Miracle Worker

How has Clay Dyer become a pro tournament fisherman without limbs? The answer to that question would take a lifetime to understand.

Clay Dyer is standing on a table in front of 1,200 kids and parents at Disney's Coronado Ballroom in Orlando. Let's be as clear as possible about this. Clay was born with no legs, only a nub beneath each hip. He has no left arm and only a partial limb hangs from his right sleeve. He does not use prosthetics, so his jean shorts drag behind him on the table as he moves from one side to the other, taking questions. There are a million of them stirring in minds — like how he got onto the table in the first place — but time for Clay to answer just a few.

"How did you do in school?" asks a teenage girl.

"I was an honor student. I was honored to get out."

"Can you open a Starburst?"

"If I'm hungry enough, I can open anything."

"Can you tie a fisherman's knot?"

Clay says nothing. Using a knob of cartilage at the end of his right appendage, he tugs a rod and reel off the table and balances the rod tip on his one full shoulder. A lure appears on that cartilage lump so quickly that nobody knows for sure how it got there. The microphone clipped to Clay's shirt picks up some sounds inside his mouth as he pulls the fishing line through the miniscule eyelet on the lure with his teeth. Then the line disappears behind his lips. Not a single eyeball in the room moves. They want to see how the man on stage pulls this one off.

To Clay Dyer, there is nothing special about Clay Dyer. He is not a stuntman or a magician, trying to do the indescribable for an audience. With each passing minute, he leaves everyone around him asking, "How?"

How? This is his life.

Look at him in the face. Try not to notice that he is 38 inches high. You see the classic square jaw of a natural athlete. You see a thick neck scrolling into what should be square shoulders. Stop there and you'd wonder why anyone would make such a big deal about him driving his own boat and fishing on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour with 200 of the world's top professional anglers.

But then...but then the left collarbone stops before a shoulder can begin, and it's calloused from cradling a fishing rod under his jawbone day after day. What should be a right arm is about the size of a miniature baseball bat. Legs. There is nothing to describe for legs.

"No arms or legs, and he can do everything with the pros except buckle his life vest," says two-time FLW Angler of the Year Jay Yelas. "But the most amazing thing to me is, I don't know anyone who enjoys life as much as Clay. I also don't know anyone who has as much right to complain every day."

Listen to Clay talk. He uses no medical jargon when his limbs are part of the conversation. He says he uses his wheelchair only around home to keep his pants from dragging on the carpet and getting ruined when he scoots around on his hips. He doesn't feel any special privileges are in order because of … this.

"I work out most mornings here in the living room," he says. Next to him, on the seat of a chair, chest-high for Clay, is his iPhone. He pulled it, somehow, from his pants pocket, and every few minutes he exchanges messages with his sponsors and fellow anglers by working the touchpad with his nose and lips. "Before I turned pro, I never thought conditioning would be so important. We're out there eight, 10 hours a day. So I jog and do sprints until I'm exhausted. Of course, it might take me 30 or 40 paces to go what others can do in 10."

This is true of everything for Clay, from the time he gets out of bed in the morning until he washes off the smell of fish at night. Every single step is a defiant I-will-do-this.

"He never considered himself handicapped," says his 74-year-old maternal grandmother, Jane Gann. Clay and his parents, Clarence and Beverly Dyer, have lived in the same Hamilton, Alabama, home with Jane and her husband, Pride, since 1991, when Beverly went back to the University of Alabama to pursue her doctorate in education. The eight acres of shaded land and the family support have proved to be as healthy as they are convenient — and have given the grandparents more time to marvel at Clay. Jane goes into the bathroom and demonstrates how Clay presses his electric razor within a stack of towels and moves his face around the rotating blades to shave. "He does the same thing with his toothbrush," she says. She has seen him do this for most of his 30 years, but she still speaks incredulously, as if describing how she saw a grizzly bear putting on a nightgown.

For the family, it isn't so much the act that fills a room with thick emotion. It's the accomplishment. "When he was growing up, they had a group of kids painting the steps at the football stadium," says Jane. "He said, 'I want to help.' I thought like a lot of people do: 'How? What's he going to do?' But we took him up there and dropped him off." The next day Jane was flipping through the newspaper, and stopped cold on a picture. It was Clay, with a paintbrush taped to his arm so he could help paint the steps.

Nobody with even one good arm can fully understand how he drives his boat, a Ranger 520 VX. But there he is, tooling around Pickwick Lake, 80 miles north of Hamilton, softly quartering wakes at 65 mph. The only difference between his boat and the others on the FLW Tour is that Clay's has a traditional stick throttle instead of the foot pedal preferred on high-speed bass boats. He swings that knob between the steering wheel and throttle. The moves are at the same time quick and casual, a full-speed oxymoron. He pulls the boat into neutral, shuts down the motor and shimmies his body up to the forward casting deck. Watch. It all happens so fast. How'd he get the tackle box out? How'd he position the boat so perfectly with the trolling motor? How'd he get the weeds off the hook? There's a splash near the boat.

