The February 2004 FLW Tour event on the Atchafalaya Basin featured an even 200 anglers in the field, but for me it’s notable not just for who did fish, but for who didn’t make it to the event.
Do you remember which angler was supposed to fish that tournament but never made the first cast?
For John Sappington, missing the check line wasn’t the real tragedy in 2004. He likely still had a few bucks in his bank account after winning the FLW Championship, and $260,000 in first place prize money, in 2002. He’d also made the championship in 2003, finishing 22nd.
The real tragedy for Sappington is that he almost lost his life during practice, and as a result his 2004 season ended abruptly.
While running his boat in St. Mary Parish, La., Sappington struck the cable used to pull the Cote Blanche Ferry. His boat then slid under the cable, and while he wasn’t ejected, the force was strong enough to rip off his motorcycle helmet. He was knocked unconscious and suffered various injuries – including a broken neck and back — which required that he be airlifted by helicopter to a hospital. Doctors later told him that without the helmet he likely would have been killed.
Sappington had fished the first event of the season, finishing 60th on Lake Okeechobee in January, but was unable to fish out the rest of the season.
He returned to FLW Tour competition in 2005, but suffered four triple-digit finishes in six events, never placing better than 67th. He told BassFan at the time that he strategized to stay close to the launch ramps because rough water put him in a lot of pain. He added the following:
I’m in pretty much some kind of pain every day. I’ve been getting a lot of headaches and I’ve been trying to figure those out with some different types of medication. So there’s that, and my neck and back muscles have been real sore. I just got about eight different Botox injections in my back 2 weeks ago. I have knots in my back and that’s supposed to relax the muscles to where they don’t knot up.
I’m fighting the physical aspects of it, but I certainly don’t want to focus on those. I’m expecting to come back strong and that’s what I’m going to focus on. I don’t want to get my mind caught up in worrying about any pain and just think about the fish. I know when I’m out there fishing, I still have a strong desire and a strong drive toward figuring out how to catch the fish, and I think that is the key to being a successful angler – having the desire and the drive to figure out how to catch them.
You can work around the conditions, you can work around physical limitations, you can work around a lot of different obstacles, but you have to have that mental drive to get you around them.
So that’s my real focus now – to get my endurance back. When you break your neck – I had like five different vertebrae broke, and some of those had three or four different breaks in them – you’re going to have some long-term side effects from that.
But I’d just like it all to go away, and if I can stay strong enough in my mind, and just put it out of my mind, I think I can overcome it.
The 2006 season was also a tough one. In 2007, he earned $76,500 in tour-level competition, including an 8th place result in March on Fort Loudoun-Tellico, and qualified for the Forrest Wood Cup, where he finished 18th. The following season was his last at the tour-level with FLW.
At the 2008 Toyota Texas Bass Classic he weighed in an 11-02 largemouth that earned him a new Toyota Tundra.
In 2011, he finished 3rd in the Field & Stream Total Outdoorsman Challenge, which involved events such as fly fishing, bass fishing, rifle, shotgun, endurance, archery and ATV handling.
There have been other accidents in bass tournament history. Notable recent examples include Shin Fukae and his partner hitting a bridge on Kentucky Lake in 2011. During an FLW Series event on Lake of the Ozarks, Tim Horton and his co-angler were ejected from the boat. BassFan reported at the time that Sappington was the first angler on the scene and helped the two anglers back into Horton’s boat.
At the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series event on the Mississippi River at Ft. Madison, LA, a marshall was ejected from the boat piloted by Derek Remitz.