After 2 solid seasons on the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2008-09, Byron Velvick's performance dropped off dramatically last year despite a victory in the second event at Clear Lake. It turns out there was a valid reason for that.
The 46-year-old was in a great deal of pain. His right arm and hand were often completely numb and the discomfort at the base of his neck and in his skull was often so severe that he completely skipped practice days.
Thirty years of high-speed boat operation in all kinds of conditions and the movements associated with tournament fishing had taken their toll. He had nerve damage in his spine and the condition was getting progressively worse.
He underwent spinal-fusion surgery in October and will likely sit out the upcoming season. He said he was told by his surgeon that he should be back to normal by early summer, but the rigors of tour-level competition during March, April and May might be too much, too soon.
His name was absent from the list of 2011 Elite Series anglers released by B.A.S.S. this week. He said he hasn't made his final decision about whether to fish this year, but he's leaning toward a 1-season hiatus.
"Like anybody else who does this for a living, all I want to do is fish," he said. "I don't want to be sitting on the sidelines.
"It's kind of like (NFL quarterback) Brett Favre – I don't want to be on the injured-reserve list, I want the decision on whether I can go or not to be made on the day of the game. I don't want to be ruled out this far before kickoff."
Tried to Let it Slide
Velvick said he ignored the problem for about a year and a half before attempting to have it fully diagnosed. There were times when the pain was particularly bad, such as at last year's Classic, when he was forced to visit the Birmingham, Ala. clinic of renowned sports surgeon Dr. James Andrews in a quest for some relief.
When he finally addressed it head-on late last summer, he learned that the condition was degenerative, akin to arthritis of the spine, and was causing his right hand to physically shrink. The issue was in the C6 and C7 vertebrae, where there was a bone-on-bone situation due to the wearing away of cartilage.
He said his Clear Lake victory was achieved purely through adrenalin – he was on a sizzling swimbait bite and the pain was minimized during periods when the fish were turned on. He cashed a check in the next event at Smith Mountain, but then finished no better than 60th in the season's last five events.
"Even at Clear Lake, if you watched the (TV) show, you'd see me make a cast and then put my arm down and shake it," he said. "That's because I was trying to get the feeling back in my hand.
"When you're jacked up on a swimbait bite on your favorite lake, it's a lot easier to ride out the pain. The hardest times were when the bite slowed down – it hurt 10 times worse."
Some Replacement Parts
In addition to the fusion of joints, Velvick's operation (which was performed at the Western Regional Center for Brain and Spine Surgery in Las Vegas) included the placement of two plastic inserts, six titanium screws and a titanium plate. He left the facility that same day following the 2-hour procedure, but spent the next 5 days flat on his back in bed.
He wore a hard neck brace for several weeks thereafter, but has now switched to a soft version. He's prohibited from driving for now because of his inability to rotate his head to check the blind spots.
Thus far, his rehabilitation has consisted mostly of cardiovascular work, as he's been warned not to lift anything heavier than a milk jug. He looks forward to the opportunity to get the rest of his muscles working again.
"It's been a climb-the-walls kind of winter," he said. "I've felt like a total couch potato. I've never watched so many movies in my life."
If he doesn't fish this spring, the one-time star of "The Bachelor" plans to do additional TV work and add some outdoor-show appearances to his schedule. He said all of his sponsors have been supportive and have told him they'll stand behind him as he completes the rehab process.
Naturally, he wishes he hadn't waited so long before getting the problem pinpointed.
"I was just afraid of what I was going to hear. I was afraid of somebody telling me I had to quit immediately when I was out there trying to catch a bass."