U.S. Army veterans Rocky Gaudious and Jon Kelly are the champion team ropers of the Military/First Responder Open Roping after besting a field of 260 teams with a time of 37.82 on four head over two days of roping in the American Hero Celebration with Charly Crawford, a Liberty & Loyalty Foundation event.
Gaudious, who turns 35 in February and served in the Army between 2008 and 2014 before continuing his service in the National Guard for another two years, hails from New Jersey, where he was raised by his barrel racing mom and calf roping dad. He’s been roping as long as he can remember, and got back into it when he returned to New Jersey after his service.
Guadious first attended the American Hero Celebration (formerly the American Military Celebration) about four years ago and was even able to attend the roping school last year, where he was under Trey Johnson’s tutelage on the heel side.
“I’ve kind of switched over to heading,” he explained. “I like to do both, honestly, and I rope calves, too. But the heading, I seem to be on a pretty good roll right now.”
Connecting with Kelly
Gaudious’ good luck started when he drew a heeling partner in Jon Kelly for the 2023 roping. Kelly, who put in his service from 1998 to 2007, is a bit of an AHC legacy member, attending the event since its second year, he estimates. Even in its first formative years, the event got Kelly hooked, but this year was a whole new level.
[Editor’s Note: Readers may remember Kelly from a 2018 story in which a fellow TRJ reader discovered Crawford’s efforts and was able to donate her horses to Kelly for his roping and for his son to learn to ride. Today, both horses remain in the good care of the Kelly family.]
“I hate to say it’s better because I just love it all the way around,” Kelly said, hesitant to diminish the value of his first years participating in the event. “But I look forward to meeting the new guys. It’s just phenomenal.”
Rolling Out the Red Carpet
In addition to more teams entering, this year, Crawford and the rest of the Liberty & Loyalty Foundation board hosted a back number ceremony for the short-go qualifiers modeled entirely after the PRCA’s event that serves as the kickoff to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The ceremony took place during the Heroes Gala at Billy Bob’s 81 Club in the historic Fort Worth Stockyards the night before the short-go.
“I’d never been to the Gala till this year,” Kelly said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. The back number ceremony, the whole gala thing. It’s all a first-class deal.”
Dreams Come True
In fact, making the short-go this year was also a first for the team, meaning Gaudious and Kelly then got to rope inside the Cowtown Coliseum—as close to an NFR setup as there is—in front of a rodeo audience and on a live Cowboy Channel broadcast. The Military/First Responder short-go took place between the final rounds of the NFR Showdown, too, which meant that each of the short-go qualifiers were competing under the watchful eyes of the Top 15 PRCA team ropers in the world.
“The Fort Worth thing was incredible,” Gaudious said. “The whole atmosphere there, just sitting in the tunnel, not just the friends I’ve made—the Army guys and military and first responders—but with the pros sitting right there. Some of them were sitting on the fence while our deal was going on and telling us, ‘Good job.’ Some of them, they’d seen us getting pumped up, and they feed into it, and it’s really cool.”
Kelly’s experience was equally awesome.
“It was a dream come true, for sure,” said Kelly, who’d been wanting to win the roping since his first year. “I don’t even know how to explain it. It was awesome for my family to be there with me.”
“He’s Got a Full Pull”
Gaudious and Kelly entered the short-go as the second high-call team. Their steer broke true and ran straight. Gaudious laid his loop over the horns after two swings, setting the steer up for a smooth handle. Kelly then positioned himself to lay a perfectly timed heel trap to rope the heels.
Cowboy Channel announcers Steve Kenyon and Anthony Lucia matched the roar of the crowd with a boisterous, “He got a full pull!”
The men followed their steer through the outgate and waited for the final team’s go.
“When the guys roped behind us, I said, ‘I think we just got second and that’s really cool,’” Kelly remembered. “And they said, ‘Plus 5,’ and I was like, ‘Oh man,’ and then, ‘Wait a minute. Plus 5? We just won it, dude!’ Charlie was right behind the outgate, and he turned around and he just hollered, ‘Big John!’ From there, I don’t remember a whole lot except hugging my wife and telling her I love her. It was a whirlwind of emotion.”
The Best Cheering Section
Gaudious’ wife, who barrel races and is learning to breakaway, wasn’t able to make the event this year on account of her work commitments and their 15-year-old son’s wrestling schedule, but his 10-year-old boy was able to make the haul.
“Me and my little guy headed out all by ourselves, and that was the most amazing part for me,” Gaudious confirmed. “And when I won and I look over and he’s cheering on the side, that was by far the best part for me.”
Gaudious’ son led the cheers of an electric and patriotic crowd during the victory lap. Back at the outgate, the men dismounted and were called to the arena to be presented their $10,500-a-man checks, trophy buckles by Legend Silver and Tack and fully tooled roping saddles by Elite Custom Saddles. TRJ
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