By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
The intricacies of bass fishing are lost on most of Matt Lee’s classmates and friends at Auburn University.
So when the 24-year-old Cullman native attempts to explain how big of a deal it will be to compete in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic Feb. 22-24 on Grand Lake (Tulsa, Okla.), he figures he’s better off sticking with golf references.
“I try to compare it to how a couple of amateurs get a shot to play in the Masters,” Lee said. “If you’re lucky enough, you go from playing amateur tournaments every weekend to playing against Tiger (Woods) and Rory (McIlroy). Your whole world changes.”
Lee’s life has indeed changed quite a bit since July 29, 2012, the unforgettable day Matt earned an emotional victory over his brother, Jordan, to clinch the College Bassmaster Classic. Six months have passed and the spotlight has yet to stop following Matt’s every move.
He’s practically considered a celebrity by his friends at school and back home in Cullman. Lee has also gained the full support of college anglers all across the country, which for those who aren’t aware, means he has an overwhelming amount of young fishermen looking up to him and rooting for his success at the upcoming Classic.
“It’s just crazy because there are thousands of college guys who are great anglers, but only a few people get the opportunity,” Lee said. “When you’re blessed to have the opportunity to do something like that, you want to make the most of it.”
In addition to securing a berth in the sport’s biggest event, Lee was also awarded a brand-new truck and boat this past September. Both are fully wrapped in his college’s familiar orange and blue. In a football-crazed state like Alabama that lives and breathes for the annual Iron Bowl, the decked-out vehicles have made for some interesting encounters between Lee and a few passersby who notice him on the highway.
“When you represent one of those schools, it just adds to it even more,” he said. “Everybody thinks it’s Cam Newton coming to town. I can’t even stop and get gas.”
That last little comment isn’t a joke. While fueling up in Cullman at 4 a.m. one early December morning for a trip to Oklahoma to take advantage of a practice period on Grand Lake, Lee was unexpectedly approached by a man who had noticed his flashy truck-and-boat combo.
“He looks at me and says, ‘You’re Matt Lee, right?’” Lee recalled.
Though Lee initially assumed the man was a Cullman resident who had somehow heard about his College Classic title, it turned out the fellow was a Kentuckian who just happened to be in town for work. He told Lee about how he had watched the tournament on TV and wondered if the budding angler would sign his hat.
“It was crazy. Here’s this guy from middle-of-nowhere Kentucky in my hometown, and he wanted my autograph,” Lee said. “It’s just incredible how many people have heard the story. It’s been a blessing and unreal at the same time.”
While a great deal of the sport obviously revolves around catching fish and winning tournaments, Lee said anglers also have to think about marketing. Following Matt’s college championship, it’s safe to say both Lees’ brands have been on the rise.
On top of Dynamic Sponsorships, a nationwide branding firm that reaches 47 million people, partnering with Matt for winning last year’s college clash, the brothers have also signed on with company’s like PRADCO and 13 Fishing.
PRADCO is an up-and-coming business that Lee compared to Titleist, one of the top names in golf.
“If you want to be associated with a company, it’s PRADCO,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Lee said 13 Fishing is small enough of an organization that he’s been invited to its headquarters to test rods, give his analysis on various equipment and assist with future designs to make the products “better than they already are.”
“They’re trying to make the step to the next level and so am I,” Lee said. “It’s awesome to work with somebody like that.”
It’s felt like forever since Lee found out he’d be taking part in this year’s Bassmaster Classic, but the wait for the actual competition is finally down to a little less than month. As a college angler, outside expectations aren’t exactly high — the Bassmaster website’s senior writer Ken Duke put Lee’s odds of winning the title at 125 to 1, second worst out of the 53-man field — but that hasn’t kept Lee from believing he can pull off what most would deem impossible, especially considering he’ll be taking on the best the sport has to offer for only three days, not an entire year.
“A bass is a bass wherever you go,” he said. “Once you launch the boat, every guy has a good chance of winning. It’s anybody’s game.”
Despite shattering Jordan’s dream by claiming the college crown for himself, Matt said his brother has stuck by his side and been a huge help in preparing for the biggest tournament of his life. That’s not much of a surprise to Matt, who said he genuinely feels he’s a better angler because of the competitive drive he and his sibling have developed over all the years they’ve been fishing together.
“I think I owe a lot of my success to him,” Matt said. “He’s been my biggest fan, he’s been very supportive and that means the world to me.”
Of course, Matt hasn’t forgotten a different family member who introduced him to the sport in the first place — his grandpa. With a leisurely activity like fishing that can turn pretty expensive when taken as seriously as the Lees do, Matt said he wouldn’t be anywhere in angling today without the support of his parents and his family.
“If I didn’t have that, it wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “They might not realize, but when families take their kids fishing, that’s what really grows the sport.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.