Jimmie Cooper: The Consummate Cowboy

When I got the call from Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association Commissioner Troy Ellerman earlier this year asking me to sit on the ProRodeo Hall of Fame Selection Committee, I was deeply humbled. It was not the kind of call where you hang up the phone and go straight to jumping up and down and screaming. At that conversation’s end, I just sat down and smiled. Wow. What an honor.

Then I got a knot in my stomach. Big honor, but even bigger responsibility. Within a few days, a huge, fat notebook of Hall of Fame nominees arrived at my door. There were pages upon pages of contestants, stock contractors, contract personnel, rodeo notables and livestock who’d been brought to the committee’s attention by way of the written nomination process. They were followed by another fat section of contestants who are automatically eligible for consideration because they’ve won at least one world title.

Determined to pull my weight and go into the selection pow wow prepared, I started in on my homework immediately. The first thing I did was enlist my dad, a PRCA gold card cowboy who was around long before me and has a fair and honest eye for evaluating talent and character. We sat at my kitchen counter, went down all the lists name by name, and he told me which of those people made a mark on the sport big enough to grab his attention in his 67-year tenure on this earth.

Then I picked up the phone, and talked to others in my trusted inner circle whose opinions I respect. I spoke to several high-profile, gold-buckle types and a few more obscure but no less worthy in an effort to narrow the field down to the real-deal dominators. I also dug through rodeo’s history books, and thought hard about the best ways to select only those who are genuinely legit.

The rigorous research made a few things clear to me. I do not believe we should induct current contestants. Yes, it might draw a bigger crowd to the induction ceremony. But with Troy trying to run a tighter financial PRCA ship, he doesn’t need to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a one-day photo opp and 500 pounds of barbecued beef when those same dollars could be better eartagged for the cowboys’ pockets and taking the sport to the next level.

There’s no doubt Jake Barnes and Clay O’Brien Cooper (Class of 1997) belong in the Hall, but (A) They’d have appreciated the honor a whole lot more if their rodeo days were behind them, and (B) 100 years from now, when some wide-eyed kid tours the halls of the Hall, he’s going to assume their careers ended in 1997, because that’s when their plaques were set in stone. The rest of their careers may never be told in the context of the Hall, which is the very place that’s supposed to link the past to the present.

I also feel strongly that politics should never apply to the Hall of Fame selection process. Someone with a campaign committee of family and friends behind them deserves less pull, in my eyes, than the old timer, who may even be dead by now, who deserves it more but didn’t care to fill out the paperwork. The best cowboys should get in-period-which leads me to the name that jumped straight off that pile of pages at me.

Jimmie Cooper is a legend of a cowboy and a legend of a man. When I saw his name on that long list of eligible but not officially nominated people, I stopped, double-checked the list of existing all-around inductees to be sure he wasn’t already in, and wrote his name at the top of my list. It was an obvious wrong that needed to be righted, so I jotted down a few points about why this guy deserves to head into the Hall and go down in rodeo history with the rest of the legends of this sport.

Jimmie Cooper roped calves at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo seven straight years from 1980-86, bulldogged at the 1980-83 Finals and team roped with three-time World Champion Team Roper Allen Bach at three straight Finals from 1984-86. He won the ultimate cowboy crown of World Champion All-Around Cowboy in 1981, after earning the honor of PRCA Overall Rookie of the Year in 1980. He won the NFR steer wrestling average title in 1983, and is one of only 12 cowboys ever to qualify for the Finals in three events.

Need I say more? The guy was a dominating force during his career. His wasn’t the longest run of all time, but it was mighty. He was all in, then all out. He pulled the plug in the peak of his prime to go home and raise his three kids with the love of his life, Shryl. Two of them, identical twins Jake and Jim, are the reigning 2004 PRCA Team Roping Rookies of the Year and are on track to make their NFR debut this December. More importantly, they’re as good as young guns get outside the arena-as human beings. Jimmie Cooper unselfishly cut his career short, but he sure didn’t short the sport.

This year’s Class of 2005, which will be inducted July 16 in Colorado Springs, is a small one. I think that’s progress in itself. A ProRodeo Hall of Fame induction is supposed to be special and rare. The more the merrier does not apply here.

In addition to Cooper, 2005 Hall of Famers include World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Joe Marvel; World Champion Bareback Rider Chris LeDoux, who brought endless attention to the sport with his true-to-life cowboy songs and died too young of cancer in March; late Rodeo Clown and Actor Slim Pickens; Stock Contracting Legend Marvin Brookman and late 1929 World Champion Team Roper and Steer Roper Charlie Maggini.

Like Cooper, Marvel’s career was relatively short. But it was brilliant. That guy owned his event in his era. Three of these inductees are dead, you say. How exciting will that party be? If you asked that question, you missed the point. They may be dead, but that doesn’t diminish their contributions to the sport. And we should never forget where we came from.

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