Two-time Bassmaster Classic winner Hank Cherry has plenty of reasons to remember the 2021 Classic in Fort Worth – the fishing, the history-making accomplishment and the check, to name a few. But one of the crispest and most vibrant is his interaction with Jade Thompson, a young man with Down syndrome. Indeed, that memory provides benefits that keep on rewarding both of them.
“I had just taken my victory lap with my family,” Cherry recalled. “And I saw Jade. He stuck out. He was excited that we were coming around, but then the boat swung to the other side of the arena. As he waved, I could see the disappointment on his face.”
Cherry may have been mentally drained from the competition and still drowning in confetti, but the same fast thinking that guided him to his second consecutive championship led him to make the rash decision to leave his rolling office.
“I told (my wife) Jaclyn I’d be back in a minute,” he said. “I ran over to Jade, and we ended up hugging. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Jade, and his family, won’t forget it either. His father, Danny, joined B.A.S.S. in 1983 and is a lifetime member. The Thompsons live in Osceola, Mo., but they spend vacations traversing the country to witness bass fishing history being made. Grand Lake, the site of one of Cherry’s earlier near misses, had been their first Classic, and since then the annual event has become a must-see event for all of them.
“I like him to see things,” said Jade’s mother, Kim. “And at fishing events, everybody’s friendly. From the fans to the fishermen. I don’t feel worried about him at all when I’m there. He’s very social and loves people. He loves to yell and cheer.”
If the interaction between Cherry and Jade had ceased after 2021, it would have been a special and memorable moment for all involved, but this is where the story gets a little more unbelievable, and a little more special. After winning in 2020 and 2021, and thereby earning an automatic berth to the 2022 Classic, Cherry had a subpar year during the regular season. He finished 81st overall in the points, never really getting into a groove. That meant he’d be working the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo floor in Knoxville, supporting his sponsors and meeting with the fans. It was bittersweet, because while he certainly would have rather been competing, it gave him the chance to enjoy the adulation and fellowship.
“I’d really missed being around the fans the first time around because of COVID,” he said. “So to get to be there with them, seeing those lines for autographs, was the most humbling thing I’d ever done. I’d seen that with Ike and Kevin and other anglers, but I’d never really gotten to experience it myself.”
The Thompsons were there, too, trying to soak it all in, knowing that Cherry was being pulled in a thousand different directions. However, as they were going out one door, Cherry happened to be going in the other way.
“Jade took off running after him,” Kim said. “You’d have thought he hadn’t seen him in a day. Hank went to work the Bass Cat booth, got him a hat, signed it and put it on his head.”
At this point in the interview, 20-year-old Jade spoke up for the first time, recalling the tender moment: “I miss him so much.” Their interaction in Knoxville was brief, but meaningful to both, and it didn’t end there. The Thompsons made their way into the next room, with Jade wearing his hat proudly, where the Hobie booth was advertising a drawing for Cherry’s jersey.
“We signed up Jade, but not ourselves, and went about the show,” Danny recalled.
Eventually Cherry’s round took him back to Hobie, where he was asked to pick a number between 1 and 150 to select the raffle winner.
“I chose 42 out of the blue,” he said. “I’m not sure why. In baseball I was 44. My dad was 11. My son and daughter both wear 12.”
Of course, 42 was Jade’s number.
“When we got the text message that he’d won the jersey, I thought we would both start bawling,” Kim recalled.
One person who was not anywhere close to bawling was Jade. He put the jersey on immediately, wore it proudly, and beamed ear to ear.
“People were shaking his hand because he’d won the jersey,” Kim said. “It was just so cool. I have no idea how this happened, but it was absolutely amazing.” The only drama came later. Jade didn’t want to remove the jersey. Ever. It took some careful negotiations to get him into other clothes, so it could be fresh for next year’s Classic.
“He’s already asked to go back to the big show to see his friends,” Danny said.
For all parties involved, it cemented what is special about the professional bass fishing community. The Thompsons recognize that if they were passionate about just any other spectator sport, there would likely be major barriers between the fans and the participants. Now, in Kim’s words, one of those participants – indeed, one of the most celebrated competitors in the sport’s recent history – has become “a lifelong friend.”
For Cherry, a father of two, it makes him realize that his victories have a broader meaning than just heavy limits of fish over a total of six competition days. They’ve given him a distinctive platform from which to interact and influence. “Every day I see how much it matters to people, especially kids. It means the world to me,” the champ said.
Just as Cherry has realized his talent provides him with opportunities, so do the Thompsons realize the light that their son brings with him.
“Anywhere we go – and we go a lot of places – he shows people’s real character,” Danny said about his son, and about Hank. “On fishing’s biggest stage, on his victory lap, to stop and give a kid a hug, it shows the character of the man.”