Derrick Begay has never been a big talker. But he has always been a thoughtful thinker who’s a whole lot brighter, more insightful, and interesting than the average buckaroo bear. That’s why he’s so much fun to talk to, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance.
One recent day when Begay rode up on his bike at the Reno Rodeo, the sun caught his buckle, which in turn caught my eye. I have no idea why I’ve never really noticed it in the 11 years since he won it. It may have tarnished a little from tough wear and tear out on the rugged Arizona desert, where he’s often horseback and tracking wild cattle out in the cacti-covered rattlesnake country of his Seba Dalkai home out on the Navajo Nation.
But this buckle—which he won heading for Victor Aros at the 2007 Horkdog Classic—means as much to Begay today as the day he won it. He will never forget that classic crossroads in his young cowboy career.
“This buckle changed my life,” said Begay, who’ll turn 35 on August 15, but hadn’t yet turned 24 when he won the buckle in the spring of 2007. “It means a lot to me, because of all it stands for.
I started wearing it right when I won it. I wore a few others around the house at first, because I was trying to save this one for special occasions, and keep it shiny and new for a little while. But after the first couple years, and the first few scratches, I stopped doing that. Now I wear it no matter what—whether I’m working at home or out here rodeoing.
“Before I won this buckle, I stayed close to the house. After I won this buckle—and the $21,000 that came with it—I bought my (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) card and started (rodeoing) at Guymon (Oklahoma) with Victor. If I hadn’t won this buckle, I don’t know where I’d be today. At that time, I was driving a single-cab Dodge with a two-horse, side-by-side trailer in tow. All I had in it was my old paint horse, Paint. This buckle was my first big break.”
And it came on the heels of an important lead-up event for the ranch cowboy who went on to be a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header.
“About three weeks before the Horkdog, I was 3.31 (seconds) with Cesar (de la Cruz) to win the second round at the George Strait (Team Roping Classic),” Begay remembers well. “Victor knew I roped good enough, but I told him I didn’t have the money to enter the George Strait. So he got a guy from home to pay my fees for half there that year. That’s really where it all started. If I didn’t do what I did at the Strait that year, I wouldn’t have gone to the Horkdog, which cost $500 a man to enter. And if I hadn’t entered the Horkdog that year, I wouldn’t have won that life-changing $21,000 there in Vegas.”
Begay made his first NFR the following year—in 2008—with Aros. The now million-dollar header went on to rope at the Finals with de la Cruz five straight years, from 2009-13, then returned to Rodeo’s Super Bowl with The Champ (Clay O’Brien Cooper) in 2015.
“Those were some great years,” said Begay, who spent 2016 with Cooper in the Elite Rodeo Association (ERA), and is currently basing his roping operation out of Wisconsin alongside current partner and reigning World Champion Heeler Cory Petska. “To look back and think about it—it was fun. The funnest part was that year and a half with Victor. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and every rodeo we went to was new to me. I didn’t know anything about the conditions or set-ups—I was just showing up at the next one and roping.”
Back to that bike… It’s silver, sleek, and—just like Begay—built for speed. It was built for a whole lot more than cruising around at rodeos, and had obviously never had boots and spurs pushing its pedal before. It’s fancy, but Begay doesn’t have a name-brand-dropping bone in his body.
“I don’t remember what kind it is,” he said. “My good friend Charlie Hall is a big-time bike rider, and I know this bike was built for off-road mountain-bike racing. He’s a real deal bike rider—he puts on the tights, the helmet, the fancy glasses, gloves, and shoes. This bike had been sitting in his shop for a few years, and he wasn’t using it, so I offered to buy it from him. He asked if I was sure, because it’s a $4,500 bike. That wasn’t happening, so he gave it to me.
“I always find room in my trailer for it. I’m on dirt 99.9 percent of the time at home. So a week of walking on the pavement is hard on me. It gets to my feet and legs, plus it wears out your boots. I ride this bike around for fun, and it’s great transportation. I use it to go check on my horse, check the draw, and get a lemonade.”
