Jacob Wheeler, a 20-year-old angler from Indianapolis, Ind., didn't just win the BFL All-American at Cross Lake in Louisiana last weekend. He blew the roof off with a 9-pound victory and became the youngest All-American champ in history.
The BFL (formerly Red Man) All-American, the most coveted amateur title in the sport, has launched or cemented many a career over its long and illustrious history. From Shaw Grigsby, Jr. to OT Fears, from Joe Thomas to Stephen Browning, an All-American title grants instant recognition and prestige.
Yet it doesn't guarantee a career. It builds the door, but the winner still has to find a way to open it and eventually walk through. Which is never easy in a sport that chews up finances, marriages and muscles at a shocking pace.
Wheeler doesn't seem the type of kid who'll blow it, though. He knows the value of money. There's no safety net for him. He doesn't own a boat he borrows one. His only "work" is fishing weeknight jackpots to earn his weekend entry fees. Thus his All-American victory is an all-American story: The kid raised with want and nothing in his pockets, but everything in his heart, who followed his dream with a fire and passion few persons could match.
Which is one reason past All-American champ Joe Thomas looks at Wheeler and says: "It's a Cinderella story. I don't have any doubt in my mind he's going to make it and be one of the best who's ever played this sport."
Sees the Door
"This is all I do," Wheeler told BassFan. "Literally, I fish Tuesday-, Wednesday- and Thursday-night tournaments to basically make money throughout the week and have enough to fish tournaments on Saturday. I fish every day. I borrowed a friend's boat last year to fish the BFLs and I borrowed my uncle's this year.
"My dad told me: Jacob, this is your dream. I'm going to give you a couple of years. I want to see you succeed.' So I said, 'All right. I'm going to try to make it and give it 3 hard years of fishing.' I still live at (home). Last year was my first year of the BFls. I won the first BFL I ever fished and that $3,500 basically financed the whole year with all the little jackpot tournaments. That's how this whole year went. I haven't worked at all. I'm just ate up with it. It's just crazy."
Thus Wheeler stands on the brink the door lies before him. A kid, raised with virtually nothing, has $100,000 in his pocket and a dream.
To be honest, he said, he's not quite sure what to do next. Thomas helped mentor him to this point the two met when Wheeler made the final showdown of the Ultimate Match Fishing Federation championship but Wheeler's going to need to sell himself to the sponsors. A tall order for a weekend angler with a limited rιsumι. Yet the timing is opportune as B.A.S.S., FLW Outdoors and the industry as a whole looks to identify, embrace and entice the next class of future superstars.
However the sponsor situation might shake out, Thomas said he'll vouch for Wheeler right now: "Jacob will become one of the best. That's a prediction, but I think that to this point, all he's lacked is funding. Even as young as he is, he can already compete at the top of the heap. If he can get the right equipment and funding, which he's going to have now to some degree, I think he'll be as good as any that's ever been. I've fished with him a lot seen him first-hand. He won the Indiana state junior championship like 3 years in a row. He's a prodigy."
According to Joe Thomas, Wheeler could become one of the best anglers the sport's ever seen.
Thomas added: "Jacob probably has as much natural talent as I've ever seen. But I think the biggest thing he has going is this is his total life focus. He fishes in the middle of winter, when it's so cold you can hardly be out here. To my knowledge, it's the only thing he's ever wanted to do. I already told FLW, 'If you can get him, you'd better get him he's the real deal.' If you want somebody for the long haul who can play the game, he's it. He made those guys at Cross Lake look like a bunch of amateurs."
Wheeler confirmed what Thomas said fishing as his life's focus and goal with stories about being laughed at on career day in second grade with a push-button rod and bag of worms, or watching televised championships when he was 7 years old, then telling his dad that one day he'd win them.
"It's just always been my dream and to know that now there's the possibility of really becoming a professional fisherman - it's crazy," Wheeler said. "I'm going to do some really hard looking right now. I have some thinking to do, that's for sure. I have to reassess the situation and look at everything see if I can get the support. But there's a very good possibility that you're going to see me out there on the tour next year."
Still a Dream
Several days after he was handed his $100,000 check at the All-American, Wheeler's still reeling his head spinning with concepts and his heart thumping with what he accomplished, then what comes next.
From who he beat, to who he'll face at this summer's Forrest Wood Cup, to where and what he'll fish next year it almost seems too much for the 20-year-old to comprehend. But it's not. He knows exactly what he did, where he is, and what the door directly in front of him looks like.
"It still sort of hasn't sunk in yet words can't really describe it, but it's really to where I still feel like I'm in a dream," Wheeler said. "It's been several days now, and guys like Joe Thomas and Shaw Grigsby the (All-American) helped launch their careers. To be the youngest ever to win the All-American, it's huge, because you have to go through so much just to get there. And then beat 49 of the best guys in the BFLs and Federation everything has to line up perfectly.
"I'm still speechless. I still can't believe it. But honestly, what means most to me is the doors this might open."
> Indianapolis anglers actually claimed two major amateur championships this year. Alan Boyd (Salem) won last month's TBF National Championship and the Living the Dream prize package that goes with it. Like Wheeler, Boyd has always wanted to fish at the tour level.
> Wheeler's All-American winning pattern details will be published shortly in a separate story.