There’s a Cowboy Compound deep in the heart of Texas, where three generations of rodeo legends live the ultimate cowboy life—together. They work, play, sweat, swim, eat, laugh, cry and enjoy life as one great, big family. They’re also extremely welcoming of their extended family of friends, and were beyond generous in swinging the front gates wide open to my son Taylor and me for one memorable Memorial Day Weekend this year.
The patriarch is one Roy “Super Looper” Cooper, revolutionizer of the tie-down roping event. From his house on the hill he oversees practice sessions of his “other Triple Crown”—his three tie-down roping phenom sons, Clint, Clif and Tuf. From what I saw, Clint’s a morning man, Tuf’s nocturnal and Clif ticks somewhere in the middle, in keeping with their birth order. That means Roy—who circles the wagons just about non-stop 24-7 on his golf cart—has as interrupted a sleep schedule as I’ve ever seen. It’s a way of life, and he does not complain. But he does track each trait, trick, strength and weakness of every horse on the place, and there are a lot of them.
Friday, May 23: With Roy commentating on the sidelines from the seat of his golf cart, Clint, Taylor and Brazilian roper Marcos “Gus” Nicolielo tied to the post, then roped at Roy’s indoor arena. Next-door neighbor Trevor Brazile—the 19-time world champ, winningest cowboy of all time and Roy’s son-in-law (Trevor is married to Roy’s stepdaughter, Shada) came over to visit in his shorts. He brought the kids, Treston and Style, over for the pool party held in honor of Clif’s wife Terryn’s birthday. Treston and Style joined cousins Ceattle Rose, who is Clif and Terryn’s 3-year-old daughter, and Clint and Amber’s boys, Casen, 6, and Canden, 2. No surprise that the floaty-toy centerpiece of the Cooper-Brazile pool is a Holstein.
Trevor took Taylor over to heel a few at his house, and after Taylor lit up over a showing of Trevor’s unparalleled bit collection in the barn, we were treated to Tuf’s second day ever in the steer roping practice pen. By the time you read this he’ll have cracked out, and with his natural talent and two teachers in Trevor and Roy, a friendly family feud over the world all-around throne just might be brewing. Perhaps Trevor’s training his heir apparent. Hey, family first.
Three members of the extended family of friends we got to know today: (1.) Brazilian Marcos “Gus” Nicolielo, who lives with Roy, ropes and rides at the Cowboy Compound every day, and hopes to hit the ProRodeo trail in the not-so-distant future. (2.) Roy’s dear old friend Wishbone, who drove for him for many years when Clif and Tuf were babies, showed up in his bowling shoes to a hearty welcome without notice and stayed the weekend. “Wish” is 87 now, and talked about Clif and Tuf’s diaper days, and how he always stuck up for underdog Tuf. That’s back when Tuf was so small they called him “Itty Bitty.” That stuck, and Treston, Style, Casen, Canden and Ceattle call him “Uncle Itty” or “Itty” for short now. (3.) Then there’s Tuf’s roomie, Slammer Caldwell. After seeing him airplane a couple steers over at Trevor’s after sliding them out of the chute, there was no need to ask how he earned his nickname. Slammer lost a front tooth to a chute-dogging steer, but not to worry. That gap adds character to his already fierce face. Slammer is the undisputed best calf untie man of all time. This crew knows, and they say it’s not even close.
What a treat to tour Trevor and Shada’s house and hear from the Cowboy King himself the stories behind his favorite trophy treasures. They just refurbished Trevor’s childhood roping dummy—carpet-covered-barrel of a horse and steer—for Treston, and that sits on the back porch by the barbecue. I’m a big fan of education, so my favorite room in their amazing house has to be Treston and Style’s classroom. Mom/teacher Shada’s got it set up with school desks, flag for the morning pledge of allegiance, and even a blackboard up front.
Saturday, May 24: Roy’s sweet neighbor Bianca cooked us a Mexican-style breakfast feast, with Bob Seger singing to us in the background. Then Roy and another neighbor friend, Johnny Hudson—dad to three-time Cheyenne buckle winner Keith—jumped in the front seat of Roy’s Caddy, and Taylor and I were treated to great old rodeo stories with “The Boss” Springsteen in the background on our way to the Windy Ryon Roping in Saginaw. We’d never seen it before, and today was tie-down roping day. We’re told Clay Tryan went 1-2-3 at the Windy Ryon Team Roping yesterday. How fun to see that Windy Ryon arena for ourselves. The first thing Taylor noticed was that the arena is so huge they had to have four untie crews.
Trevor’s been a little sore lately, so he scored the Windy Ryon this year. After Treston and Style’s ball games this morning, he and Shada and the kids flew to Vegas to celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary.
