- Mike Suchan, Outdoors
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ESPNOutdoors, in affiliation with CallingDucks.com, will provide a live streaming webcast of the World's and the Champion of Champions competition beginning at approximately 2 p.m., Saturday Nov. 27.
STUTTGART, Ark. — Gretzky had skates. Tiger had clubs.
Reece Stephens has a call.
Blowing a duck call since he was too young to dress himself might put Reece on a similar track to greatness. Growing up in an environment of duck calls with a world champion pedigree, Reece probably never had much of a chance not to call.
"He's pretty interested," his dad said. "I don't want to say he didn't have a choice, but being around it all the time, I'm thankful that he's interested in it on his own."
But both his father and his famous call instructor say it's up to Reece to see how far he takes it, and Reece said he wants to go to the top. His lofty goals are: "To win the world's three times. To win the Intermediate once. To win the Juniors. To win the Champion of Champions."
He didn't state them in chronological order, but what do you expect from an 11-year-old?
Reece can complete the first milestone in this week's World's Championship Duck Calling Contest as he competes in the Junior World's.
Anyone who spends most of their time someplace can be called a rat — a gym rat, a river rat.
Reece is duck call franchise rat.
When he visits his parents' workplace, it's duck call central.
His dad is John Stephens, president of Rich-N-Tone Calls and a three-time winner of the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest. (John is vying to join an elite group by adding a Champion of Champions title to his resume Saturday.)
Reece's mom, Angie, basically manages the RTN office, the focal point of calling in Stuttgart, the Duck Capitol of the World.
"It's just the lifestyle around here, duck hunting and everybody blowing a call," John said.
There's a storefront for RNT, its factory and warehouse for the call business, and facilities to produce TV shows. Reece has had the run of the mill since he was little, being put to work at times, learning to run the automated lathes that cut the wooden calls, among other tasks.
RNT was founded by Butch Richenback, who has taught a great proportion of the World's title holders over the past several decades, including John. Richenback still resides over his office/shop, where he hand-tunes calls. He's held youth calling clinics for decades as well.
Although too young to participate, Reece would sit it on the classes and take it all in.
"Being young, you just absorb that," John said. "I'm glad to have Butch around. A lot of time it's easier to pick up things and get points from somebody else than your dad."
When Reece started Richenback's classes, he bypassed the beginners and went right to the advanced class.
"He was blowing against people who had been taking classes for two years," Richenback said. "His dad helped him at home, I guess. I do most of the teaching with him."
Instruction now with Richenback is about 30 minutes three days a week and increases heading into the competitions.
"He just tells me if I blow good or not," Reece said. "Some days, I just walk in and he has me fix something."
Not going in blindly
Reese has always duck hunted with his dad, going out on warmer days and in the afternoons since he was 3. As sons do, he mimicked his father's every move, including calling in ducks.
"John says he is really natural at it," Angie said. "It has always been a given that Reece would hunt with John if he was not in school. Reece has not ever turned down hunting for any other interest."
Over his other pursuits of baseball — "I'm the best at baseball'' — and football, Reece didn't hesitate when he picked duck hunting and deer hunting as his favorites. John said that kind of dedication will help in trying to become a call champion.
"What I like about him, he's really interested in duck hunting," said John, recalling proof. "It was cold as all get out one morning, he hunted the whole morning and when he got back poured water out of his waders and never said a word about it."
Last Christmas showed his love and dedication to hunting. Angie admitted it probably wasn't the best thing they've done as parents, but Reece moved out to their cabin as soon as school ended and hunted every day during the break.
"He spent only Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at home," she said.
Butch teaches and John preaches ... practice.
An emergency room visit recently forced Reece to miss a session with Richenback. He was playing football with the neighborhood kids, got tackled and landed on some garden edging, cutting his knee and requiring 14 stitches.
"I thought it was just a little scrap but then I looked at it and went, 'Whoa.' It bled good," Reece said.
"It's hard for me to walk."
John asks that Reece blow about 10 of his performance routines every night.
"I'm always on him about practice," John said. "Since Butch is so good at teaching people how to blow a call, I let him learn from Butch. He'll get me to listen and I'll give him a few pointers, but mostly I keep him on the path of taking lessons from Butch. I do tell him, if you're going to do it, you have to practice."
Angie said practice is John's big thing. It's how he has won. It's how he believes Reece will win.
"John stays on Reece constantly," she said. "When we got home from the emergency room, he said 'Have you practiced your duck call?' Reece said, 'No sir.' He said, 'Go do it.'"
Both Butch and John said Reece was somewhat of a natural, possessing an ear for calling and being able to pick up nuances fast and make corrections.
"He's got talent and skill, he's just got to practice," John said. "It's not rocket science; it's blowing a duck call. It's more dedication and practice."
Richenback said practicing is what separated John during his title run, which began with his first World's title in 1995. He won again in 1998 and 2005, finished second for several years and was in the top five throughout his run.
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"John, he was always at the top," Richenback said. "He don't make mistakes. That's key. He was consistent. Consistency is the name of the game.
"Reece, he learns fast. He can listen. He's got an ear for it. When it comes to contests, that's where you separate (from calling in ducks). Not everybody is a contest blower, no matter how hard they want to be. Reece is going to be both."
A nervous squawk
Reece has performed in front of crowds and is getting more comfortable doing so. The fifth-grader at Meekins Middle School was invited to show fellow students what competitive calling was about and gave the kids an ear-opener.
"They had their hands over their ears," he said.
The Stephens have taken him on the road for competitions this past year, getting him acclimated to the pressures of competitive calling. He placed fifth in a Juniors competition in Liberty, Mo., after squawking in the first round. Then he made the cut against adults before taking second in the 16 and under division.
"I knew I squawked," he said. "I get nervous a lot. I just shake."
John also said that he still gets nervous, that it's normal and being in enough competitions helps ease it.
Be like Butch
Callers who win three World's are retired from that competition. Only World's winners are eligible to compete in the Champion of Champions, which is held every five years. A title in the Champions competition means you can't compete in the World's again.
Only a handful of callers have won three World's and a Champion of Champions.
As Reece stated his goals, which includes three World's, Angie said, "He wants to be Butch."
Richenback mildly corrects her.
"He's going to be his dad," said Butch, who won one World's along with his Champion of Champions title. "Win three times and then win the championship."
With his environment and pedigree, it's possible. Butch and John see where Reece is now and both say he has a good shot. In World's, which has about 70 callers who qualify through regional events, a caller must differentiate himself, John said.
"You got to be a little bit creative, come up with a style and routine that separates you from everybody else," he said. "First starting out, you kind of listen to everybody and learn over the years, and once you put it all in the pot and stir it up, you start to develop your own style."
Reece has that, Butch said.
"He can blow good," he said. "He's hard to beat now. Yeah, he's real hard to beat. He's 11-year-old blowing against 13-year-olds. But that don't mean he can't win, because he can. But they're a little bit bigger than him, but he's got a good routine.
"It's harder now than it was a long time ago. The competition now is much greater than it used to be a long time ago. We'll get him there."
But no pressure. Reece is going to have to want it for himself. Butch can teach him. John can chide him to practice. But Reece has to do it if he really wants to achieve the dreamy goals of an 11-year-old.
"It's up to him if he wants to continue," John said. "If wants to go on to men's World's, we'll support and help him. I want him to do it because he enjoys doing it."
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Reece Stephens, 11, hopes to make noise like three-time champion father