STURGIS, Mich. – The Zonas and VanDams are family. They became close through a shared experience, and that bond has strengthened through the years.
Both families had sets of twins born premature at 25 weeks, and each went through the trying experience of living at the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) coping with their boys’ struggle to survive. Today the families spend as much time together as they can.
“I know this is going to sound crazy – he’s been like an older brother,” Mark Zona said. “He’s given me life advice, he’s given me business advice, and I owe him for just being an older brother.”
Mark and Kevin will get together Thursday for the second edition of Zona Live, a webcast from 8 a.m. to noon ET on Bassmaster.com.
“Before he went primetime,” Zona said in his best TV analyst voice, “we would fish a lot. He had more time to fish, and I hate to say it, I took it for granted. He has made the comment to me, ‘Doing your show is an excuse for you and I to go fishing.’”
A “Sneaky Lake” in southwestern Michigan not far from their homes was selected for the outing, which is being sponsored by Humminbird. Viewers can use #ZonaLive to join the conversation and submit questions. There will be several incredible giveaways to social media participants.
Zona said he first met KVD at a Tuesday night tournament at Barton Lake, not far from where they’ll fish Thursday. Zona was around 17 and VanDam was 22 or so and just starting his legendary B.A.S.S. career. Their paths would often cross at VanDam’s brother’s tackle shop, D&R Sportscenter, and at fishing shows.
“Where I really, really connected with Kevin was basically 17 years ago when our boys were born,” Zona said pointing to Jakob and Hunter helping him prepare for Thursday. “They were premature – Kevin and I knew each other, but we didn’t hang.”
Zona said he doesn’t tell many people that the morning his wife, Karin, went into early labor, he called his parents for support, then he made a second call to KVD, who he knew had gone through the exact same thing several years earlier. Zona said he knew little about premature birth and less about complications with twins.
“His reaction made it very serious, and very real. And very, very scary,” Zona said. “I had a lot of fear. I remember his exact words. He said, ‘The next few months of your life, you’re going to go through hell.’”
One-and-a-half pound babies fighting for their lives in incubators leaves parents feeling helpless, but the Zonas received a hefty dose of optimism when Kevin and Sherry and their toddlers, Jackson and Nicholas, visited.
“That’s the first time I met them,” Karin said. “The irony was Hunter and Jakob were in the same room in the same incubators, and had the same doctors and nurses that the VanDam boys had.”
The Zonas appreciated the help, advice and reason for hope, and the families bonded and began visiting more and more. Growing up together, the boys have formed special bonds. Hunter and Jakob said the VanDam boys are their best friends outside of school, and they text almost daily. The families have spent too many holidays, birthdays and vacations together to count.
Mark looks up to Kevin, but not necessarily for his four Classic victories or seven Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles.
“He’s Kevin VanDam at the tournaments, and I’ll be dead honest, I don’t like hanging with that Kevin,” he said. “That’s not the dude I know. I don’t want to say I don’t like him, but he’s got a job to do. The other side of it, I have a job to do.”
Zona said he appreciates how busy KVD is with all his business responsibilities and being pulled in so many directions, so he’s consulted VanDam’s schedule the past several years and specifically chosen dates he was free so they could shoot a show together, fish and hang out.
One big push for this LIVE outing was that VanDam has never fished Lake St. Clair this early in the year. But since it’s a “growling monster right now,” Zona scouted a dozen inland lakes in the past week or so searching for an appropriate venue.
“The biggest challenge of LIVE is cell signal,” Zona said, “and here’s what I’ve run into – really, really good lakes with no cell service, and really, really bad lakes with great cell service.
"But last night, I found the Sneaky Lake.”
So they will get time together bass fishing once again, and share it with the viewing audience. Zona said their relationship, which started in earnest because of their children, has evolved over the years.
“The majority of the time I’m in the boat with Kevin VanDam now is in a pontoon. Earmuffs,” Zona barks to his boys. “Because we’re #$%@^* old.”
Zona looks up to bass fishing’s top winner and money earner, but not solely because of his fishing.
“That means nothing to me,” he said. “That is not the dude I know. The guy I know, who through the years has been like an older brother to me, has made me a better person. No doubt."