I can't forget the day I met Ken Farley. I was a senior at Stephen F. Austin State University and the nagging itch to break into the outdoor writing field had me scrambling from lake to lake snapping pictures at bass tournament weigh-ins for inclusion in a weekly column I penned for the college newspaper, The Pine Log.
Shortly into the fall 1985 semester I got wind of the Athey-Bozeman-Clifton Memorial bass tournament being held out of Shirley Creek Marina on the northern end of Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The tournament was held each year in remembrance of three Nacogdoches anglers who were killed in a tragic car/train collision several years earlier.
As the anglers began trickling in with their catches, I noticed a guy motoring through the crowd in a wheelchair. Assuming he was a spectator, I didn't pay much attention until another angler approached him and handed him a bag full of bass - one of which was a chunky female with dark eyes almost the size of quarters.
The guy in the wheelchair took it from there and turned the hefty sack of fish over to the weigh master. The total weight is a blur now, but I do recall the big one tipping the scales at nearly 6 pounds.
I snapped a photo of Farley that day, mailed him a copy and never spoke to him again until early last spring. That's when one of his long-time friends, Gerald Partin, informed me that Ken had been selected to join the ranks of former President George Bush and pro angler Rick Clunn by receiving an honorary lifetime membership to the Texas Association of Bass Clubs - a hall of fame honor bestowed on only a handful of individuals since the organization was formed 28 years ago.
"He's a very special person, and the people who know him are lucky to be acquainted with a man of his caliber," remarked Partin. "The guy has a heart the size of Texas and he'll be anybody's friend who'll let him. Besides that, he's a pretty darned good fisherman. He's beat the pants off of me more than once."
In the course of our conversation, Partin also told me that Farley wasn't the same person physically that I'd shaken hands with on that warm September afternoon 13 years ago.
A paraplegic since 1968, in 1994 Farley was diagnosed with cancer in his lower body and doctors allowed him two well-defined choices. He could allow the cancer to run its course and face certain death within two years, or have his legs and hips removed to prevent the disease from spreading.
Physicians also informed him that the surgery itself would be life-threatening and rendered him a less than 20 percent chance of coming off the operating table alive. Given such bleak odds, most people would have invariably thrown in the towel. But I know now that the 54-year-old East Texas native is not like most people. He's very much his own man - a fact clearly reflected by a snap decision that had Ken Farley written all over it. "I told the doctor right then that there wasn't any decision to make - that he'd best get after it and do what he needed to do," Farley told me. "When given the choice of wanting to live or die, the decision was simple. Life is a precious gift and I decided long ago that I was going to play the hand I'd been dealt. I'd already spent half my life without the use of my legs. The way I saw it, this was just going to make life more of a challenge." That's the same head-strong demeanor Farley has had since a 1968 squirrel hunting accident robbed him of the ability to walk. The date was Oct. 22. He was 22 years old. The firearm was a .22 caliber rimfire with a faulty safety.
"It's obvious the number 22 hasn't been a very lucky one for me," says Farley. "It was pretty tough to deal with at first, but I knew I had to learn how to cope - I just couldn't see myself laying down and calling it quits. Once I came to grips with my condition I found I could still go and do the things I loved the most. I just had to change the way I went about them."
Take fishing, for instance. Farley can't run and gun from the bow of a big rig anymore, but it hasn't stopped him from participating in a sport he's held dear to his heart since his childhood. He still goes fishing on a weekly basis, mostly for bass.
"I like to fish for whatever is biting, but bass fishing would have to be my favorite," says Farley. "I love the challenge of trying to figure out what it takes to get the fish to bite."
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