Before joining forces with Petska, Begay had a weeklong roping rendezvous with Jade Corkill in Reno. Things didn’t go according to plan at the BFI or the Reno Rodeo—he even received a text from the living, Nevada-native legend, who’s never known an excuse he could stomach, saying “sorry for wasting your time” after Corkill roped a rare leg on their first one at the rodeo. But Begay—who missed their second steer, and also made no excuse for that—recognized the obvious opportunity just the same.
“You always have great intentions and high hopes every time you back in that box, but the cool part about this sport is that you just never know,” Begay said. “All you can do is show up prepared, and try your best. In my opinion, Clay is the greatest heeler of all time. Rich (Skelton) has the most world championships, and rarely messes up. And Jade’s right there with them. To get to rope with him was a great honor, even though we didn’t win anything.
“Being on the same team with Jade for one whole week was fun. Just to listen to what he has to say after every run was neat. You get to know a guy best when you’re on his team. You get to have conversations no one else ever hears, like when you’re walking out of the arena. I finally got to be that fly on the wall with Jade. Yes, I was bummed out that it didn’t work out as hoped and planned. But you have to take the good with the bad. It wasn’t like I’m not good enough. Or my horse didn’t work good enough. I was just glad I got the chance to rope with him. I had the chance to step up to the plate, and rope with one of the best who’s ever been. If that chance comes again, it comes again. If it doesn’t, I can say I’ve been there and done that. Not very many people can say they got to rope with Jade Corkill at the biggest roping of the year.”
After a Cowboy Christmas run that included roping with Ty Romo at one all-Indian rodeo, two amateur rodeos, and the pro rodeos in Prescott (where they placed in the second round) and Window Rock, Arizona (they’re winning it with two perfs yet to play out), and heeling for reigning World Champion Header Erich Rogers at the rodeo in Flagstaff, Arizona (according to Begay, “I roped a leg to win it”), this week’s Begay-Petska Plan included rodeo stops Spooner, Wisconsin, and Hamel and Isanti, Minnesota. I got to be the fly on the wall this time—listening in on the speaker phone in their truck—while they pulled into Spooner Thursday evening to watch the steers and the start.
Begay and Petska weren’t actually up until today—Friday—and were trying to talk their way past a well-meaning gate guy, who obviously had strict marching orders not to let anyone into the contestant parking area that was not up in that night’s performance. Cory was at the wheel, so was doing most of the talking. And Cory was cool, calm, and honest about his intentions—and the fact that no, they were not up that night. They got a no-go from the gate guard.
Many a freshly crowned champ of the world would have been tempted to flash his shiny, new gold buckle and pop off with something along the lines of, “apparently you have no idea who you’re talking to.” But true to Petska—and Begay—form, it was instead “yes sir,” then a quiet U-turn back to the fan lot to pay for a parking spot with the rest of that night’s crowd.
It was a hard no. And yet still looking for that silver lining you can always see if you look hard enough, Begay kept bright-siding it.
“I haven’t seen so much green in a long, long time,” Begay noted, without skipping a beat over the gateman’s denial of their forward progress and free parking, and in contrast to the severe draught in his home country right now. “It seems like every mile there’s a little lake, there’s grass for miles, and trees everywhere. People here probably cuss having to mow their lawns all the time. They have no idea what people in my area would give for this kind of moisture. There’s always good and bad everywhere you go. I’ve been here in the wintertime, too, and it’s cold when it’s warm at my house.
“The people here are really nice. Even the gate guy. He’s just trying to do what he was told and doing his job. This has been a fun Fourth of July for me. It was the first time I ever got to sleep in my own bed every night during Cowboy Christmas since I started rodeoing, and that was pretty fun for a change. When you’re in the middle of the all-night drives, it’s just what you do, and you accept it. But when you step back away from it, it all seems pretty wild and crazy.”