Throughout the history of organized sports, we have often asked our athletes to cross certain boundaries in an effort to determine the best of the best of the best. Jesse Owens raced a horse. Muhammad Ali fought Lyle Alzado and Antonio Inoki. Walter Payton drove against Scott Sharp and Jim Derhaag on the Trans Am Tour. Herschel Walker has fought as both a boxer and in the MMA.
Thankfully, in the year 2010 such made-for-TV nonsense can be placed in a lockbox and tossed into the Atlantic Ocean. No, we don't need for Tennessee halfback Chris Johnson to race 100 yards with Usain Bolt, or to witness a welterweight title clash between Floyd Mayweather and, say, Chris Paul.
Because we have Kevin Wirth.
That's right -- Kevin Wirth, 47 years old, with pipe-cleaner arms and Ron Howard looks, is the most accomplished active professional athlete in the United States.
More accomplished than LeBron James.
More accomplished than Albert Pujols.
More accomplished than Drew Brees.
More accomplished than ... you get the idea.
Granted, if you've ever heard of Wirth, it's either because: a) You're confusing him for the Phillies' outfielder (Jayson Werth); or b) You spend waaay too much time watching televised fishing. Yet should Wirth earn $13,000 in next week's Bassmaster Classic on Alabama's Lay Lake (the Super Bowl of fishing), he will become the 30th member of the tour to eclipse $1 million in total winnings. It's a remarkable accomplishment -- one that would officially cement Wirth's status as a legend of the water.
And yet, it's just a small part of his Bo Jackson-esque story.
As a boy in Pensacola, Fla., young Kevin spent endless hours at his father's roller skating rink, circling round and round and round as the songs of the Jackson 5 and David Cassidy echoed off the walls. By the time he was 8, Wirth was one of the top roller skating racers in the country. By the time he was 11, he was a two-time national champion. "It dates me, but man, did I love roller skating," he says. "I'm the youngest of four brothers, and we'd all skate at these crazy speeds. Just a thrill."
Alas, roller skating went the way of poodle skirts, but by the time most rinks were being condemned, Wirth had moved on to his next endeavor -- horse racing. Wirth's father, Fred,was one of the country's most respected trainers, and Kevin -- always a smallish kid in school -- was a natural fit to become a jockey. As a 15-year old in 1977, Wirth stood at 4-foot-8 and weighed barely 90 pounds. Thanks to a one-meal-per-day diet, he remained tiny enough to ride a horse named Mythical Ruler in the 1981 Kentucky Derby. "Wound up 17th out of 22," he says. "The prestige of the race was exciting, but I honestly thought I could win. So that disappointment crushed any good feelings."
Much like his days in the rink, Wirth's jockeying career passed quickly. Following a brutal crash that badly injured his back, he left horses behind, anxious for a new endeavor but clueless as to what that might be. Then, in the summer of 1983 he was sitting at home when a friend called. "Hey, Kev," he said, "you have any interest in a fishing tournament."
A fishing tournament? Here's what Wirth knew of the sport: You used a rod, worms were involved, fish lived in water and smelled sorta bad. "Sure," he said. "What the hell?"
"It was two days on a barren reservoir in Kentucky," he says, laughing. "I never caught a fish. Not a single one. But there was something about the sport that I immediately loved. Your focus has to be sharp for eight to 14 hours per day. You get worn down mentally and physically, but the elation of doing well is unmatched."
In others words, the new fisherman was hooked. But the new fisherman was also broke. "If I wanted to fish," he says, "I had to get a job to support myself." Having grown up around horses, Wirth started his own equine dental practice, eventually turning it into a lucrative business. During the weekdays, he would yank out the large teeth of unwilling customers. During the weekends, he would fish. And fish. And fish. And fish. "It's a really hard sport," he says. "You have to learn to compete in all conditions; to fish in 20 degrees and 120 degrees; to generate bites and understand what the fish are thinking. When you're thinking 30 steps ahead of the fish, you've made it."
Wirth has made it. The upcoming Bassmaster Classic will be his ninth straight, undeniably a record for roller skating champions-turned-jockeys-turned-fishermen. He is also the star of an ESPN series, The Ex Plan, chronicling his efforts to quit smoking after 32 years (He's been clean since October). Yet the story doesn't end here. Wirth plans on competing on the water for another decade or so. When the run ends, he expects to give the PGA Senior Tour a shot.
"Why not?" he asks. "I'm a 2 handicap, and I love the game. If I put my mind to it, I think I can accomplish anything."
Who could possibly argue?