I played and watched basketball all the time. We had a full-court just outside of our house and I had dreams of one day playing for the hometown Utah Jazz. We watched all of the games. My ball went with me most places, I even slept with it. Before my Sophomore year, I set a goal to shoot 1,000 shots per day or roughly 100,000 shots that summer. I even passed up on a mountain biking trip in Moab, Utah with two of my brothers and our church group because they didn’t have any hoops in Moab. Nothing was going to distract me from my goal. One of my high school teachers told me that I was obsessive-compulsive with basketball. It was an obsession.
I was always the kid that coaches said stuff to like, “I wish you had his height,” or “you will be a better coach one day than you are a player,” or “you have a high basketball IQ.” As a coach of my own kids’ teams, I now understand what those coaches really meant. I was not a gifted enough athlete to be an elite player, but I sure tried hard. Still my love for basketball kept me competitively playing basketball through my high school years. Since then, I have played intramural ball, church leagues, alumni tournaments, pick-up ball, and city leagues. I was much better in my 20’s and 30’s than I ever was in high school. Basketball was a stress release. Playing made me a better person. I just loved to play.
Basketball was King
I grew up above Woodland, Utah on a private 500 acre ranch where my mother was one of 26 grandchildren to inherit this heaven-on-earth. We could throw rocks into the Upper Provo River from our back deck. Brothers, cousins, and uncles all took advantage of living next to this amazing fishery, but I went out fly fishing only a few times. I was more interested in hitting rocks with my medal baseball bat over the trees lining the river or jumping in the river after playing basketball in the hot sun.
I never really got into fly fishing as a kid, for two reasons. First, my eye-sight was terrible (before I was introduced to corrective lenses), so I could never see the fly floating on top of the water (and as kids none of us were sophisticated enough to know anything about swinging a wet fly or stripping a streamer). My strategy was to cast it out there and wait for a tug on the line (which didn’t happen very often). I remember catching a few fish on the river as a kid, but I never fell in love with it. Second, my love for basketball always seemed to trump fly fishing.
It’s too bad that bodies have to age. It was a Saturday morning in January when I was 35 years old. Why is it always while playing church ball? I had the ball on the right wing and I drove middle. I went to jump stop and explode up with my left hand. the help defender must have kicked to bottom edge of my foot. Instead of landing with both of my feet flat on the jump stop, I landed with my right foot flat and my left foot rolled in with my ankle bone flat on the floor. The force from the jump stop, generated all the torque necessary to generate the snapping noise. The other players heard the snap as I crumpled to the ground. I crawled off the floor, writhing in pain. It was the most excruciating physical pain I had ever experienced.
My left ankle was done. A trip to the ER confirmed that I had torn all of the lateral ligaments in my ankle along with the one that holds the two leg bones together (the high ankle sprain one). I spent the next few weeks icing and elevating it and going to physical therapy. The bruising and swelling were unbelievable. My pain didn’t go away as quickly as the ankle sprains I had suffered in high school. My brother Joe, a Doctor of Physical Therapy, gave me exercises to increase strength and flexibility. In frustration, I asked him, “How long until I am back to normal?” He responded, “You’re not going to want to hear this, but with your age and how severe it was, probably never.” He was right.
The next few months were some of the most difficult of my life. A lack of physical exercise (and a shot of family history) led to a deep, dark depression. I had played basketball my entire life. It was my passion, my stress-relief, my escape. My entire social life with other guys was connected to basketball. A huge part of my identity and self-confidence was tied to basketball and now I couldn’t play anymore. Okay, I could still play, but not the way I always had.
Remember, I was the kid that played the way coaches wished their more talented players had played. I jumped on loose balls, I drew charges, I sacrificed my body, I showed up early, and stayed late. I could shoot a little, but without the lift in my legs, even my shot was affected. My once adequate first step wasn’t quite so adequate anymore, so everything was different. I had to do all those little things just to get by. Now, the worst injury of my life, compounded by the years of wear-and-tear, and I had lost the little explosion I had left in my legs.
One night, I finally opened up about my struggles with my wife. I had been faking it for some time and doing my best at putting on a happy face. How would she feel about being married to someone so unstable and crazy? She knew something was going on and to her credit, expressed her love for me. She encouraged me to go to seek professional help. I went to a counselor and was diagnosed with depression. The counselor referred me to a medical doctor for a prescription. My doctor was amazing. he helped me wrap my head around the situation and prescribed a relatively low dose of a “mood stabilizer” (they don’t call them anti-depressants anymore). Within days of going on the medication, I felt a million times better.
That fall, I went fly fishing for the first time since my childhood. It was a beautiful day and the water in the Upper Provo River was low. My brother Steve had an extra rod and he took me down the hill to the river and showed me exactly where to go. Somehow he knew where I was going to find a fish. I remembered the basics of casting from when I was a kid, but was mostly clueless. Steve told me that I wanted to put the fly upstream from where I was standing and right along the “seam” where the fast water met the slower water. It took me a few tries, but I finally came close to hitting the spot. For the first time in my life I could actually see the fly on the water.
When I finally hit the spot I was aiming for, in less than a second, a brook trout broke the surface of the water and gobbled up my dry fly! The fish jumped out of the water! Startled, I jumped, almost falling off the rock I was standing on. Looking down, I realized that I had a pile of loose line at my feet. There was no tension on my line or my rod. At the time, I didn’t have a clue about line management and it showed. It’s a miracle the fish was still on the line once I had reeled in all of my slack, but there she was, the first fish of my adult life.
I can hardly describe the elation I felt catching that little 8 inch brook trout. The entire experience is burned into my memory, the sound of the river, the reflection of the sun on the water, the exact rock I was standing on, the angle of the cast, and the feeling I experienced. Seeing that fish hit my fly was a feeling I hadn’t felt recreationally for a very long time. It was the feeling of success and fulfillment, similar to hitting a three-pointer in a defender’s face. After catching that fish that day, and I was hooked. I had found my replacement for basketball. I went home that day and told my wife that I wanted a fly rod for Christmas.
Fishing > Basketball
It’s been over four years ago now since my ankle injury. I still coach my kids in basketball and I still play them one-on-one. My oldest son, (entering his Junior year at a 5A school in Utah) just beat me for the first and second time recently, but I held him off for a long time. I still take my second son to his early morning practices and help out the head coach run practices. My daughter and my youngest son’s teams needed coaches, so I love coaching them too. We cheer for the Jazz and follow NBA basketball closely. I still love the game, but my love for playing the game has faded. Ten years ago, I never would have believed that I would choose a fishing adventure over basketball. Yet, that is my new reality.
For my 39th birthday, I went with my oldest son Alex, my brother Steve and his son Bryson to the legendary Green River and Flaming Gorge in Utah on a fishing trip. This is the same group that tends to go on a lot of our fly fishing adventures. Between the four of us we landed just under 100 fish. We caught big rainbows and a couple of us caught some big browns from the Green River. We camped, we hiked, we fished. Furthermore, there were no basketball hoops around and I didn’t think twice about it. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Green River Fishing Trip
The same way I felt about basketball while I was younger is how I feel about fly fishing now. It is my release, my happy place. Fly fishing takes me outside to some of the most beautiful places in the world with some of my favorite people in the world. I go there with my kids, my brothers, and friends. Sometimes I go alone. When I get out into nature and out on the water, all of the stresses of the world just melt away. Everything is reduced to a simple, straight forward, delicate task of catching a fish. No stress, only sport…my new favorite sport, fly fishing.