The guy wins the top honor in bass fishing and shows up to his big night looking like he lost his way to a ZZ Top fan club convention—long beard, mirrored sunglasses, turquoise tie.
That’s Alabama’s Gerald Swindle, two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year and featured speaker at the Night of Champions dinner (think of it as dress-up night prior to last week’s GEICO Bassmaster Classic in Houston). The 2017 Classic didn’t pan out for the reigning angler of the year, but his pre-event speech inspired the field.
Swindle took the microphone from bombastic BASS emcee Dave Mercer on the suggestion that a second AOY elevated the angler to legendary status. Swindle—the “GMan” is one of few people in the world who can successfully exude oddity and sincerity at the same time—simply said, “I’m just a guy in funny-looking shoes that won Angler of the Year twice.”
He said it humbly, sincerely, and warned it took 12 years for him to get back up to the AOY winner’s stage, so he would talk as long as he felt it necessary. The next 13 minutes flew by with colorful stories, life lessons, and Swindle quotes.
He called out Ohio angler Charlie Hartley with admiration for his fishing passion.
“The guy fishes so hard and fishes so fast he cuts himself off three times in every tournament,” he said. That’s a Swindle quote.
“On the Mississippi River at 12 o’clock on day three and you’ve got one bass? That’s like five acres of burnt stumps ugly.” That’s a Swindle quote.
Shiny black patent-leather Converse high-tops and over-the-calf, blue-, white-, and brown-striped statement socks under a sensible suit—that’s Swindle.
Mr. Funny Shoes wove together a string of entertaining high school baseball and Pee Wee football stories to illustrate to anyone they could become the champion on the stage in the nice suit being applauded by people he admired all his life.
Passion, heart, “small ball,” faith, and a coach to keep those things in line; those were his topics.
Take away the money and the career and where would he be tomorrow? “I’d be out there fishing,” he said.
“We started with no road map, no marketing degree . . . we had a passion that was unstoppable,” he said of the early days for guys like him and 2007 Angler of the Year Skeet Reese, fishing all day and sleeping in their vehicles. “We were so broke, we put our money together [and] we couldn’t afford a number one happy meal.”
But they knew they could find a way to fish for a living, and passion for the sport kept them alive and fighting—that and God.
“God takes care of dumb people. You don’t believe it, hang out with me,” Swindle said. “Y’all think I’m kidding; He really does.”
Small ball, he said, is what got him through his 2016 championship season. That’s baseball talk for sticking to the fundamentals and doing your best at what you can do.
Playing for a small community team, that’s what was required. The little guy has to do what he can when the coach tells the team “you’re outclassed, you’re outsized, and you’re out-coached; just don’t do anything to embarrass your parents.”
“I learned what fightin’ when there was no reason left for fightin’ was,” he said. “Do the small things right and good things will come.”
He painted a bleak picture of a big game, compared his high-school opponents to the Atlanta Braves, and hinted the former could have probably beaten the latter, too. They had a grass infield—they were big-time.
Down 2-0 after the first two pitches, they turned to small ball and ended up losing 7-6 with the bases loaded.
“What I learned that day is no matter how bad you seem to be outclassed, or outsized, or out-coached, if you have the heart of a champion, you will perform at the highest level you can that day,” he said.
The tall man sporting the big beard looked back fondly on a Coach Tolliver who helped him as a little guy in Pee Wee football.
“These are grown men who come donate their time to come coach kids who pick boogers and slap each other in the head,” he said of the man.
“I was a little bitty fella,” he emphasized. “I was so small, when I wore the number one jersey half of it went down in my britches; it just look like a little comma . . . I mean I’m tiny, if I turn sideways and drink tomato juice I look like a thermometer . . . but I was fast.”
He was fast and slippery-fingered. He dropped two punts for turnovers one game and didn’t know what to do. He was lost. His confidence was shattered, and that was something every bass angler in the room could relate to, he said.
“Your confidence as a champion is gone because you don’t believe in yourself,” he said.
But Coach Tolliver told him he believed in him, and he caught a third punt on a bounce and ran for the end zone.
Swindle’s AOY season had its “five acres of burnt stumps” moments, but he stuck to small ball and pulled it out, he said. The man who believed in him was there to pick him up in his childhood, he said, then, with a lump in his throat, he said he still has a coach who picks him up every day.
“LeAnn,” he eeked out his wife’s name. “Every day my coach stood up and said, ‘I believe.’”
“If you believe in yourself, you surround yourself with great people, you have faith in God, you will achieve the dreams that you wish for. I’m living proof of that today,” he said. “I stand before you humbled; I have chased every dream I’ve ever wanted, and I stand here for the second time. I’m truly blessed.”
Blessed and sharp-dressed.
See a clip of Swindle’s speech below.