That evening, we jumped in with Gus, and he and Taylor rode Roy’s young horse Jesse at Northside, as in Cowtown Coliseum in Fort Worth, as in the world’s oldest indoor rodeo arena, built in 1908. It’s also the place I first watched Clif and Tuf rope, back when Tuf really was Itty Bitty. I was working for the PBR (Professional Bull Riders) at the time, and was in town for Tuff Hedeman’s Championship Challenge Bull Riding. Roy invited me over to Northside to watch his boys. It wasn’t their favorite day in the arena, but it melted me to see old Pops in his boys’ corner in that box, proud and encouraging—win, lose or draw. We took Tuf’s 2005 National Junior High All-Around Champ trailer that night. Taylor and I looked at each other and laughed about that. We laid over at Roy’s between the junior high finals in Gallup, N.M. and my other son Lane’s high school finals in Farmington, N.M., in the summer of 2009. Taylor had just won the national junior high all-around title, and it was the first year they didn’t give a trailer to the champ. The first thing we saw when we pulled into Roy’s driveway was Tuf’s junior high trailer. It’s quite a bit easier for Taylor to laugh about that this time.
We parked next to Brazilian bull riding legend Guilherme Marchi. It was good to see him, and great to see and hear Guilherme and Gus’s animated conversation—in Portuguese. Guilherme was there to watch his wife barrel race, and the gate man wouldn’t let him in. So Gus had to pin his back number on Guilherme to get him in. After the rodeo, we walked across the street for a barbecue feast at Riscky’s. Then we laughed all the way back to Roy’s listening to Gus’s stories from the road and his Brazilian homeland. Some of the best ones happened right there on the home front at the Cooper Cowboy Compound. When we got back to Roy’s, Roy, Gus, Taylor and reigning World Champion Tie-Down Roper Shane Hanchey broke down the Windy Ryon and Northside videos in the light of the arena front, and Gus and Shane slammed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups into the night. After watching him eat, it’s the eighth wonder of the world how Shane maintains his girlish figure.
Sunday, May 25 and Monday, May 26: Shane tried a horse this morning, and he let Taylor run a few on his little bay horse, which was an obvious blast for a college freshman. “That’s God, right there,” Roy said, smiling big. We then caravanned with Tuf and Shane to Barry Burk’s roping in Ardmore, Okla. First stop was at Outlaw Equine on the outskirts of Decatur, where Dr. Josh Harvey has a world-class horse facility. My dad’s been a horse doctor the last 50 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Really cool to see the likes of Tuf’s Rio and Shane’s Reata spend 15 minutes in a cold salt-water bath, jet-streaming their way to pain-free bliss. It’s nothing short of a horse spa treatment, and the perfect prelude to loading up for a road trip. Josh also takes care of Trevor’s horses, so there’s a lot riding on his expertise. He even let Slammer take a salt soak in preparation for that night’s calf-untying marathon.
Not long after our Chinese lunch, Shane, his driver, Cade, Louisiana State University football star friend Tahj Jones, Taylor and I stopped for fuel. Shane mentioned the best-ever bakery inside, and a slab of red-velvet cake called my name. Between that and the fried okra down in that part of the country, I was wrestling with the top button on my jeans. I wondered yet again—how does he do it? The guy only stops eating long enough to rope.
In Ardmore, we had the privilege of watching Matt Shiozawa, Justin Maass and Shane go 1-2-3 that night. Shane and Reata had the fast time of the evening, and the words he spoke to me on his walk down the tunnel for the opening-night round-winner TV interview in Vegas last December rang in my head, as I watched from my seat on my photographer friend James Phifer’s camera box from the back end: “With Reata, all things are possible.” Shane and that little sorrel horse, which was trained by his brother, Jason, have something truly special.
Our blast continued in Ardmore, where Taylor got to rope a few on Shane’s bay horse and Roy’s fellow roping revolutionizer Joe Beaver’s gray mare. Like Roy, Joe B has been such a blessing to my boys since they were babies. I’m always amazed when the most talented people turn right around and double down as the most generous of spirit. It was old-home week visiting with a few of my all-time favorites, including Lane Frost’s parents, Clyde and Elsie; ProRodeo Hall of Fame Bull Rider Tuff Hedeman; NFR steer wrestler Gary Green, who’s in so many of Lane Frost’s best bull riding pictures, pulling his rope and screaming encouragement at the top of his lungs; and NFR bareback rider Shawn Frey, who’s always been a blast.
Tuesday, May 27: Taylor and I were up and off to DFW at 3:30 a.m., and with one short stop in San Francisco made it back to our tiny-town airport in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in time for him to make his first class of the day at Cal Poly by 11 a.m. It means everything to me that my sons get the best possible education as part of the foundation of their lives, because it’s a jungle out there and this rodeo life is pretty far past a rough one. I genuinely appreciate guys like Trevor and Chad Masters backing me up and seconding that as a very smart idea. Tough as it is, I know my cowboy friends wouldn’t trade their lives. But the truth is, it’s far from easy street. Thanks, guys, for always telling it to me straight, leaving the gate open and the light on.