John Cox doesn’t care what you think.
He’s not concerned if you call him "Tin Man" or scoff at the possibility of him competing against anglers with $100,000 tournament rigs. And he pays no attention to your dock talk, or whether you’re on the mother lode down by the dam.
Because you haven’t been there. You haven’t cleaned fish in exchange for housing, or borrowed against your boat so many times you can’t count.
You haven’t made 2 years’ salary in one day, and then spent the entire sum to put a roof over your kids' heads.
You haven’t laid in bed at night wondering how in the world you’re going to pay back a buddy, pondering getting out of competition once and for all, unable to quit because it’s all you’ve ever known, or wanted, or were really any good at.
And it’s that lack of concern, coupled with the experiences derived from total desperation, that made Cox a champion.
Cox’s story rates with the best ever told of tournament destiny; to hear him tell it borders on surreal. In the details, we learn the course of events that made him bass fishing’s most recent million-dollar man.
“When I was 13, we finally got cable TV,” Cox said. Through shows like The Bassmasters, Cox became aware of the possibilities of becoming a professional bass fisherman. Here were men who, like him, seemed focused on nothing else but bass fishing.
It was during that period that Cox attended his first big tournament weigh-in, watching Tim Horton take the title at Florida’s fabled Lake Toho. At the same time, Cox began his own competitive career through a jonboat-only bass club.
Cox reflected how, through his teenage years, his mom would drop him off for weekend camping trips at Kenwood Park on Rodman Reservoir. There, he would begin perfecting a shallow-water approach that would pay untold dividends.
As teenagers with an old glass boat, Cox and tournament partner Keith Carson took buddy-style events to the extreme, eventually winning big on the Fishers of Men team trail. Cox debated attending college, the prospect of playing collegiate baseball a selling point, but couldn’t seem to get away from bass tournaments long enough to direct his life down any other path.
“We were winning, like, twelve hundred bucks a weekend. That was a lot for a kid,” Cox related. The inner debate was brief.
With cash in hand, Cox rolled the dice on a pro career. Then in his mid-20s, he won the points title on the FLW Eastern Series in 2010, following it up with a regular-season win on Tour in 2011.
Following his first big pay day, Cox assumed fame and big sponsor contracts would follow. He paid off debt and bought a new home, but the offers never came. Not long after, Cox found himself back at square one, broke, with few places to turn.
But that early win, at Louisiana’s remote Red River, taught Cox a lesson that would later pay off far beyond his wildest dreams. It was there that Cox garnished national attention not only for his win, but for the craft that he used to accomplish it. Cox had snuck through a small culvert pipe using a jonboat – the same boat he and Carson had used throughout Florida in buddy tournaments and while guiding. Cox had done the unthinkable; going back to his roots to beat the best in the world.
Money had run out, and with nowhere to turn, Cox did the best he could to get by. When the Tour stopped at familiar venues, or those that fished to his shallow-water strengths, he'd cash a few nominal checks and make his way down the road. But deep-water events continued to haunt him. Try as he may, Cox could just never get comfortable fishing the way everyone else did.
“I just remember thinking, maybe I wasn’t supposed to do this.”
Cox decided to quit. For the 2014 season, he didn’t send in his deposits by the deadline date and was prepared to try to make a living elsewhere; maybe guiding, or painting apartments, or fishing around home; anywhere but on Tour.
But a friend wouldn’t let Cox give up.
“My buddy Billy from River of Life Osteopathic loaned me the money for the deposits and I got in the tournament 3 days before it was going to start,” Cox said. “I went to Okeechobee and finished dead-last.”
That was the final straw, or so Cox thought. Again, his friend insisted on loaning Cox money to continue his career.
“I felt like I was going to throw up,” Cox continued. “I couldn’t sleep at all. How was I ever going to pay him back?”
At the Tour’s next stop, Cox found his answer with a 5th-place showing.
Evidently, it was at this point that John Cox had an epiphany. What if he could just go fishing – the way he had always done back home – without worry, trendy lures or $5,000 depth finders? What if he could just buckle down, fish shallow and cash checks, all the while staying close to the ramp and cutting costs? He had done it before.
Cox questioned his peers on Tour about fishing from a small aluminum boat for the entire season. They did everything but laugh in his face.
“I was worried at first,” he said. “They told me it wouldn’t work, that it was stupid.” Big-water venues like Kentucky Lake would crush Cox, they said.
Armed only with self-taught poise and discipline, Cox went on to cash checks in 10 out of the next 11 Tour events he entered. This year he won a regular-season event, as well as the recent Forrest Wood Cup, pushing his FLW earnings to nearly a million dollars.
Cox’s story is our version of the American dream. It’s a guy down on his luck with nowhere to turn but inward. It’s his competitors calling him crazy, telling him he’s going about it all wrong, and that he’ll never succeed. It’s trust and assurance from an inner voice.
Through Cox’s story, we can all learn a little something. For many, it’s inspiration and great entertainment. For those in the cast-for-cash game, it could be a life-changer – if you’ll listen to the whole thing.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)