"Who's your daddy?" Clay says to a two-pound bass lying on the boat's carpet, just underneath his belt. How...?

"Ask any fisherman what's the last thing you'd give up, physically, and he'd probably say the fingers," says Clay's agent, Elvin Smith. "Somewhere near the top would be the legs. All the little things you and I don't think about become crucial when you're changing bait, untangling line or getting a fish into the livewell. I've fished with him. I watch. I still don't know how he does it."

There are no special effects.

"He has to follow the same rules as everyone else," says Dave Washburn, the FLW Tour's vice president of communications. "He has to perform on an even playing field. That said, when Clay comes to weigh-in with five fish, nobody can imagine how much more difficult it was for him to catch his limit."

On a stress-free nontournament morning on Pickwick, Clay stands in the bow, casting along a breakwall by squeezing the butt of his Fenwick rod under his chin and flinging his upper body — all he's got to give, literally — into the motion.

"Excuse me," a 50-ish man on shore calls out to the boat. Clay politely listens as the man issues advice on where to go and what to throw.

"Thank ya, brotha," Clay says in a sweet home drawl.

Clay starts to troll away. The man takes a few steps closer until his feet are in the water. "I just want you to know that...I sure admire you...and all you've overcome."

It's anyone's guess where he saw Clay. Maybe it was the clip that appeared on ESPN a few years ago. Or it could have been at one of the 40 or 50 motivational talks he makes every year.

"I can't believe the impact he has on people," says his dad, Clarence, 60. "If I'd known when he was born it would be this way, it would have made that time a lot easier."

The doctor at the Amory, Mississippi, hospital called Clarence in from the waiting room that day, May 23, 1978, saying only that the baby wasn't pushing itself out. It looked as if one of the limbs might not be fully developed. Clarence hustled into the delivery room and sat in a chair near Beverly, and waited.

"When they got him out and held him up, you could have hit me with a baseball bat and it wouldn't have hurt anymore than it did at that moment," he says.

Beverly vaguely remembers seeing the doctor talking to Clarence before she drifted off from a sedative. When she woke up, something didn't seem right. The only thing stronger than a mother's will in a delivery room is her instinct.

"What's wrong?" asked Beverly.

There were no ultrasounds at that time, but during Beverly's pregnancy she had a dream that her baby would be born without an arm or a leg. "I didn't share that with anyone. But maybe that's what triggered me to ask my husband what was wrong.

Beverly and Clarence spent four long days in the hospital before taking Clay home to Hamilton. "All I could think was 'How will he live a normal life?'" says Clarence.

In a small town like Hamilton, one hour from the birthplace of Helen Keller in Florence, nobody was capable of providing an answer. "How" was no longer the start of a question, but the start of Clay's every nuance.

"Clay did not come home with an instruction book," says Beverly, 55.

There was only one person who would have the answers: Clay. He figured out how to eat, how to hold a bat for playing T-ball, how to throw a football, how to keep up with friends, how to live. Others picked up on that lesson.

"Every day was a 'Wow!' It's still that way, and I'm his mother," says Beverly, who like everyone in the family cannot talk for 30 seconds about Clay without a quake in the voice. "I wanted to help so bad...but all I could do was reach out my hand. He'd always push it away."

It was grandpa, Pride, who bought Clay his first Scooby-Doo rod. By the time he was five, Clay was coaxing catfish out of the ponds on the property. The catfish eventually got to be too easy for Clay, even the 26-pounder that was bigger than him and took 45 minutes to get in. When he was 8, Clay asked his dad if he could use a baitcaster.

"There have been times," says Clarence, "when I've thought, 'Clay, come on, you can't do that.' But I wouldn't say it. That was one time I did have to say no. Most people don't have the touch to use a baitcaster even with a full set of fingers."

One evening a few months later, Clarence came home from his job as a mobile-home sales rep and took Clay to one of the ponds. "How about you let me use that?" Clay asked, looking at his dad's baitcaster. Clarence gave in. One shot, one tangled mess, should be the end of the discussion. Clay stuck the butt of the rod under his chin, put his face on the reel...and unleashed a perfect cast. Clarence picked up his jaw enough to ask...how?

"Dad, I've been practicing every day when you go to work."

Says Clarence: "To get that right it must have taken him a thousand casts, at least. Who knows how he undid the backlashes? He had to figure it out. Even if I wanted to show him how to do it, how could I? I have no idea how to use your nose and lip to make a baitcaster work."

Or how to grip pliers in your mouth to open hatches. Or how to tie a reverse clinch knot, which includes threading the line, perfecting six wraps and more threading...with your tongue and teeth. "I practiced knots every
minute of down time from the time I was 10," Clay says. "I couldn't look at a knot until it was done, so it took a lot of trial and error."

