ISLAMORADA -- Florida Keys fishing guide Gary Ellis beamed as he watched his pretty daughter Nicole, 28, flirt with two handsome Army Special Forces soldiers during the 25th Redbone Celebrity Tournament.
“Did you get their numbers?” Dad asked.
“Not yet, but I’m working on it,” she responded with a smile.
Gary and Susan Ellis are full of hope that their daughter will one day marry and become a mom. It’s a great leap from the early years of Nicole’s life, when the Ellises did everything they could to make sure she made it to adulthood.
Nicole was born with cystic fibrosis, which causes the body to produce sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and prevents the digestive system from working properly.
In 1984, the outlook for someone born with the inherited chronic disease was bleak. Doctors told the new parents that with good care, their newborn “might live to be a teenager.”
“We didn’t know what cystic fibrosis was, but we knew we were going to fight it,” Gary Ellis said. “My daughter was not going to die a teenager.”
Almost immediately, the Ellises began a decades-long crusade to find a cure for this cruel killer of kids. They made regular trips to the mainland to volunteer for events that raised money for cystic fibrosis research: bowl-a-thons, walkathons and the Pringles Light Tennis Classic, with Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
In 1988, they decided to put Gary’s fishing expertise to good use. They founded the Redbone Celebrity Tournament, running it from the kitchen table of their Islamorada home.
During a half day of bonefishing on the flats, Gary convinced his client and crusty friend Ted Williams, the Hall of Fame baseball great for the Boston Red Sox, to lend his name to the cause.
“Teddy Ballgame could put more expletives in one sentence than any living human being,” Gary said during a recent interview. “He told me: ‘I don’t [expletive] fish in [expletive] fishing tournaments.” I said: ‘It’s to save kids’ lives.’ I knew he had a big heart.”
Williams, a part-time Islamorada resident, went on to rant about how many fish the tournament would kill. “I quit killing fish,’’ he said. That’s the moment Gary decided it would be a catch-and-release tournament.
Williams autographed an artist’s sketch of himself. He wrote: “Save young lives, fish the Redbone for cystic fibrosis.” His name led to a slew of celebrities attending the inaugural event, including Curt Gowdy of American Sportsman; then-New York Mets manager Davey Johnson, now manager of the Washington Nationals; retired New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio; retired Boston Celtics star John Havlicek, and Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo the bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book.
The mission: to catch redfish, bonefish and “the cure for cystic fibrosis.”
Despite 25-mile-per-hour winds blowing out the torches during the outdoor kickoff dinner, the 33-boat tournament was a success, raising $16,000. Many of the celebrities wanted to return the next year. Soon, it grew to a trilogy series, with tournaments added in Key Largo and Key West. It got so crazy, with more than 90 boats registering for one tournament, that the boat entries were limited to 65.