Clay Smith’s summer run came to a screeching halt June 28, when both bones between his right knee and ankle snapped coming out of the box at the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. The two-time World Champion Header, who was roping with Jake Long when horror hit, had surgery in Phoenix the next day and is now on crutches and resting up back home with his family—wife Taylor, and kids, Jade, Scarlett and baby Noah—in Iowa Park, Texas. He’s on crutches, but his positive attitude cannot be stopped.
“They cut my knee open, and put a rod in right below by knee down to my ankle, with screws on both ends of it,” said Smith, who won back-to-back gold buckles in 2018 and ’19.
By now, you’ve surely seen videos of what went down from various angles—some of which are more graphic and hard to watch than others. Smith remembers every last detail, like it happened in slow motion.
“I wish I remembered nothing, but unfortunately I had a pretty good angle, and there’s none of it I don’t remember,” Smith said. “My leg being broken that night is about the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never felt pain like that before.”
“I was there at Prescott the night York Gill’s heel horse flipped end over end in about 2015, because the barrier didn’t pull out in front of his horse fast enough. It’s always been scarier for the heeler than the header there. Because the box is wider and both guys come from the same (right) side of the steer, there’s more rope in front of two horses and it takes longer for that rope to clear both horses. The header goes through the barrier first, then the heeler comes behind. And when it gets to the end, that rope slows down.”
Smith explained that this time the wreck had nothing to do with the barrier rope that stretches across the front of the box in front of both horses.
“It was the actual neck rope that got me,” Clay said. “I’d watched a few runs of the calf ropers and breakaway ropers, and they said it was kind of popping up in front of some of the breakaway ropers. It wasn’t being tied on loose enough, and it wasn’t being held onto the correct way. It needs to feed through your hand. When you just drop it on the ground, it tends to shoot back up in the air, which makes the direction of the steer dictate where it’s going to shoot up at.”
This was one very sad perfect storm for Smith.
“It was the best worst-case scenario for getting hurt,” Clay continued. “I got a good start, and the steer stepped to the right. Headers at Prescott want to break to the pin, then cross over and get over on the left side of the steer. I call it threading the needle, and by breaking to the pin and getting a good start, I was within distance of the steer quick, and ready to rope him fast.
“That steer stepped fast to the right, and I could see that barrier rope at eye level with me when it popped off of the steer. At first, I thought it might hit my rope. Then I could see it starting to drop down, and I could see and feel it hit my horse in the chest. I thought I was just going to run through the neck rope like I’d run through the barrier rope. I figured it would hit my horse’s chest and bounce away. But as I ran through it, the neck rope was just long enough that it somehow got around my right spur and the back of my foot.”
Like all good head horses, Flinty leaves the corner hard.
“My horse was running full speed ahead, and it happened as fast as anything can,” Clay said. “It jerked my toe into my horse, and twisted my ankle so hard that it spiral-fractured both bones immediately at my shin, right about halfway between my knee and ankle. It almost jerked me off of my horse, and it hurt so bad the second it happened.
“If it had gotten my toe instead of my spur and heel, nothing might have come of it. But I guess I’m lucky it came off. If that rope stays on there, I don’t know how it wouldn’t have jerked my whole leg off. There are so many ways it could have been worse.”
That bright-side search for a silver lining here is about the best Clay can do for now.
“When I looked down, I could see my right foot dangling,” Smith said. “I had nothing from the knee down, and it felt like my foot was just going to fall off.”
A crew of cowboys rushed in to Smith’s rescue, and got him to the sportsmed room back behind the bucking chutes.
“I remember the Justin Sportsmedicine people trying to pull my boot off of my foot,” Clay remembers. “It hurt so bad. They loaded me up into the ambulance, and took me to the hospital in Prescott. A few hours later—at about 3 that next morning—they loaded me back up in the ambulance, and took me to a hospital in Phoenix, where they did the surgery.”
Smith remembers a sea of friendly cowboy faces in his time of need, including Long, Dustin Egusquiza, Jake Edwards, Marcus Theriot, Cory Kidd and Nelson Wyatt.
