. If you and your neighbor can still run, go outside, run lamp post to lamp post, full steam, smack dab into each other. It's the sound of humans doing something they shouldn't be doing.
As I stood there a rookie came walking off the field, looking right at me, through the ear hole of his helmet. The best of the best just got bested.
I watched as he went over to the bench, plopped down, twisted his helmet back so the face guard was actually guarding his face, pulled it off and then looked straight at me and mouthed these exact words:
"Oh My God."
Welcome to the NFL.
And all this came back to me as I sat inside a warm Skeeter trailer on a cold Lake Dardanelle day and watched Mark Burgess come in to sit down for an interview with me about his first two Elite tournaments.
It was a look I've seen before, minus the twisted football helmet.
"The demons have entered my head."
Amazing candor, but I knew it before Mark said it. I saw it in his body language, felt it in his presence, knew it from his eyes.
This was not the same man who owned the Hartford boat show.
Think about this: here was a guy destined for the corner office, the guy on your block whose house you always glance at when you drive by, Ward Cleaver in a Skeeter boat.
A guy a couple years removed from having two stents put in his heart who carries on board a sandwich bag with Nitroglycerin pills in it so his wife, Lisa, doesn't worry as much.
A guy I respect much more today for his honesty in the Skeeter truck than I did back when he was in the Skeeter booth.
Mark on Mark:
"The guys here are extremely good ... extremely good ... you think you know you can do it, but once you are shown it by these guys it's like a whole other world."
In his first two Elite Tournaments, Mark finished 84th at Lake Amistad and 92nd at Lake Dardanelle. "It really hit me hard here (Dardanelle), I'm usually very confident, but I'm losing it, the confidence."
db: "Do you think you made the right choice?"
Mark: After a long pause, a slow, "yeah."
His shoulders are hunched, hands folded in his lap. He is basically concave.
Mark: "As obvious as it is, db, fishing against these guys and saying you have to be on your "A" game doesn't even come close to describing it."
I just listen, a bartender with a notepad.
"These guys they just qualify water so much quicker, they are so much faster in being on the fish."
At this point I am not asking questions.
"And I'm beat. Back in the opens, I'm used to three to five days of practice. Here, it's two and a half days and the days run from dawn to dusk — 12, sometimes 14, hours a day — and then you have to go compete. I'm exhausted."
I had stopped taking notes long ago, you give a guy his due. When he told me he had no idea where he finished in this tournament, or where he was in the standings, you make room for a guy to get up, dust himself off, and go on.
Storm above, below ...
Decatur, Ala., 6 a.m.-ish. Lightning streaks across the sky seemingly a few feet above the Elite launch site. Dozens of Elite pros power into the parking lot, back the trailer up and launch their boats into the wind, the fury, the dream.
I'm off to the side watching the bass ballet when a truck pulls up next to me and the window powers down. Mark nods his head and smiles.
"db, you know I've been thinking about our interview, and it came to me, just what sums all this up the best."
I don't answer, I've been in the biz long enough to know that that wasn't a question, but an answer, for Mark.
"The consequences of this are just so much higher, db, just so, so much higher."
The real consequences of chasing dreams comes when you actually catch one. Now that you have, hold it, taste it, feel it, what are you to do with it?
When dreams are everything, do you have enough?
I watched Mark's empty boat float in the launch basin. I watched him hitch a ride out to it with fellow Elite Pro, Zell Rowland, and watched as Mark heads out into the storm for another day of practice on a lake he has only fished on once before in his life.
And I watched as he drifted past the no-wake zone, and hear the familiar howl of the big motor come to life as he zooms out of sight around the bend and I wondered if the demons in his head were left at the dock.
Standing there in the rain I could only think of the Steeler rookie on the bench in 1993, and how in 1996 he signed a football card for my son and proudly wrote under his name, "Pro Bowl."
Mark, welcome to the Elites my friend, but know that dreams do come true even for those who speak out of their ear hole.
That's, Deja New.
Don Barone is a member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. Other stories of his can be found on Amazon.com. For comments or story ideas, you can reach db at www.donbaroneoutdoors.com
Barone: Deja New