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Sept. 13, 2021

A Pro’s Response: Aaron Martens Faces the Fight of His Life with Resolve, Humility and Gratitude

Mercury Pro Team member has been battling brain cancer since April 2020.

It’s tempting to think of Aaron Martens as an unlucky guy.

The Mercury Pro Team member has finished second in the Bassmaster Classic a record four times, after all, and has never walked away with the crown. Once he missed it by the weight of a modest hamburger patty.

Then, of course, he had a massive seizure while fishing in the spring of 2020, which revealed the presence of two brain tumors. Since then, Martens has had two brain surgeries and has endured almost constant chemotherapy for a year and a half.

Yeah, he’s had some hard days.

But if that’s all you see, you’re most assuredly missing a lot.

By any measure, Martens, 49, of Leeds, Alabama, is among the most accomplished bass anglers of this or just about any generation. True, he’s famously come up just short at one of the sport’s single biggest tournaments four times, but that also means four times he’s traded blows with the other giants of the sport atop the Classic leaderboard, a spot most elite anglers dream of being in just once in a career. And if you’re concerned about a lack of titles, rest assured he’s got those, too. Besides being a three-time champion of the prestigious WON BASS U.S. Open tournament, he also earned the title of Bassmaster Angler of the Year in 2005, 2013 and 2015. That’s not presented to the winner of one tournament. It’s bestowed upon the angler who earns the most points over the course of the entire season. No hot hand, no stumbling onto a honey hole; just grinding out high finishes at every single tournament for a solid year on all types of waters and bites.

If that makes him lucky, so be it. But Martens has the kind of luck that comes from putting in the work, and one could argue that it’s that kind of fortitude that makes him uniquely positioned to conquer glioblastoma, one of the toughest-to-fight cancers that’s ever cursed our species.

Martens grew up in Southern California, and he exudes the stereotypical laid-back vibe, complete with a love of fitness, mountain biking and hiking that is often associated with that corner of the country, which earned him the nickname “Nature Boy” in tournament bass fishing circles. But the SoCal persona belies Martens’ world-class talent, innovative mind, meticulous attention to detail and relentless work ethic.

Fellow Mercury Pro Team member John Murray grew up fishing the West Coast bass circuit a few years ahead of Martens and had heard of the California wunderkind long before ever seeing Martens in person. Finally, the two met in the late 1980s at a tournament on Lake Mead, on the southern tip of Nevada.

“I think he was maybe 15 or 16, and he’d fish with his mom at team tournaments,” Murray said. “And we had a team championship at Lake Mead. He’d won about everything in Southern California, so I’d heard about him. So finally, I met him, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got him. He’s on my lake now.’

“Anyway, it’s like a 300-boat championship. The lake was full, and the fishing was tremendous. Well, they (Aaron and his mother) end up leading the first day with a giant bag of like 15 pounds. I was like, ‘Wow, it’s not all hype.’ That was my first experience with Aaron.”

Aaron and his mother, Carol Martens, didn’t end up winning the tournament, but the showing certainly made an impression on the West Coast heavyweights of the sport such as Murray, and he and the young phenom soon became fast friends. As Aaron progressed through the ranks, he spent a lot of time at Murray’s home in Las Vegas, as did Skeet Reese and Byron Velvick, so the Nature Boy grew up fast under the influence of three of the toughest West Coast anglers of the generation.

Aaron turned pro at 21, and eventually moved to Alabama to be closer to the heart of the national pro bass fishing circuits. Today he makes his home in Leeds, Alabama, with Lesley, his wife of 23 years, daughter, Jordan, 17, and son, Spencer, 14.

Aaron was fishing near there with a couple of friends in early April 2020, just enjoying a rare day of no-stress time on the water, when his life took a sharp and unexpected turn.

“For close to a year I was having some weird sensations, like especially in certain conditions like when it’s warm and humid,” he said, describing moments of unexplained euphoria. “But then I was with my friends when it really hit me and put me into a full seizure.”

An ambulance took Aaron to the hospital, but he remembers nothing of the ride nor the incident that preceded it. His first memory is waking up to nurses and doctors standing over him in the emergency room at Grandview Medical Center in Birmingham.

One of the nurses asked if she could pray with him.

It was then he learned that an MRI had been performed and had detected two brain tumors. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Aaron was completely alone in the ER. He’d just awoken from a major seizure, and doctors were asking for permission to do immediate brain surgery on him. Over the course of less than a day, one of the fittest and most health-conscious people you could ever meet went from the pinnacle of wellness and professional success to being treated for what would prove to be an aggressive, life-threatening cancer.

“I was one of the healthier people on the planet,” he said. “I ran about 20 to 25 – sometimes 30 – miles per week for like a year before that because I was a runner. I did like a thousand pushups a week. I ate super healthy, all organic vegetables and fruit. I was about as healthy as you can get your body. So maybe God did that on purpose, the way I’d always had the urge to be super healthy my whole life, because that’s helped a lot during all this.

“It (glioblastoma) is the fastest-growing cancer there is, and it’s the hardest to fight. At the start they only gave me a 1% chance to make it a year, and I’m already at a year and a few months,” he said in July 2021.

Without a second thought, Aaron agreed to the surgery, which was a success. The April 4, 2020, lobectomy removed the outermost tumor as well as a small portion of his right temporal lobe, just inside his right temple. In a testament to his underlying health and will, he was back on his feet almost immediately, amazing his caregivers.