“So many guys helped me out that night,” Smith said. “Those guys carried me out of that arena like I was sitting in a chair. And Travis Bard taking our horses to his house, so Jake could take his car to the hospital was a very nice gesture. That let Jake stay with me there in Phoenix until my in-laws could get there.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s family—Taylor; their son, Jade, who’s 4; daughter, Scarlett, 2; and baby girl, Noah—were at their friend Jared Fillmore’s place in Payson, Utah.
“Jake and I had entered Prescott for the first performance or out, so had gotten drawn out,” Clay said. “We weren’t going to go to Prescott. But we got a call that there was an open spot, so we got in and decided to go.”
It was too soon for the doctors in Phoenix to predict a return date for Smith. He’ll be seen this coming Tuesday, July 12, in Dallas by Justin Sportsmedicine’s Dr. Tandy Freeman on the two-week anniversary of the accident. Tandy savvies what it is Clay’s trying to get back to doing, so will have a better idea of the time it’ll take to heal to the point of not putting himself at risk of further injury.
“Tandy’s going to take the staples out from the surgery, and give me what he thinks is a realistic time frame for coming back,” Clay said. “I’m hoping and praying for maybe the first part of August. I figure if I can play golf, I can team rope. So it surely shouldn’t be too long.”
Clay left Phoenix on crutches, and with doctor’s orders of no weight-bearing for six weeks. Tandy told him to move his toes and wiggle his foot as much as he could stand it, so we’ll see what it looks like for his roping rebound come Tuesday.
So many people pounced on the dangers of rope barriers in the aftermath of Clay’s bad break. But this is far from a simple conversation, so caution should be taken before making broad generalizations.
“When the neck rope is that long—out there more than 18-20 feet—it can be very unpredictable,” Smith said. “When the barrier is short and there’s not much neck rope out there, in a setup like, say, the NFR, it’s not that dangerous. There’s not that much rope out there, and the best guys are handling that rope.
“What I’ve come to realize is there’s a reason why they pay guys like John Gwatney, Tony Amaral and Andy Hilton. That job those guys do is more important than a lot of people realize, and they understand how it all works—how it needs to lay, and that it needs to feed through their hand. When you take that experience out of the equation, things get dangerous fast.
“People have been paralyzed and killed at the hand of guys who don’t know what they’re doing there at the barrier. I’ve seen a neck rope grab Jake Barnes around the neck at Belle Fourche that should have killed him, because it was tied on wrong and flew up and got him. Thank goodness it broke loose, or it would have killed Jake.”
Clay was eighth in the world at the time of the accident, which sent him home for Cowboy Christmas. He’s 14th now. Long was second in the world on the heeling side before heading home to Texas after Prescott. He’s still second, thanks in part to winning RodeoHouston with Clay Tryan before the partner swap that now has Tryan heading for Jade Corkill.
“I have a little bit of a mixed bag going while I wait for Clay to come back,” Long said. “JD Yates was entered in the steer roping at Cheyenne, but not the team roping. So I’ll heel for JD at Cheyenne. I’m roping with Brady Tryan the week of Nampa, Spanish Fork, Ogden and Deadwood, and I’m entered with Brock Hansen starting at Dodge City. We’ll just wait and see what Clay’s timeline looks like after that. Hopefully, he’ll be back before we know it.”
Smith is in good spirits, and enjoying beating the Texas heat by taking his family to the movies the likes of Minions and Top Gun.
“The first few days I came home, it was hard just sitting there watching all those rodeos I was supposed to be at on The Cowboy Channel,” Clay said. “It was just about to kill me not being out there. But I have to realize how fortunate I am that my kids and family are healthy. And I know there’s a reason this all happened.
“God’s got a bigger plan. It’s hard to see it at the start sometimes, but it’ll come. Not many guys get to be home with their families this time of year. So I’m going to appreciate that, and have a good attitude about it. I can’t change what happened, so I might as well make the best of it.”