- Mike Suchan, Outdoors
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HUNTINGDON, Tenn. There's something about guiding an ailing youth to a turkey kill that makes grown men break down and blubber.
Successful hunts by two children who might not live long enough to get another chance highlighted the Northwest Tennessee Kids Hunting for a Cure.
"I've been praying that Dalton (Robertson, 14, of Atlanta) would live long enough to even come to this event," said Matt Sturdivant, president of the NWTKHFAC.
The night before the hunt, Sturdivant spoke with Preston Pittman of Pittman Game Calls, who would be guiding Robertson.
"I told him, 'You have to do everything in your power so Dalton can get his bird,' " Sturdivant said.
On their second day of hunting, Pittman got Robertson his bird. Sturdivant said he was elated when Pittman called to inform him.
"That little fellow worked hard for this bird," he said. "Preston was practically in tears ... he was in tears .. he was blubbering."
The other who made Sturdivant and others shed tears of joy was Aaron Warren of Fayetteville, Tenn.
Warren, 12, sat proud in his wheelchair with a gobbler at his feet feet that have never touched the ground. The joy on his face was obvious.
"It was just a godsend," Sturdivant said. "All he could move was his left arm, pretty much, and it was an answered prayer. He sat there for two hours, talking to everyone who came and asked about his turkey.
"If it was the Super Bowl trophy in front of him, he wouldn't have been as pleased."
In its first year, the Northwest Tennessee Kids Hunting for a Cure decided it wanted to go big. Those grand ambitions put more than 100 children out in the field on opening day of the state's spring youth season.
Sturdivant and his group of volunteers have worked the better part of a year to obtain land, guides, entertainment, food, auction items and places for all of the visitors to stay.
In all, more than $30,000 was raised by the non-profit organization to benefit children with cancer and other childhood diseases. Through sponsors the youth secured, they brought in around $11,000.
"That's the largest amount of money raised in a first-time event," Sturdivant said, noting that research shows the totals will double each year with continued efforts. "If that holds true, we hope to be raising a lot of money in three, four years."
Vice president Kendall Sanders said 51 percent of the proceeds will go to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, 40 percent to Clearview Cancer Institute in Alabama and the rest to Carl Perkins Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Jackson, Tenn.
Good from a frat house
Long-time turkey hunter Rod Sturdivant is pretty proud of his son, Matt. While he was enlisted to help his son secure the lands to hunt, it was Matt who was responsible for putting it all together.
The idea to benefit the children at St. Jude began while Matt attended the University of Tennessee-Martin. Matt and his fraternity brothers in Alpha Tau Omega would make annual treks from Martin to Memphis, stopping in each town and rolling a wheelbarrow around asking for donations.
"We'd go up and down the streets," Matt said. "They were pouring money into the wheelbarrow, and we'd hit every town. Once we got to Memphis, we'd go see kids and write them a big check."
Yes, one of those physically big checks designed for photo ops, but also big as in around $100,000. Word got out, the KHFAC contacted Matt and the rest is history, he said.
"For me as a parent, it's hard to believe something so positive come out of a fraternity house," said Rod, who is also amazed at the generosity of the people in the small towns and cities in Carroll County and beyond.
"We figure there's probably around 30,000 acres donated to hunt on," he said. "People are too gracious. Everybody has really pitched in. There's not any I talked to, as far as using their land, that said no.
"It's overwhelming. As word spread, people starting calling us."
Getting big names to lend their name to an event draws media, and the KHFAC hunt had them, even though some couldn't show.
Patrick Willis, who is from nearby Bruceton, Tenn., was scheduled to hunt in his hometown but recent knee surgery kept the Pro Bowler in San Francisco. The 49ers linebacker who has led the NFL in tackles in two of his three seasons would have been fined $50,000 by the team if he left town, so Matt Sturdivant advised him they would do without him, but to send some of that money for the kids.
Send Willis did, including a signed cleat for the auction.
Another Pro Bowler, Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Trent Cole, had signed up, but he canceled due to a death in the family. Nicknamed 'The Hunter' by teammates, Cole most likely would have rather been in the turkey woods; he is a lifelong hunter with his own outdoors web site.
Retired Major League baseball player Ryan Klesko, who hosts Hardcore Hunting TV, did attend, making the rounds the night before the hunt. "I know he said he had a blast," Matt said.
Jackson's Trey Teague, who served as Peyton Manning's center at Tennessee and played on the Denver Broncos 1998 Super Bowl championship team in his nine-year NFL career, summed up why athletes would take time out to attend such events.
"As a man, an outdoorsman, you're looking for a way to give back, and this is such a no-brainer," Teague said. "You know what's funny about these deals, when you first start doing them, you think, 'I'm going to go really make this kid feel better. He's been through hard times.'
"I'm very blessed to play a sport they watch on TV, but you actually leave there feeling like they really did something for you."
Deandre Pearson, who spent most of 2008 at St. Jude being treated for leukemia, was Teague's hunting partner. Pearson is serving as the manager for the Huntingdon High School football team, trying to work his way back to health so he can play again.
Despite not getting a bird on his first hunt, Pearson was all smiles around the Carroll County Civic Center, the main meeting spot for the dinners, auction, expo and entertainment.
"Their outlook on life and their positive attitude is sometimes better than ours, which is amazing because of the some of the hard things they've been through," Teague said. "Literally, you leave here and you're almost like on an emotional high for weeks and longer because they're so inspirational.
