Robert Goodner first found his way to cloud nine in August, when he got the news that he was the one juvenile (under 16) to be selected for a precious permit to hunt elk in Tennessee in 2014.
On Sunday morning, however, when the 14-year-old Polk County youngster pulled the trigger on the largest bull elk to be taken in the state this year, he found his way to a cloud much higher—and he hasn't come down yet. His grandfather, Scott Thomas from Cleveland, is right up there in the clouds with him.
"I'm so proud of Robert I just can't stand it," Thomas said.
There is really no way to capture in words and fully share the excitement Goodner felt Sunday morning. Like most teenagers, he is a little reserved—call it "cool"—when you talk to him. His grandfather, however, still bubbles with enthusiasm four days after the hunt. The story pours out of "Papaw" in a never-ending stream. I couldn't type fast enough to get it all.
"After Robert got drawn, we made six trips to the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area to scout," Thomas said.
They were accompanied by retired Cleveland Police Chief Wes Snyder.
"We were the three amigos," Thomas said. "We found some amazing signs ... wallows, horning, droppings, trails, just everything. We felt like we were in a great spot Saturday morning."
Goodner, an accomplished deer hunter, said they sat from dark to dark.
"That was my first time sitting dark to dark," he said. "I couldn't sit still for nothing."
Saturday, however, was a disappointing day.
"The only thing we saw all day was two turkeys and a mink," said Goodner, who only had two days to hunt. Sunday would be make or break.
"I started getting worried," he said. "I had a hard time sleeping."
Saturday night, Thomas had called Royal Blue TWRA area manager Steve Bennett, who shared a tip on where a bull was heard bugling.
"We pulled up by the Royal Blue Baptist Church at 6:10 a.m. Sunday morning," Thomas said. "Wildlife Officer Joel Hyden first told us about the area, and we had scouted there a lot, so much that we actually got to know several of the parishioners. As we sat there in the truck, we heard the bull bugle at 6:13."
With the bull elk bugling every five to 10 minutes, the three amigos knew that it was game on.
"Hearing them bugle makes every hair on your body do the wave," Thomas said. "There's no other sound like it. You just can't describe the thrill that Mother Nature has put an animal on this planet that can do what they can do. They are so majestic."
The threesome eased into the woods in the dark, quietly approaching the field where they thought the bull was bugling. When they felt they were close enough, they sat down to wait for good light. Legal shooting time was 7:22 a.m.
"We had to wait 11 minutes," Goodner said. "That was the longest 11 minutes of my life. I put my phone on dim and just stared at it as every second ticked down. As soon as it turned 7:22, I stood up and started walking toward the field."
In the excitement, the threesome separated slightly.
"Wes and I spotted the bull, and I started down the road to get Robert," Thomas said.
However, Goodner had also spotted the bull himself.
"There were two cows, a calf and the bull," Goodner said. "I had to look close to see the bull. His horns were such a chocolate color you couldn't hardly see them."
But see them he did.
"In one fluid motion, Robert opened his shooting sticks, settled the gun and 'boom,'" Thomas said.
"I hit him, Papaw; I hit him," yelled Goodner, who could still see the elk running. "He stopped, and I was about to shoot him again when he just fell over."
Even a "cool" teenager is man enough to admit that after months of anticipation and preparation for such a rare opportunity, it was an emotional moment.
"Yes, sir, I was about to cry," Goodner said. "I had tears of joy in my eyes."
Thomas said, "The closer I got to [the bull], the bigger those antlers got. Oh man, what a feeling."
The 8-year-old bull, born and bred in Tennessee, sported 6-by-8 antlers and field dressed 646 pounds. It was a big bull, and this week, Goodner has been the "big man on campus" at Polk County High School. On Monday morning, his vice principal came into class to ask if he had taken an elk and asked to see the photo on Goodner's iPhone. However, it is strictly against the rules for students to power up cellphones at Polk County High.
"I can't do that. It's against the rules," Goodner said.
"It's OK. I know the principal," the vice principal told him.
"I turned on my phone and showed him," Goodner said. "From then on, every teacher wanted to see a picture. I ended up passing my phone around to everyone in every class I went to. They even announced it over the intercom."
The excitement of this hunt of a lifetime will live with this young man forever—and he is wise enough to appreciate the gift he's been given. After finishing my questions, I asked Goodner if he had anything he wanted to add.
Immediately and with more sincerity than most teens can ever muster, he said, "I want to thank my Papaw, Mr. Snyder, all the TWRA agents and everyone else who helped me."
He went on, wanting to make it clear that everyone knows of the many people who helped make his dream come true. I knew then that Robert Goodner is a young man who deserves good fortune.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.