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2009 Challenged Hunter of the Year – Mike Cranford

By Chad Waligura

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Mike receiving the Challenged Hunter of the Year award from Streamlight’s Brad Penny.


As a young boy growing up in Foreman, Arkansas, little Mike’s first taste of the outdoors came when his dad started taking him along on coon hunts in the woods nearby. “I was only eight or nine,” Mike recalled, “and dad would carry me on his back when we went out.” Once he started, there was no going back. He was hooked! Soon, he began hunting on his own for small game like rabbits, squirrels and other varmints, just like every other boy growing up in the country. Mike also liked wing-shooting for quail and ducks before eventually moving on to big game. For him, that meant whitetail deer hunting.

In 1988, all those pursuits were interrupted. One harmless summer day in August while out with friends on the Red River, Mike had an accident. One minute he was fine, the next he had a limp body after a dive into muddy water. The next thing Mike knew, he was being air-lifted to St. Paul hospital in Dallas for surgery to stabilize a fractured neck, leaving behind on the riverbank the able-bodied life that he knew and loved. His life was changed forever. Mike was 23.

Two weeks later, St. Paul sent Mike to another hospital in Dallas for rehabilitation where he would spend the next three months learning how to cope with life as a C-6 quadriplegic. When he got released from that rehab in late December, hunting was the last thing on his mind.

Two years would pass before Mike started thinking about the outdoors again. His passions were calling. And even though he struggled with the usual issues of a first-time disabled hunter, Mike was determined to go. “I went out a couple times that year,” Mike recalled, “but I didn’t have the right equipment at all, just a gun rest, like a bipod. It wasn’t right for me at all. It was good to get out there, but I couldn’t do anything like I used to. I couldn’t get around like I used to. I couldn’t hold my gun. I couldn’t shoot. Talk about frustrating! It was pretty much a total failure. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do it again.”

Dad, don’t move. Don’t even breathe!” Mike whispered urgently, staring at the biggest buck he’d ever seen standing stiff-legged 60 yards away staring right back at him. “I couldn’t move and he looked like he was about to break. He just had that look.

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View from the ‘open air’ bale blind where Mike and his dad hunted in Kansas

After that, Mike put all his focus back onto his life. That meant finding a job, making his house more accessible, getting help for his daily needs like dressing and going to the bathroom. Basically, how to live again. Hunting got shoved to the back of the line for the next several seasons.

It wasn’t until 1999 that opportunity came looking for Mike again. A friend of his, a welder, came up with an idea to use a store bought gun rest and craft it to his chair so his hands could be free to work the trigger. When Mike heard this idea, he loved it! Soon he and his buddy were headed back into the woods with a new (and improved) gun rig. “Well… it worked! I ended up taking a buck that season. Nothing big, just a little five pointer, but it meant the world to me. It meant I could still do it.”

“Two years later was when I really got deer hunting fever,” Mike said with conviction. “I had my life in order by then and I wanted back one of the things I loved doing, big game hunting. I felt like I had a lot of lost time to make up for.” But Mike didn’t want to just be able to hunt, he wanted to take it to the next level. He wanted to really challenge himself, to go after ‘trophy-class’ deer.

That’s when Mike’s next great opportunity appeared. He got a call from his friend David Sullivan from Buckmasters who invited him to put his name in for a deer hunt they were putting on in Kansas that fall. He accepted immediately. Things were quickly falling into place now.

This Kansas hunt was a BADF (Buckmasters’ American Deer Foundation) event run by Cam Tribolet. Any eligible ‘mobility-impaired’ hunter had to first be chosen by Buckmasters before putting in for a deer tag through the Kansas public draw. Well… Mike got both. He was giddy at the idea of going on his first hunt in a state that is known for big bucks. He spent all summer saving for the trip.

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Mike, his dad Burl and landowner Doug Eden celebrate Mike’s first trophy-class buck

When the day finally came, Mike and his dad drove up to meet David and Cam near Fort Scott, KS, on a ranch owned by a generous couple, Doug and Chelle, who offered their land for this special two & a half day hunt. “It was snowing when we got there,” Mike began. “As a matter of fact, it was nine degrees that first morning, and they had us in a blind made of stacked hay bales. Brotha, it was COLD!”

On the second afternoon of the hunt, Mike and his dad sat quietly, huddled together in the same airy blind facing a creek bottom. There were six new inches of snow on the ground and the sun shone brightly. The wind was just beginning to lay when a few does popped out of the trees to feed along the creek. Something big was about to happen and Mike could feel it. He had bundled up so much with clothes, though, that he could barely turn his head when a buck strode out. “Dad, don’t move. Don’t even breathe!” Mike whispered urgently, staring at the biggest buck he’d ever seen standing stiff-legged 60 yards away staring right back at him. “That’s when I got really scared,” he confessed. “I couldn’t move and he looked like he was about to break. He just had that look.”

