I went to the Bassmaster Elite Series tournament in Palataka, Florida last Tuesday afternoon looking for a payphone - the payphone that helped change the life of the one person that shaped my life, more than any other, beyond my own parents.
“Palatka will always be special to me. When I won $100,000 at Super Bass there in 1983, I walked across the parking lot from the weigh-in, called Tammy on a payphone, and told her I was quitting my job as a fisheries biologist to be a full-time pro angler, and that she might as well quit her job too, so we could travel together,” Ken Cook once told me.
By Tuesday evening, I hadn’t yet found the payphone during my first two hours in town.
So at dinner, craving a connection beyond the “Ken” printed on the left heel of my Nike Shox, and “Cook” on the right heel – I asked my longtime friend, and veteran pro angler, Shaw Grigsby to tell me about his memories of Ken at the ’83 Super Bass event over a plate of Boston Butt bbq at Terry Scroggins’ house.
“Ken won it, and got a hundred grand, and I finished like 11th and won $2,000,” laughed Grigsby. “I didn’t know Ken at that particular time, but I certainly got to know him in the years that followed – and I’ll always carry a piece of Ken Cook with me,” he added.
Me too, Shaw – but by Sunday – the final day of this year’s event – I still hadn’t spotted a payphone near weigh-in.
What I did see was 69-year-old Rick Clunn win the $100,000 event.
“Your hero did his thing,” came an immediate text from my mom in the moments after Clunn hoisted the blue and silver trophy, as she watched on Bassmaster.com back in Western Pennsylvania.
Wait! What? I thought Ken Cook was your hero?
Along with Clunn.
In my Juniata College and University of Oklahoma dormitory rooms – you’d have found photos of three anglers. Ken Cook. Gary Klein. And Rick Clunn.
Speaking of college – I attended my first two Bassmaster Classics during that time period. Rick Clunn won on a Poe’s RC1 crankbait in 1990 on the James River, and Ken Cook won with a Hart willowleaf spinnerbait the following year on the Upper Chesapeake Bay.
Today - 26 years later - a replica of Clunn’s winning RC1 crankbait sits on my kitchen counter in Skiatook, autographed by Rick Clunn with the words “There Are No Limits.”
I look at it every day.
What I took from Ken Cook and Rick Clunn more than anything in the formative years of my adult life … were inspiration. During the past 21 months - I’ve sought one heck of a lot more – from Bible verses and song lyrics mostly – and sometimes, the words of friends - for Hope.
Then, nearly three months ago, we lost Ken Cook.
Near my coffee pot is a sermon note from Pastor Bill Scheer of Tulsa’s GUTS Church. It reads “Thank God for the promise that our best days are ahead of us – not behind us.”
You see, let me get really raw with y’all - I really loved the life I once knew. So convincing me of better tomorrows has been one hell of a soul grinding challenge the past year and a half.
Maybe that’s why I looked so hard for the payphone when I got to Palatka last week. A connection to Ken, sure. But also, a symbol of life changing events that lead to better things to come.
Something bigger than you and me came Sunday afternoon as Rick Clunn gave his victory speech from the stage, and I sat 15 feet in front of him on ‘photographers’ row’.
First, Clunn flooded my tear ducts with “This win is for the Ken Cook family.” I lost it – a gator tear flowed from my left eye behind my sunglasses like the St. Johns River streaks from Lake George to Jacksonville.
Then – equal to sermon notes, and his 1990 “There Are No Limits” speech, the 4-time Bassmaster Classic Champion who has arguably inspired more men to be a part of professional bass fishing than anyone else, said this:
“Don’t Ever Accept that All Your Best Moments Are Behind You.”
In that moment – I realized despite the payphone I never found - Ken Cook had placed a call to Palatka.
Rick Clunn answered.
And I listened.
“The clouds broke, and the angels cried. You ain't gotta walk alone. That's why he put me in your way.
You came upon me Wave on Wave.” – Pat Green (2003)