Michael Rhodes of Ackerman became an avid outdoorsman quite naturally, growing up in Alabama the son of a man who trained and hunted mountain cur squirrel dogs and chased deer.
“That’s all I knew, and I loved it,” Rhodes said, “I was always passionate about hunting.”
It was a passion that helped him — and continues to help him — get through the toughest challenge of his life.
On Nov. 17, 2014, a few days before Mississippi’s gun season on deer, Rhodes was involved in an accident that put his outdoor pursuits in question.
“I married and moved to Mississippi, and I managed a grocery store here in Ackerman that my father-in-law owns,” the 28-year-old said. “I was unloading a pallet from an 18-wheeler, and the forklift I was using fell over on me.
“It crushed my right foot.”
It was more than a few broken bones, though that was the major issue. When the forklift fell, Rhodes said it slid down an incline and took the skin off his lower leg and ankle.
“I didn’t just go in the hospital in Jackson: I went to the burn unit because of the skin situation,” he said. “When the doctor came to do surgery on my broken bones, he had to do it in the burn unit.
“I did six weeks in the hospital in Jackson and then 4½ months at home in bed. I was depressed.”
Rhodes worried that his days of hunting might end and that he might not be able to enjoy all the sporting and outdoor pursuits his two young sons would want to do with their dad.
“It was tough, really tough,” Rhodes said, admitting he was on the verge of severe depression.
But when it got tough his mind reset to where it had been so many times: focused on the outdoors. Those thoughts were strong enough to pull him through the hard times without relying on depression medications.
“I know it sounds corny, but that’s exactly what happened,” Rhodes said. “When I’d get down — and believe me I did a lot with that much time in the hospital and at home in bed — I would think about how much I wanted to get back to hunting with my sons and family, and with my dog.”
Fortunately for Rhodes, in the months leading up to his injury he had decided to buy a Labrador retriever, and the search for one led him to meet two avid duck hunters: twins Taylor and Tyler Robinson of Jasper, Ala.
The Robinsons are pro staffers for Tangle Free Waterfowl, makers of decoys, blinds and other duck-hunting accessories.
“The guy I was trying to buy a puppy from didn’t have any, but he told me that Taylor had a pair that he’d sold to him from different litters that were about to have pups,” Rhodes said. “I called Taylor, and we got to talking and became friends.
“We talked about dogs and duck hunting, and we hit it off. He invited me duck hunting that next season.”
Rhodes bought the puppy and named it Trigger.
“When I was in the hospital, Taylor and Tyler found out what happened and started calling me every day,” Rhodes said. “They’d call to check on me and to pray with me. That encouraged me. We became so close; heck, I’m even going to be in Taylor’s wedding in October.
“Then when I got home, Trigger was a crutch. All the squirrel dogs I had had — and I had one of the best around — they were more like tools. They were hunting dogs, and they stayed in pens until we hunted. Trigger was a pet, and he was inside with me during the whole thing. We formed a bond. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d have done without him.”
With encouragement of family, old and new friends and, of course, Trigger, Rhodes started a long recovery that still continues.
One good friend, former Major League pitcher Roy Oswalt, took the wheelchair-bound Rhodes deer hunting a few times that season.
Rhodes was hunting with him the day Oswalt shot a massive 204-inch main-frame 8-point that can be seen at MS-Sportsman.com/roy-oswalt-buck.
Rhodes’ parents came from Alabama to stay a couple of weeks.
His wife and sons provided love and encouragement.
The Robinson twins called regularly.
And, there was Trigger.
“We did and still do everything together,” Rhodes said. “I’m serious: This dog deserves lot of credit. People laugh at me now, but I swear everywhere I go, Trigger goes.
“If my wife and I go to Starkville to dinner, we park the truck outside with the motor running and Trigger in it.”
When Rhodes realized his days of deer hunting and especially squirrel hunting were likely over or at least severely curtailed, he turned to duck hunting.
The Robinsons were quick to encourage, but knowing he would have to train Trigger became oh so important.
“I have a friend in Winona who trains duck dogs, and I took Trigger to him and we started working with him,” Rhodes said. “A lot of my therapy was working with Trigger. Believe me, with 13 surgeries, there has been a lot of physical therapy.
“I learned a lot about training, and this year I’m working with 18 other people training their dogs. It’s given me something to do. I can’t go back to work until I have completely gotten past all my surgeries. Training dogs has kept me busy.”
Trigger and Rhodes were ready to hunt when the 2015-16 duck season got underway.
The hunter was ready to get at it.
“The doctors all said I needed to have an amputation and get a prosthetic foot, but I didn’t want to miss the season,” Rhodes said. “I convinced my doctor in Memphis to put my foot and ankle back together enough to get through the season. He put seven screws in it to stabilize it, and it still just sort of flopped around; it always wants to roll over on me.
“It wasn’t easy, but thanks to the Robinsons and some others I was able to do it. There were days when Taylor and Tyler literally had to carry me to the blind. I can’t wear a boot because of my ankle, but I could wear waders. I wear a size 8½ shoe, but I had to get size 11 waders just to get my foot and ankle in it.
“But understand: When I’d get it stuck in mud and go to pull it out, my foot would just come out of the waders. It was things like that.”
But, Rhodes persevered, and he had a great season hunting in the Delta near Sledge and in Arkansas with the Robinsons and Trigger.
“I know it was a tough season for a lot of hunters, but we did good,” Rhodes said. “I promise you Trigger picked up no less than 500 ducks.
“He did the hard part for me.”
Rhodes’ part was never easy.
“On the easiest days, it was still pretty hard,” he said. “We had this one hole we hunted in the afternoons — it was a roost hole that was always good in the afternoons. It required about a 150-yard wade through waist-deep water to get to it. I had to leave about 30 minutes before everyone else to get there at the same time.
“It was slow going, but the deep water actually helped. It put pressure on the outside of the waders to keep them tight to my foot, and the bottom was not muddy; it was pretty hard. I’d have to go slow, but I never gave up. Taylor and Tyler would come behind me with the decoys and the dogs and the dog blind.”
The success of last season and the promise of a bright future helped Rhodes finally reach the point where he is giving in to the recommendations of the more than 15 doctors who have reviewed his case.
He will have his right foot removed this month, and then he’ll begin working with three prosthetic feet.
“I’ll get three: one for running, one for everyday use and one that can get wet,” Rhodes said. “I’m confident that I will be able to continue duck hunting, and maybe get back to deer and even squirrel hunting.
“I planned it for July so I could get the early part of the summer with my boys and wife, and then have time to rehab and be ready for our annual traditional opening-weekend dove hunt in September. That’s a big thing for my family.”
Then comes the rest of the hunting season.
“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know what all I’ll be able to do, but I do see a day when I can deer and squirrel hunt again — and I will, for sure, duck hunt. It has become my new passion.
“I know it’s crazy to say that duck hunting and a dog helped me get through this, but it did. I see the day when I could hunt alone.”
That drive amazes others.
“My doctor in Memphis calls me an inspiration,” Rhodes said. “All I know is that I am the kind of person that never gets down. I never give up, and I never gave up.”