The first surgery did not address the second tumor, which was located much deeper in the brain. After extensive testing – and more than a little prompting from Aaron – the surgeon agreed to go after the second tumor in an April 22, 2020, procedure. Lesley was allowed to be with her husband in the hospital as he prepped for surgery this time but was not able to see him again until he was discharged. This craniotomy was more invasive and naturally came with more risk and side effects, but again Aaron came through the surgery well. However, due to the location of the tumor, the surgeons were not able to remove the second tumor as cleanly as the first, but they were able to remove as much of the tumor as they could physically see, Lesley said. Unfortunately it grew back within two months.

Soon after the second surgery, he started radiation and chemotherapy, which he’s now been enduring on and off for more than a year. The surgeries and treatment have taken a massive toll on him physically, and cognitively to a lesser degree, sapping his strength and severely limiting his previously unshakable sense of balance, Aaron said. Lesley said their daughter, Jordan, is especially quick to recognize when Aaron starts to get unsteady and discretely sidles in to help when needed. But according to Lesley, Aaron’s faith and outlook are as strong as ever.

“I don't know how he stays so positive,” she said. “I read all the time about people fighting this disease and their personality changes and they get ugly and mean, and he just isn’t affected that way. I really think it's just part of who he is: He's just kind natured. I can't see him changing like that, and I hope he doesn't. He's just such a strong person.

“The reason we’re good right now is because we have that faith. We rely on God, and whatever is going to happen, God knows the plan. We don’t know the plan, and that’s OK.”

The last year-plus has also helped the Martens family come to terms with the reality that they could do everything right and still not be in control.

“I think we both kind of relied on what we do,” Lesley said. “We eat right, we exercise, we take care of ourselves, and you end up, I don't know, just talking yourself into thinking that nothing like this is ever going to happen to you. It’s showed us that nobody is safe from cancer, and now I just try to put all my reliance on God.”

Lesley said the outpouring of support by the professional bass fishing community has been tremendous since the diagnosis, and it’s been an incredible source of strength for the whole family as they wage this battle.

“I can’t tell you the number of guys that just reach out and text him every once in a while to make sure he’s doing OK,” she said. “Todd Faircloth, Chris Lane, Brent Chapman, Kevin VanDam, Gerald Spohrer; it’s everyone, really.”

Murray said the concern for Aaron is far reaching, and that it’s a result of both his value as a person as well as his contributions to the sport.

“It’s universal,” Murray said of the support for Aaron in the fishing community. “Anybody who knows anything about bass fishing knows Aaron Martens and what he’s done. And people appreciate his style. He’s not an egomaniac who goes around telling everyone he’s the best – although he knows how good he is – and people really respect the fact that he does his own thing. You’ll never see him following anybody else or asking how to catch these fish; he’s always going to do his own thing.

“I – like everyone else – just really respect the way he’s conducted himself all these years.”

Despite the odds, Aaron has enjoyed some progress since the original diagnosis. Six months after the second surgery he was allowed to drive again and to operate a boat. He even competed in a handful of tournaments in the 2020 season and the early part of the 2021 Major League Fishing (MLF) Bass Pro Tour campaign. On June 13, 2021, however, he suffered another major seizure and ended up spending almost a week in intensive care. It was determined that a sodium imbalance, caused by a condition that impedes his ability to properly regulate electrolyte levels, was to blame. He has since been prescribed medication to keep it from happening again.

“He’s really the same guy; nothing’s changed in the way he talks to me or any of our friends,” Murray said. “Obviously, he’s physically just beat up. A lesser man would be cowed by what he’s gone through, but he’s still fishing and playing around as much as he can.”

Case in point, Aaron was back in the boat competing in Stage Six of the MLF Bass Pro Tour Aug. 5-10, 2021, on Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, New York. There, he finished 33rd out of a field of nearly 80 of the best bass anglers in the world, taking home a check for $10,257. For whatever it’s worth, the group finishing behind him included John Murray, Skeet Reese, Brent Chapman and Todd Faircloth. Kevin VanDam finished 30th and Gerald Spohrer was 32nd.

Unfortunately, Aaron is not competing in Stage Seven on Lake St. Clair, Sept. 10-15 in Michigan. According to an email sent by Lesley to Aaron’s sponsors on Sept. 2: “His latest MRI showed tumor progression as well as new lesions. His medical team at Duke (University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina) has come up with a new treatment plan that will hopefully stabilize him. He is still hopeful and fighting. I’m so sorry he won’t be there to compete and represent his sponsors. Thank you for supporting him during this time. He’s so blessed to have you.”

The headline here is that the fight is getting tougher, and that Aaron is being aggressively treated by one of the top hospitals in the world. But the subtext speaks volumes about the kind of people Aaron and Lesley are: They’re sorry for not being there for those that stand with him, and – in the face of an unspeakably cruel and unfair turn of events – they’re still blessed.

Lesley and Aaron both acknowledge that the road to recovery will be difficult and uncertain, and that there will inevitably be more hard days to endure along with the good days to savor. But rest assured, they, their children and the entire bass fishing family are in it to win, no matter how difficult or how long.

“God wants you to fight, and I’m going to fight it,” Aaron said. “I’ve had some struggles, though, that’s for sure. But I feel blessed; I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life. I’ve done a lot and I feel like I’ve had a full life, but I want to see my kids grow up.”

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