A fishing trip landed an unexpected catch last week for Sale Creek High School senior Braylon Beason.
Beason, 18, was one of four youths who had just stepped onto a dock at Browns Bridge Recreation Area in Sale Creek on Wednesday when a man came running past them, stripping off his overshirt and shoes.
"He said, 'Boys, I'm going for a swim,'" Beason said. "We were like, 'What the heck?'"
Recent storms had left brisk winds, high water and strong currents — conditions OK for muddy-water fishing but certainly not for swimming. Then they noticed the boat.
Stan Sumrell can pick up the story here. He was the partially clothed man on the dock who had just made the split-second decision to swim out to his unmoored bass boat on that sunny but cool afternoon. It was a decision that almost cost him his life, he said.
In his younger days, Sumrell, 72, was a big-time athlete. At Notre Dame High School, he was a track, basketball and swimming star, setting state and national records. He was the first player to have his jersey retired in the school's history. His success in basketball, track and field continued at Middle Tennessee State University. He has been a competitive swimmer, swim coach and scuba diver, part of a lifetime of athletic pursuits that includes 25 years as an educator and coach in local middle and high schools.
Jumping into the water and swimming for the boat was a natural instinct, said Sumrell, who was inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
"I didn't really even think about it," the Soddy-Daisy resident said. "I saw the boat floating away. It wasn't getting any closer. The motor was idling. The way the wind was blowing, it was headed right out to Chickamauga Lake. I decided I'm just going to go in."
Back on the dock, Beason and his companions — younger brothers Maddoux, 17, and Knox, 10, and family friend Jeron Wallin, 17 — were waiting to make sure all was well. They thought the man made it to the boat — he was a strong swimmer, Beason said. But they couldn't understand why they didn't see him climb in or why the boat was still drifting away. Had he gone under?
"I kept asking my buddy, 'Dude, do you see his head? Can you see his hands?'" Beason said.
Sumrell, meanwhile, had made it to the boat with little trouble, a distance of about 50 yards, he estimates. He had surfaced on the opposite side of the boat, away from the dock, where the boys couldn't see him.
But even with the boat as a lifeline, he wasn't out of danger. He had tried several times to pull himself in, with no success. Exhausted by the effort, chilled by the 50-degree water and weighed down by his wet blue jeans, he could only cling to the side and debate his next move. As he saw it, he had two choices: Stay with the boat, as it drifted toward the open river channel, and hope another boater would come along to save him. Or leave the boat and swim back to shore.
He knew the better plan was to stay with the boat. But he was cold, and the boat was drifting.
"All I knew was that I was floating away," he said. "I was really tired. I didn't know if I could make it if I tried to swim back. I was praying real hard that I could make a good decision."
He could hear the boys calling from the dock, their voices thin in the distance, asking if he was OK. He didn't have the energy to answer.
Then he felt the boat jiggle and heard a voice, this time distinct and overhead, say, "Are you still down here, Mister?"
It was Braylon Beason.
Not knowing what was happening to the man in the water, Beason had shucked down to his boxers and dove in.
"Once I got in the water, I didn't hesitate to go," Beason said. "I knew I didn't have much time."
"Yes, I'm still down here," Sumrell assured Beason, but told him he didn't have the strength to pull himself up. He asked the teen if he knew how to run the boat's trolling motor, thinking Beason could taxi them back to the dock with him still in the water. He knew that wasn't an option when Beason told him, "No, sir, this is the first time I've ever been in a boat."
But the rescuer wasn't out of options. "What I can do," Beason told Sumrell, "is get you out of the water."
Beason, the middle child of seven children, is an athlete himself. He grew up in Whitwell, Tennessee, where his mother, Jeana Beason, is from, and started at Sale Creek Middle/High School, his dad Billy Beason's alma mater, after the family moved to Hixson when he was in sixth grade.
"I play football. I've wrestled. I've played baseball a time or two. I'm a four-year Junior ROTC cadet," Beason said.
At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Beason has played tight end, outside linebacker, long snapper and receiver for the Panthers, who have fielded a football team for only seven seasons.
"We're real small," he said. "We don't have that many players, so we all get moved around to different places if we need it."
In Sumrell's boat, he was needed at safety, the last line of defense. Calling on strength honed in the weight room before the coronavirus ended the school year, Beason grabbed hold of Sumrell's forearms and heaved him into the boat.
Sumrell said he spent probably 10 minutes lying on top of the rod locker before he had the energy to sit up and bring the boat back to the dock. Once safely on land, he tried to find out details about Beason, but mentally he was feeling as unmoored as his boat had been.
"What I didn't know is that with hypothermia, it makes your mental processes go haywire," Sumrell said. "I asked him his name four or five times and couldn't remember it."
But the name of his school registered. Sumrell called a friend who teaches there, Joel Walker, told him this kid had just saved his life and asked Walker to get his name so Sumrell could properly thank him. He said he tried to give him money, but Beason wouldn't take it.
Sumrell says Sale Creek Principal Tobin Davidson has promised Sumrell the chance to hand Beason his diploma at graduation, tentatively scheduled for late June. Perhaps they'll let Sumrell say a few words about what he's learned.
"No. 1," he says, "tie a better knot."
Sumrell marveled that his total time away from home that life-altering day was just 52 minutes. He noticed that when he pulled his boat back into his driveway.
Beason is thinking ahead to boot camp. He has enlisted in the Marine Corps, following in the footsteps of his Army dad's career in the military. He downplays any talk of his heroism.
Nobody caught any fish that afternoon, but Beason doesn't have to exaggerate what did happen.
"We went out there for bass and came out with a 200-pound man," he said.
Contact Lisa Denton at firstname.lastname@example.org.