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Too soon

1/9/2009

Read Christian Goodpaster's moving account of his life and final time fishing with his friend, Jose Wejebe, by clicking here to visit the "Spanish Fly" website.

Jose Wejebe never liked to address his friend's mortality directly. When they were on the water fishing, those limits seemed so distant.

But in August, a moment presented itself. Wejebe had invited 24-year-old Christian Goodpaster to the Florida Keys for a fishing trip that also had become a taping of Wejebe's show, "Spanish Fly."

Late summer is prime hurricane season in south Florida, and the trip was nearly a wash. Rain threatened all day, and while the men had enjoyed good fishing that morning, they were momentarily pinned between small storms to the east and to the west.

Floating in a channel flanked by mangroves, Wejebe asked Goodpaster, who had lived with cystic fibrosis since he was in diapers, how he wrapped his mind around the fact that his time was limited. The young writer and angler was more than four years into a double lung transplant that had allowed him to lead a more active life than he otherwise would have.

But he was approaching the point at which the survival rate for that operation drops below 50 percent, and while he appeared fit, his body had for some time been rejecting his lungs.

"Never count yourself out," Goodpaster told the fishing captain. "You never know what will happen. So just go out and live it, and make the best of it."


That interview will air on this Sunday's episode of "Spanish Fly" (ESPN2, 9:30 a.m. ET) — a show that Wejebe originally hoped would display Goodpaster's optimism and determination.

Wejebe didn't know at the time of its taping that it would also serve as a memorial. Goodpaster, of Elizabeth, Ind., died on Dec. 18 in Durham, N.C., while awaiting another lung transplant.

His obituary (located here) noted his love of fishing and writing; he was studying journalism at Indiana University Southeastern. It cites Wejebe as "his dear friend and idol."

For Wejebe, the feeling was mutual. They first met in 2000, when the Make-A-Wish Foundation helped place Goodpaster in a RedBone tournament, where he fished with Wejebe.

"I didn't even want to fish," Wejebe said. "I just let Christian stay on the bow. He caught his first couple of bonefish there and his first redfish."

Wejebe was impressed with the skinny teenager who, by dint of an illness that made him susceptible to respiratory infections, could never play sports with his peers, but who felt at home in the woods hunting deer or turkey, or casting at a wily bonefish. They stayed friends through the years, and went fishing together on a handful of other occasions.

"He was so good with a rod and reel and in the outdoors that I think it was the only time he felt whole," Wejebe said. "He felt normal, or above normal. He was an incredible fisherman, really and truly."

Fishing always gave Goodpaster a goal to look forward to, a reason to keep himself in shape even when at a low ebb. He taught himself to tie flies while he was hospitalized and wrote about the outdoors when he was bedridden.

An account by Goodpaster of his life and his final trip with Wejebe can be found on the Spanish Fly web site. In it, he describes a dedication to fishing that led him to lug his oxygen tank and tubes to the ponds around his apartment complex, braving the stares of University of North Carolina coeds, just to cast for bass. Within weeks, he wrote, he became known as the "oxygen tank fisher."

"He never felt sorry for himself, ever," Wejebe said. "And I know that he struggled with not being like normal kids, but never once did I remember him being mad about the hand he was dealt. In facing some of his limitations, he looked at the positive."

And if there was any possible way to take the opportunities he was offered, Goodpaster made it happen. Wejebe got the sense from Goodpaster last summer that he knew his time was short, so they hustled to get in their last fishing trip, despite the high odds of crummy weather.

Goodpaster managed at one point to boat a torpedo-sized barracuda, but it was a long battle with a permit that stands out. As Wejebe coaxed the fish to the skiff, the young man called, joyously, "That's what we live for, right here." Then, he added, "Or I do."

Read Christian Goodpaster's moving account of his life and final time fishing with his friend, Jose Wejebe, by clicking here to visit the "Spanish Fly" website.

"Spanish Fly" airs every Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET on ESPN2.