"They've been through so many things that you would think would get them down. They're usually so full of life and so positive ... Every minute they're alive, they're so thankful."
Call of the champions
The guides brought together for the hunt have much the same sentiment as Teague.
But for some of them, such as Ben Curry of Carrollton, Ala., who have spent a lifetime pursuing the wild turkey, it can be personal. Like Pittman, Curry probably felt a little pressure to bring in a bird for his youth. It's what the 43-year turkey hunter said the weekend was really about.
"What brings me is these kids," he said. "I've reached a point in my life that I really want to give something to these youngsters they've never experienced. Some of them have probably never carried a gun.
"The thing that I want most of all to see ... if we're successful, is the glee in the eyes of that child."
A longbeard in the hands of their youth turned many of the guides' eyes misty. And there were a bunch on that same mission. Matt Sturdivant said he sat down one day and tried to add up all the world calling championships won by the guides assembled.
"When we got to counting up, I got up to like 150 and just stopped," he said. "It was a lot bigger than I ever dreamed. I never would have thought starting out eight months ago we would have more than 30 world champions."
Many will be back. Matt already has received commitments from those on hand and others who couldn't make it this time.
Some even went big-time last week. Mitchell Johnson, Jim Pollard and Shane Hendershot, who finished 1-2-3 in the recent 2010 NWTF Grand National Calling Contest, entertained David Letterman and audience last week on "The Late Show."
Pollard, of Charleston, Ark, even got off the line of the night. Letterman brought out a domesticated turkey and had the three to call to it, asking them what they thought it would do.
"He's going to look at us like a bunch of morons," Pollard quipped correctly.
For the in-the-know turkey hunter, these champions and others like them at the KHFAC are the rock stars of the industry, though their fame could be a little lost on some of the kids.
"I'm not star struck," Sturdivant said. "I wanted them to be there for the kids."
Storm before the calm
The youth congregated at the Civic Center on the eve of the hunt with the smell of cinnamon-coated, roasting nuts wafting through the building. Barbecue would soon overtake it.
At the registration dinner, grandfathers brought grandsons, friends came in support of organizers, land donors arrived hungry and bought auction items and raffle tickets for an elk trip and shotgun.
The kids registered to hunt and received goodie bags, including a hat, commemorative T-shirt, a slate call, duck call, deer antler necklaces and videos on hunting and calling. Yelps and cuts echoed from kids meandering about in the turkey world melee.
It was the storm before the calm.
Eddie Lee Herndon of Jackson said that the bags alone were worth the trip. He brought his two sons, Brody and Brock, who hunted with landowner Fred Johnsey, the fund-raising coordinator.
Johnsey sells athletic uniforms to around 150 teams in the region, and through his various contacts secured loads of donated items to auction, including a Volunteers helmet, a football signed by Eli Manning, artwork, jewelry, turkey calls, etc, etc, etc.
At the cabin and hunting property he works with landowner Randy Hayes, Johnsey hosted eight people. He arose way too early and stayed up way too late to pull his heavy double duty.
The 60-year-old looked as comfortable in khakis as in camo, like he could and would do whatever it took to get the job done. Thirty-three years earlier, his brother Patrick succumbed to leukemia despite time at St. Jude. Of the four Johnsey siblings, Fred said "He was the best of the bunch."
It was clear Fred had a mission, to help however he could, to remember Patrick and do him proud.
Out and about Huntingdon
The morning of the hunt was cool, a low of 37 with light winds. Clouds a morning earlier kept turkeys in the woods, but on this day the sun brought them out to many a field.
Of the 108 youth hunters, there were 42 confirmed kills, a good percentage.
"We had 12 misses, and that gets us closer to 50 percent," Matt said, "especially when you throw in wheelchairs and kids with Tourette's and autism. It's an awesome turkey hunting area."
Colton Alldredge, 13 of Grayville, Ill., can attest. He was one who plopped a turkey down on the cardboard that covered the bird registration table. His second turkey ever at 23 pounds was bigger in body than his kill from a year earlier but not the spurs and beard. "The fan is better on this one."
The redhead was nodding off in the blind when his father, Chad, alerted him of the turkey's arrival. Guide Keith Smothers hit the slate and the gobbler came running at their Pretty Boy set-up.
"He spurred at the decoy, walked like 3 feet away, and I shot it," Colton said.
Let's go to the video
Alldredge's turkey might make a nice mount. And it won't cost him much. His dad is a taxidermist, mostly processing massive Illinois deer.
Many of the turkeys killed at the KHFAC will make it to a wall. Matt is rushing to get Warren's bird back to him.
"I took his turkey and we got a taxidermist who is fixing to drop everything to mount that turkey," he said. "In May, we hope to give him that full body mounted turkey and do a special show."
Videographers did record a number of the youth hunts. It's part of how Sturdivant hopes to spread the word.
Not only is he the regional president in Northwest Tennessee, but he's on the national board of Kids Hunting for a Cure and is in charge of startups.
He's busy now having videos of the hunts put together on a DVD.
"There's 10 or 11 videos where the guides break down bawling on camera. It's just going to be awesome," he said. "It's going to have the laughs, the cries, the kills and misses. People are going to love it."
Tennessee event has ambitious start all to benefit ailing children