He'd stick his mouth so often with treble hooks that his family would offer to help, just to get him to stop. "No thanks," he'd say. "In a tournament I'll need to handle this myself."

Tourna...what did he say? Tournament? To fish tournaments, he'd be in a boat. No. Not Clay. He'd be driving a boat.

The word "try" never came up. Clarence had seen that determination from the time Clay rejected prosthetics as a pre-toddler. He would drive a boat. He would turn pro. Clarence let Clay go to the garage and get a feel for the helm on their '75 Ebbtide with a 70-horse Mercury. The boat had no hydraulic steering, so Clay taught himself to lean his whole body onto the wheel and to work the throttle with his partial arm. He took his first run on Upper Bear Lake.

"That first time driving, it was a feeling of freedom I'd never experienced," says Clay.

Early in his first year tournament fishing, he won an event in the sleet. "I had a little advantage because the other guys' hands were red and stiff," he says. "But they also realized I was thinking, 'You may be my buddies, but I came here to whip you at this thing.'"

One incident as a teenager nearly derailed his fishing career. Clay and a friend were idling around near the launch ramp at Upper Bear while Clarence had run up to get the truck and trailer. The torque in the boat's steering locked, swinging Clay and his buddy over the side. Both were able to swim to the bank, where they watched the boat go around in circles until it ran out of gas.

For the first time, Clay was the one asking a question: What if? He told Beverly that he'd never drive again. This is the moment when a mother can stop holding her breath and let go of her own worry. But at the same time, she'd be letting go of her son's dream. "Yes, you will," she said. Clay was looking at the source of his own willpower, the mother who completed three degrees in college and who was always told by her own father that she could do whatever she wanted in life. "It was an accident," she said. "You will drive again."

The same determination that pushed Clay back into the boat — and eventually onto the pro tour in 2005 after winning more than 30 local and regional events — is sometimes his biggest obstacle.

"I'm stubborn. I believe in my own abilities, even though the standings might not show it."

He finished 219th in 2008, down from 205th in 2007. That year he came within 1 ounce of making his first check during a tournament on Lake Erie.

"His biggest disadvantage is when he tries to power fish," says Yelas. "It's harder for him to set the hook. In those situations, I bet he loses 50 percent of the fish he hits."

Smith, who is Yelas's agent as well as Clay's, has tried to convince Clay to concentrate on technique instead of muscle. "But in Alabama," says Smith, "that's considered sissy-stick fishing."

Clay sees no disadvantage beyond his general lack of pro-tour experience. He says he can get in close to 1,000 casts during a tournament day, maybe 100 less than other pros. He can throw the heavier crankbaits 40 yards when there's no wind.

"All of this," says Clay, talking as much about his life as his fishing, "is about the other guy not believing I can do it. They're all like brothers to me, but I'm sure they wonder if there's any way I can get to the top. I'm not on tour to be a good story. I'm there to win."

By now, those who know him don't bother asking how.

"I fish with guys all the time, and Clay's the real deal," says Yelas. "It's just a matter of time before he finishes
in the top 10. And when he does, wow, he'll bring the
house down."

Once, when Clay was 5, he asked Clarence why he was born this way. Today, Clay echoes his dad's answer: "God has a plan for me. If I were born like the rest of you all, I wouldn't be here doing what I do."

Usually, though, he doesn't have to say anything.

"He's an inspiration to every kid who walks through those doors," says Hamilton High football coach Rodney Stidham, for whom Clay volunteers. "If a kid says he can't do something, all I have to do is point to Clay."

Coach Stidham says this while Clay throws 10-yard passes to him, each one right in the chest. He's seen this hundreds of times, but the coach still studies the way Clay presses the ball between his cheek and right shoulder before letting it roll down to that bump of cartilage and batting another spiral with it.

"Don't ask me," the coach says, giving up on the question that was never asked.

Something else is going on here, as Coach Stidham catches each pass and then carries the ball back to Clay. It's a dichotomy in Clay's life that he has to continually work out, because as badly as he wants to be independent, he also needs others. He'll drink the bottle of Diet Mountain Dew, no problem, if someone will just crack the seal. He'll handle the boat as smoothly as anyone, if someone could just buckle his vest.

So, at 5:15 on a Thursday morning, Dad picks up Clay from his wheelchair in the driveway and puts him in the passenger seat of a buddy's truck. He helps Clay snap on his seatbelt. "Be careful," says Dad. He closes the truck door, and Clay is off to fish with two friends.

At the lake, Clay does the little routines every fisherman has to go through before actually getting a lure in the water. For most, this is just going through motions. For Clay...

Watch him. Watch all you want. Again and again, you see him figuratively put the handkerchief into the top hat, and see it reappear as a rabbit. But this is the difference between magic and a miracle: There is no deception, no sleight of hand. The handkerchief really does turn into a rabbit. How? How — that's the never-ending question of Clay Dyer's life.