E.A. Sports Today

Casting a legacy

Oxford angler Bearden survives scary boat accident, signs a ground-breaking scholarship to take her fishing career to the next level

Oxford senior Lexi Bearden displays some momentos from a successful fishing career that earned her a scholarship from Montevallo.

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

OXFORD – Lexi Bearden isn’t one to give up easily.

She didn’t give up on her dream to fish competitively when she got “some looks” from the boys after signing up for the Oxford High School fishing team as a 10th grader. She didn’t pull her line out of the water when she saw some 300 boats on the lake the first tournament she entered.

And she certainly didn’t pack up her tackle box in the wake of a scary boating accident in the middle of a tournament she was fishing two months ago.

And because she didn’t give up, Bearden has the opportunity to continue her fishing career and education on the next level.

On Monday, she signed a ground-breaking scholarship to the University of Montevallo through its President’s Outdoor Scholars Program, becoming the first angler from Oxford to get a scholarship in her sport directly from a university.

“Being the first one from Oxford High School I would say it definitely puts things into perspective for not only girls to pursue what they want to do in college, taking it to the next level, but also for the fishing team that they should never give up just because it’s not an actual sport, that if you never give up and you always try then you’ll be successful,” she said. “I couldn’t be more excited to be the first one from the high school to sign a fishing scholarship and I hope that I’ve been the leader that they’ve needed.”

While not an athletic scholarship in the traditional sense, the grant she is receiving scholarship will allow her pursue her sport at the next level. Other Oxford anglers have received scholarships before, but those were awards from various fishing organizations. This is the first one awarded to a Yellow Jacket angler directly from a university.

Montevallo has offered scholarships through the President’s Outdoor Scholars Program the last two years. Of the 10 members currently on the Falcons’ fishing team, eight are receiving a scholarship. Bearden is among 14 anglers the school has signed for next year from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Maryland.

“That was part of the reasoning behind starting the program,” said Oxford coach Darrell Cline, who gave up the golf program four years ago to start the Yellow Jackets’ fishing team. “It’s out there, it’s just a lot of people don’t know about it. We have some very, very good teams here in Calhoun County. The earlier groups laid the foundation and now some of these like Lexi and the anglers that follow see … you don’t have to be 6-foot-11 or Tiger Woods to get a scholarship of some type to go to college.”

Two-time reigning Bassmaster Classic champion Jordan Lee went to Auburn on a fishing scholarship.

Bearden has been fishing since her youth, following her father Greg’s love of outdoor sports, and caught on to the nuance and science of competitive fishing “fairly quickly.” She has won three tournaments for the Jackets – two in 2016 and one in 2017.

The stick-to-it-tiveness has always been there. The second day of the state championship last year Lexi and partner Brady McFarland were outside the top 10. It was almost time to come in and things didn’t look bring for them.

“My partner looked at me and said ‘Don’t give up Lexi, you know never to give up,’” she recalled. “A few casts later I caught three of the fish that were crucial for my team to do good at the state championship.”

It’s not as easy as you think. Nothing was more scary than the boating accident Feb. 24 that may have left a person with lesser resolve to think of doing something else.

Bearden, McFarland and Lexi’s dad and boat captain Greg Bearden were fishing in an ASABFA qualifier on Lake Neely Henry. They went to turn into a creek that is one of Lexi’s favorite spots to find bigger fish when a wave hit the side of the boat, turning it sideway and throwing all three occupants into the water.

The automatic inflation life jackets Greg and McFarland were wearing failed to inflate. Lexi was momentarily dazed and face down in the water. Greg sustained a Grade 3 concussion and broken ribs, hospitalizing him four days. As for the boat, only the key was damaged but several thousand of dollars of gear went to the bottom of the lake.

“It was pretty scary,” Greg Bearden said.

Lexi didn’t hesitate about finishing the tournament. Less than an hour after the incident they were soldiering on with Cline replacing Greg Bearden as captain and finished in the top half of the standings. As an aside, a Hartselle boat came by to render assistance and when it appeared the Jackets boat wouldn’t be able to continue they offered their helpers some advice. The Hartselle boat, which had one keeper fish at the time, changed its approach based on the advice and finished third in the tournament.

Less than a week later, Bearden and McFarland were back on the water and finished in the top 20.

“We didn’t really know the impact it had on our team and this community until after the fact,” Lexi said. “Everybody was so scared we weren’t OK and our school was really worried.

“I thought about it and just prayed about it. I knew God had bigger plans for me and that wasn’t the end. He obviously had more plans for me and my fishing career.”

As a result of the accident, Oxford and the ASABFA have prohibited the use of the automatic inflation life jackets on their boats in favor of the traditional jackets.

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