Buddy Mills watched an angler pull a 6-foot tarpon over the railing of the fishing pier and was hooked. "I've got to try that," Mills said. "If they can do it, so can I."
The 31-year-old angler always liked a challenge. If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything, he thought.
The fact that he was confined to a wheelchair didn't matter.
"You get your mind and body together," he said. "Then you go out and do it."
So Mills bought himself a $100 rod and reel. Then he wheeled himself out to the end of Redington Long Pier and started fishing.
Day and night, week after week, he kept at it. Seven or eight times, Mills hooked tarpon, but he never managed to bring one in. Then, early one morning last July, his wish came true.
A 75-pound tarpon inhaled the live pinfish he was using as bait. The fight was on. Up and down the pier the fish swam as it tried to shake the hook. Mills' friends kept him on it, pushing his chair in pursuit.
After an hourlong battle, they gaffed the fish. Mills had proved his point. "I may be in a wheelchair, but I don't consider myself handicapped," he said.
The organizers of the state's oldest and largest tarpon tournament, the Bud Light Tarpon Roundup, took notice.
This year, for the first time in its 57-year history, the tournament has a special division for the physically challenged.
"He's an inspiration to us all," said Dave Morgan, roundup president. "Some people would just sit around the house, watching soap operas, but not Buddy.
"I grew up on the Redington Pier, and I know how hard it is to land a tarpon out there. I give him all the credit in the world."
Mills picked up his angling skills on Long Island, in New York state. Every night after work, he and his buddies would head down to the water and fish for blues, weakfish and stripers.
That changed on Feb.
11, 1984. Late that night, Mills dropped a friend off at home after work. That's all he remembers.
"I fell asleep at the wheel," he says. "That was it."
Mills awoke two months later in a hospital bed. The doctor said he had a broken neck.
"He told me I would never walk again," Mills recalled. "I told him that I was going to come back and kick him in the butt. He said: "I hope you do.'
Depression set in as Mills moved from hospital to hospital. Then something happened that helped change his life.
An 8-year-old victim of a car accident, also confined to a wheelchair, checked into the same hospital.
"He was feeling pretty low," Mills said. "He loved macaroni and cheese. So I told him that if he took a step, or at least tried, I would cook him his lunch."
Two months later, after support from Mills, the boy walked out of the hospital.
"It made me feel good knowing that I helped somebody that I could get somebody up and walking," Mills said. "If somebody tells me they can't do something, I tell them they can."
Mills hopes his story will inspire other people whom society has labeled "handicapped" to accept new challenges.
"If they come down and see me (at the pier), I'll show them what they need to do," Mills said.
"Most everybody out here is willing to lend a helping hand," said Craig Pemberton, one of the anglers who helped Mills land his fish. "Anybody who wants to get into this is more than welcome."
Healthsouth Rehabilitation Hospital, in Largo, sponsors the division for the physically challenged in the tournament, which runs through July 28.
Susan TenBarge, director of therapeutic recreation services for the hospital, said anglers interested in joining the tournament or finding out more about adapted fishing equipment may call her at 586-2999. For general information about the tournament, call 344-6400.