provided by John Phillips
Mossy Oak Fishing Pro 52-year-old Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Michigan, one of the most successful bass fishermen in the nation (the winner of 4 Bassmaster Classics and the Angler-of- the-Year title 8 times), is a rapid-fire caster, consistent winner, innovative lure designer, family man, friend of the press and master of new technology and electronics. But who is Kevin VanDam really? We wanted to share his backstory with you to help you understand why he was the first professional bass fisherman selected for Mossy Oak’s Fishing Team. To learn more, visit his Facebook Page.
When VanDam was asked, “How do you strengthen your character?” he said, “People much smarter than me have said that the answer is growing through the fire of adversity.”
Without question, Kevin and his wife Sherry grew through those fires of adversity during their twin boys’ multiple weeks’ stay at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after arriving 15 weeks early. For the next six months after leaving the NICU, traveling to tournaments and speaking engagements, they watched their sons Nicolas and Jackson grow. Kevin was trying to earn money for his family by fishing and working for his sponsors. Professional bass fishermen have to be all in, learning and competing in every tournament. However, to make a marriage and a family work, the Dad has to be all in for the family. We can’t imagine how VanDam dealt with both of those commitments at the same time, but he did.
“I fished in my first jackpot tournament when I was 14 with my older brother, Randy, and when I was 16, I joined a bass club,” VanDam remembered. “Events like these led me on the path to become a professional fisherman, which I have been for the past 30 years. My twin sons, Nicolas and Jackson, have just turned 23 years old. All three of us fish and hunt together as often as possible.”
Nicolas and Jackson are fourth-year college seniors planning their future careers. Nicolas is currently earning a marketing degree, starting a business and hopes to eventually work in the outdoor field. Jackson started off in business, but has changed his route and is now enrolled in culinary school. He wants to specialize in preparing wild game and fish. He also looks forward to owning his own restaurant one day. In describing Jackson, VanDam says that he’s going to be a cook with an outdoor flair.
Here, Kevin VanDam steps back 23 years and tells the story of his sons, whose history is very much intertwined with his bass-fishing career:
“When my twins were born, one weighed 1 pound and 9 ounces and the other 1 pound and 11 ounces, which wouldn't even be scorable bass in a major bass-fishing tournament. Truthfully, caring for Nicolas and Jackson presented my wife Sherry and me with some tough challenges back then. Since the twins’ lungs weren’t fully developed, we became heavily invested in the NICU.
“At that time, my family’s total income depended on my fishing and the work I received from my sponsors. Therefore, I had to continue working, while Sherry took care of the boys. I was at home when my wife went into premature labor, and we got through the first couple of weeks with the boys in intensive care. But then I had a bass tournament at Lake Sinclair, just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I knew I couldn’t miss that tournament because if I did, I wouldn't have a chance at winning the Angler-of-the-Year title or being invited to the Bassmaster Classic. You have to remember that all of this occurred at a time before cell phones and the many other kinds of communications we have today. All I had was a pager. While I was at that Atlanta tournament, the boys had to have heart procedures. The operations happened so fast that I wasn’t able to get home in time from the tournament in Atlanta.
“I had a hard time fishing and focusing when my wife was dealing with our sons’ very serious operations. However, I was able to fish well enough to get a check to help pay for the medical bills we were incurring. My mind was really messed up during that tournament, and I wouldn’t wish that kind of problem on anyone, especially a professional fisherman who has to feed his family. My wife and I were happy to know that the boys were doing really well with the surgeries. Finally, after 13 weeks in the NICU, the doctors told Sherry, who stayed with the boys as much as she could at the hospital, ‘You know your boys better than we do. So, there’s no reason for us to keep them here at the hospital.’ That was one of the most welcoming surprises that we received during that time. When we brought the boys home, Jackson was still on oxygen, and both came home with different types of various monitors.
“After we got both boys stabilized, Sherry and the boys traveled with me to tournaments, speaking engagements, seminars and wherever my work took us. Like me, Nicolas, Jackson and Sherry grew up on the tournament trail, so tournament fishing was in their blood. During that period of time, I learned to deal with whatever problems I had each day. I didn’t try to think about the long-term issues that my sons might have, and Sherry and I were very blessed to watch our sons get increasingly better each day.”
During the first year of my twin boys’ life, I knew I had to mentally push through all of their medical problems. I had to fish as best as I could to make good money, just like any other father who would have to figure out how to make a living while his family was having a difficult time.
Truth is, I still worry about my boys, even today - that’s just what Dads do. I’ll admit that the first couple of years after they were born, there were a lot of questions in my mind about their health and well-being. Looking back on it now, I realize that our family was extremely blessed, since our sons grew so well and quickly after being born prematurely. I’m really fortunate to have a wife like Sherry who has been focused completely on whatever she needed to do to take care of the boys and continue to support me as a tournament fisherman. She spent every day, all day, with the boys when they were in the NICU so that when I was on the water, I could focus on my fishing and trying to grow as an angler. During that time, I wouldn’t leave for a tournament until I absolutely had to, and as soon as I finished tournaments, I was on my way back home to help Sherry and the boys. I felt like I had to have all hands on deck, making my family my first priority while still going to work every day, concentrating on fishing.
During those days, I made enough checks at the tournaments to help pay the bills and had very supportive sponsors. The day that Sherry went into labor with the boys, I had to cancel one of my seminars. However, that’s the only time in my career that I’ve ever cancelled a seminar for my sponsors who were very understanding of my situation. The year that our twins were born, the number of my speaking engagements slowed down. But the next year, I was back full speed doing the necessary duties for my sponsors. I learned that I had to do my job one way or another to grow as a bass fisherman.