RUSKIN — As Capt. Joel Brandenburg began explaining the rules for the inaugural Mary and Martha House Hook-N-Sink Fishing Tournament, he spotted Chuck Statham out of the corner of his eye.
"Hey, are you the guy in the kayak who wins all the tournaments around here?" asked Brandenburg, who heads AnaBanana Fishing and oversaw the charitable tournament last week out of Little Harbor Resort.
Statham grinned like the Cheshire Cat and said, "No comment."
The smile, however, told a deeper story. It's one of resilience, buoyed in part by the love Statham developed for fishing after a life-altering moment more than 20 years ago.
In 1989, just months after he graduated from East Bay High, a drunken driver struck Statham while he was riding his motorcycle. The accident resulted in the loss of his left leg, but thanks to the support of friends and family, he didn't lose his zeal for life.
Growing up in Ruskin, Statham played basketball, baseball and practically every other sport that caught his attention.
But what could he do now?
He answered that question in the years that followed by turning to fishing. It began when Capt. Ric Liles offered to take Statham on one of his charter boats if Statham, a draftsman and graphic artist, designed a logo for his Reel Simple Fishing Adventures.
"He pretty much taught me a lot about the water," said Statham, who turned 41 this week.
Eventually, the hobby became a passion, particularly when it comes to competitive fishing. The kayak, which some would see as a disadvantage, actually plays to Statham's strength because as he notes, with a prosthetic leg it's difficult to stand on a fishing boat.
"You would not believe how hard he paddles," friend Mike Wier said. "When most people stop, he just keeps his cadence going."
Thanks to Westcoast Brace & Limb, Statham has a prosthesis specifically designed for the kayak. The smaller boat allows for easy mobility — he doesn't need a boat ramp — and it can go into shallow water.
That's important considering Statham is more like a hunter than a fisherman, according to friend Chris Rabelo.
"He knows the waters," Rabelo said. "On a calm day when the water is like glass, he will see it move in a certain way and know that's where the fish are. He can spot unnatural patterns in the water."
Statham enters up to 20 tournaments a year, and while he doesn't win them all, he's usually among the leaders. His success actually has helped him earn a sponsor, K9 Fishing Reels. He also endorses DOA Lures.
Fishing is just part of what helped him recover from the accident. His mother, Georgiann Hicks, proved one of his biggest supporters. The single mother of three took the strength that helped her persevere through tough times and lent it to her son after the accident.
He also draws inspiration from his wife of 11 years, Latrell, and his sons Noah, 9, and Caleb, 7.
And in case you're wondering, Statham did indeed take top honors at the Mary and Martha House tournament. The combined length of his three grand slam fish: snook, grouper and red fish — was 77 1/2 inches, one-half inch over his nearest competitor.
When he stepped up to get his prize, Statham flashed his trademark grin and after learning about his story, the other competitors smiled with him.
Ernest Hooper can be reached at email@example.com.