For many long seconds, both sides stood frozen, like ice sculptures sticking up from the snow blanket on the ground around them. Mike even held his breath. The buck stood watching, waiting. “He didn’t run though,” Mike continued. “He just put his head down and started walking away. That’s when dad pulled my chair around because I can only shoot to my left and the buck was on my right. Dad got me on him and he didn’t hear us ‘Thank God.’ I put it on him fast as I could and shot and he ran off over the hill. I knew I’d hit him though.” Mike exhaled in relief.

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Mike holding his 13 point 155″ Kansas buck

“They told us to stay in the blind and not to go walking around, but we couldn’t do that. I had to know he was down so I sent dad to go check. When he got over the hill, dad hollered back ‘I see him!’” “How good is he? How many points does he have” Mike shouted back. “Well, if you add ‘em all up, he has seven,” his dad answered… ‘A seven point? How could that be? I didn’t look that good at his rack but I thought he was bigger. I can’t believe he’s only a seven. Maybe it was possible. Ugh!’ Disappointing thoughts raced through Mike’s mind. “On one side!” his dad finished. Then they both looked at each other and laughed with exhilaration.

In 2004, Mike started the Southern Sportsmen Foundation by organizing his own group deer hunt for disabled hunters near his hometown in Arkansas. Through his trials, he knew how difficult it can be for some people. He wanted to give them an opportunity to get out with other disabled hunters and be able to share info on adaptive devices with whoever needed it.

Mike is currently president of SSF and coordinates one disabled deer hunt and one youth (disabled/debilitating illness) hunt every year. He’s in charge of every detail of the hunt: finding the places where the hunt will take place, raising money for hunter expenses, making sure all the blinds are accessible and in the right places, getting volunteer guides for every hunter, arranging all the meals, etc. “Hunting is what I live for now,” Mike says. “I work so I can afford to hunt. When our group hunt ends, we start planning next year’s hunt that day. And when our deer season closes, I begin making plans for next one almost immediately. In essence I hunt everyday of the year.”

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Hunters and volunteers at Buckmasters’ Life Hunt in Alabama

Last year, Mike was nominated for Streamlight’s Challenged Hunter of the Year award by his old friend David Sullivan.

In an effort to honor our presenting sponsor Streamlight, BADF takes applications each year for the Streamlight Challenged Hunter of the Year Award. The recipient is recognized for his or her return from disability or illness, and what they have done to help improve the lives of others through hunting and the outdoors. Challenged Hunters of the Year are selected based on a combination of the way they overcame their own obstacles in life, and what they have achieved afterward in helping others accomplish the same.

In the fall of 2009, Streamlight chose Mike for this award. After twenty years of struggling through the challenges of life following a SCI… failing, succeeding, failing again, then succeeding, Mike received one of the biggest honors for a disabled hunter. It meant that he had overcome adversity at the highest level, and not only accomplished his personal goals in the outdoors, but helped pass that good news on to others who are facing the same battle. “It’s a daily grind. It can wear on you.” Mike says. “You just have to keep on, you know? Keep working toward what you want in life.”

It also meant that Mike was invited to Buckmasters’ Life Hunts Classic in Alabama to hunt with Jackie Bushman and a special group of young hunters for three days on the famed Sedgefield’s Plantation.

Twenty-two years after his paralyzing injury, Mike arrived to the Life Hunts Classic on Monday, January 11th, with bullets in his pockets and hope in his heart, chomping to finally get off the road and on the hunt. This truly was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Mike.

“It was something special,” he said after returning home, “The people were the best thing about it. Huntin’ is huntin’ anywhere you go, you know? It’s the people that make the difference.” While there, Mike and his dad met Sedgefields’ owner Jimmy Hinton, Streamlight’s Brad Penny, Jackie Bushman, his guide Jeff Woods along with all the other hunters who were invited to attend the 2010 event. “You could touch the excitement in the air,” Mike continued. “There were some kids there that had some real serious problems, but you couldn’t tell it by looking. They were happy the whole time they were there.”

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Mike, Burl and guide Jeff Woods with a big wide Alabama 8 point

On Tuesday afternoon, a buckmasters’ camera man followed Mike and Jeff to a green wheat patch that looked like an oasis among the lifeless grey trees and the pale yellow grasses that had long ago lost their color to frost. The weather was perfect. A cold breeze puffed barely enough to sway the few leaves that were left. The sun shone bright and the rut was on! It’s one of those days that deer hunters dream about.

After watching several does and little bucks chase around the field from a brush blind, another wide rack of antlers showed itself to Mike from the woods. A scene he once could only dream about was about to happen again, and with his favorite hunting partner by his side, his dad. While the camera rolled, Mike sealed the deal on a nice eight point whitetail.

“I loved being a part of that. It was an honor for me to get that award, and all for doing something I love doing. I believe it’s pretty much the same reason that they do this Life Hunt every year. All those guys deserve awards too.” No doubt, but none of them had to overcome the obstacles Mike had. In the wake of a life changing event, Mike never gave up his passion for hunting and the outdoors. Now he’s devoted to giving others the same opportunity, showing them how to navigate the same bumpy path he rolled down. He’s living proof of what can be done when the spirit is unwilling to give up.

  Story Sponsored by Vortex Optics

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