As a junior in high school, Dan Martin's fishing future looked bright. A competitor in the Illinois High School Association's first state fishing tournament, he missed out on a medal only due to a mixup in protocol in the midst of a bad-weather delay.
A few months later, the loss suddenly seemed trivial as Martin fought for his life after an ATV accident inflicted a traumatic brain injury that left him with only a slim chance of survival.
"I had to do a lot of speech therapy and physical therapy just trying to get back to my old self," Martin said. "I didn't do any fishing for probably a good year."
Few could have predicted that the Elmhurst native would go on to become be a thriving Eastern Illinois University student who, along with three EIU teammates, would represent Eastern in the nationally televised National Guard FLW College Fishing bass tournament's Central Conference Championship, to be held Sept. 6-8 on Carlyle Lake in Carlyle, Ill. Coverage will be televised nationwide on the NBC Sports Network at noon (CST) Dec. 14.
EIU is represented by two two-man teams from the EIU Hunting and Fishing Club: Martin and his partner, Michael March of Chicago; and Lee Buehnerkemper of Teutopolis and Chase Sanford of Catlin.
Chase Sanford and Lee Buehnerkemper
Both teams performed well enough in the competition's qualifying rounds to earn $3,500 for the EIU club. Now, the winning team in the conference championship will earn a $25,000 bass boat. In addition, the top five teams will advance to the 2013 national championship.
"It's awesome to represent EIU," March said. "We kind of put Eastern on the map as a team and showed that we can compete with the top tier schools in the division. This has been a big year for us and the club in general."
The opportunity to compete among the best in the sport is especially savored by Martin. Prior to his accident, he'd had a multifaceted athletic career, which included playing hockey, travel soccer, baseball, water polo and football, all sports that he must now avoid due to the risk of sustaining another head injury, which could be catastrophic.
The athlete still has one competitive outlet, which was actually the sport he learned first: fishing. Martin's father used to compete in bass tournaments, and his grandfather was an accomplished crappie and catfish wrangler.
"I just caught onto the feeling that you get from catching bass," Martin said. "Nothing can compare to the adrenaline rush you get from competitive fishing and going up on stage and showing off your ability to get the job done."
The EIU fishermen have been working hard to prepare for the conference championship. For example, Martin and March made four or five trips to Lake Carlyle this summer, spending about 40 hours on the water to familiarize themselves with the conditions there.
"Outside of competitions, we fish together a lot," March said. "You gain trust in that person and learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. We can kind of play off each other as a situation develops."
Martin, an environmental biology major with a special interest in lake ecology, has also spent a lot of time doing research online to become familiar with Lake Carlyle's forage, contour lines, creek channels, water clarity, depth, water temperature, atmospheric pressure and more -- all important factors in determining the best way to catch bass.
"Our dream is to go fish in front of the cameras, and we get to do that," March said. "I'm just going to go out there and have a good time, and hopefully, we can put things together."
Martin expects the EIU club's success to capture the attention of incoming freshmen and transfer students, and he encourages his fellow fishermen to check out EIU.
"Eastern's not a very big school, but you get more attention here than you would at a bigger university," Martin said. "It's easier to make friends."
It's also in a great location for those who want to hit the water after class or on weekends, he said.
"The environment's very nice, and we have several lakes, ponds and river systems that surround our campus," Martin said.
In his first year at EIU, Martin would often make the 2-mile walk from campus to Lake Charleston with his fishing gear in tow.
"He's one of those guys that can go out there at 5 in the morning and stay 'til dark, not get anything, and keep casting it out there," March said, complementing his friend's tenacity and work ethic.
"It's a dream of mine to go professional some day," Martin said. "If you put forth a good attitude and effort toward something you love in life -- for instance bass fishing -- you'll be able to accomplish your dreams, and everything you have been working for will eventually pay off in the long run.
"Like the pros say, 'If you put 110 percent in, you'll get 110 percent out.'"