It's Monday evening, and after a long, wonderful day of roping fun and spring sun in Judy and Ozzie Gillum's arena-shooting Spin To Win Rodeo photos of Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper-we've all just foundered on Alisa Cooper's spectacular spaghetti and meatballs. To say Alisa's a good cook would be like saying Jake and Clay are pretty decent ropers. And the former Alisa Corrao learned this masterpiece of a meal from her Italian grandmother. Having had my own very special Italian grandmother, just smelling the sauce cooking on the stove all day, when I was in and out to make a phone call or grab a bottle of water, made me smile.
Mike Beers is here, too, laying over in California between the rodeos in Oakdale and Red Bluff. I haven't seen him around much in the last couple years, but watched him win Houston with his son Brandon on Pay-per-View the other night. Winning the richest regular-season rodeo in history catapulted the father-son team to the top of the 2007 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world standings.
I talked to Mike for a few minutes last Friday night in Patterson, right after he won the 12th annual Mike Boothe Memorial Roping with Riley Minor. And we visited a little today during Jake and Clay's horse changes. Every time I asked him a question, he had an interesting answer that I wanted to hear more about. I finally told him to save it, because I figured you might be as curious as me about what he's been up to, and I knew I should be jotting some of it down. So we planned an evening visit.
After Alisa's delicious dinner, I picked myself up off the floor (everyone who walks through the door is at complete ease in the land of Oz, so if the chairs are taken you just feel at home enough to pull up a pillow on the carpet and kick it) and fired up my laptop. When the dishes were cleared, I pulled up a chair at the kitchen table. Mike poured himself a light nightcap, and informed me that I had until his drink was down to ice cubes before he was headed to bed. But about bottoms up time, it was obvious we had so much more to talk about. Thanks, Mike, for making it a double.
Mike Beers was a mainstay at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo for decades. Since his first Finals as a PRCA rookie in 1980, he's roped at 22 NFRs, the last one with Charles Pogue in 2003. The first seven were with Dee Pickett, with whom Mike also won the 1984 world team roping title.
Beers rodeoed with fellow Northwesterner and National Finalist Charly Crawford in 2004, and had a fair year. But on the heels of a lackluster fall, he went home to Powell Butte, Ore., after the Pendleton Round-Up.
"I wasn't winning, I didn't have a good horse and I was low on funds," recalls Beers, 48, who now calls Post, Ore. home. "Things just weren't working. It was time for a change. I decided to back away from rodeo for a while. I started teaching roping schools and training horses."
Beers and his wife of 20 years, Bonnie, separated that fall.
"In November of 2004, I went to Arizona and moved in with some friends in Phoenix, Darrel and Danna Brodhead," Beers said. "Life sucked for me right then. I bought a $600 truck, a $1,400 trailer, loaded up one 20-year-old, crippled horse, and headed to Arizona-just me and my clothes.
"I started from scratch down there. I took flyers to all the Western stores in the Phoenix area and started giving day lessons-private lessons to people at their houses. I didn't have an arena or steers. When I left Oregon, I barely had enough money for fuel to get to Arizona. I was scraping. I've been on the top. And I went to the bottom. Now I'm climbing back to the top. I'll stay up this time. I learned a lot from the lessons learned."
Beers and the boys' mom-Bonnie also ropes and works in the roping industry-divorced in the spring of 2005. Brandon, who's 21 now, hit the road with Mike this year. Joseph, 18, lives in Texas with Bonnie, and is an American Junior Rodeo Association heeling hot shot. Teaching others what it's taken him a lifetime to learn about roping that 2005 winter helped Mike keep his mind off of his personal heartache and continues to give him a satisfying sense of purpose.
"I was teaching everyone from true beginners on up," said Beers, who also roped calves at the NFR in 1981, '83 and '85. "I'd give lessons in the morning and afternoon, and night lessons under the lights in the barn. I'd start at 7 in the morning and get done at 10 at night. I worked 7 days a week. If you called and wanted me to rope at your house, I was there. I flagged ropings, too. I flagged at Dynamite Arena every Wednesday and Sunday. That's how I got my roping school business. Guys would come there and rope, and I'd hand out my cards. Then I'd go to their house and work with them."
Beers left Arizona in May of 2005 and went back home to Oregon, where he maintained a heavy school schedule and roped at a few circuit rodeos. But he got hurt that November.
"I was pulling the Heel-O-Matic for one of my star students, (2002 World Champion Bareback Rider) Bobby Mote, with a four-wheeler, and was so busy watching him rope that I ran into the fence," remembers Beers, who won the 1987 BFI with Pickett 20 years ago. This month Beers, Walt Woodard, Allen Bach and Denny Watkins will rope at a record 30th consecutive BFI. "I flew off that four-wheeler and hit the fence. Bobby fell off of his horse and was rolling on the ground laughing, but I was hurt-bad. I pulled both groins, and my fourth, fifth and sixth vertebrae were bulging into my spine.
In January 2006, Beers attended the Denver Market on his sponsors' behalf. Beers is bullish on going the extra mile for those who stand behind him with endorsement deals. He's decked out in Wranglers head to toe with a Classic Rope in his hand at all times.
While in the Mile High City, Beers paid a visit to the Justin SportsMedicine Team, which was in town for the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo. They ordered an MRI of his neck. Dr. Tandy Freeman sent Beers to South Texas Spine Hospital in San Antonio, where they injected the injury twice in hopes of giving Beers some relief. Doctors wanted to fuse the vertebrae, but Beers didn't have any medical insurance. By then, he'd lost function of the triceps muscle in his right arm and was hard-pressed to handle a rope. Then the arm went numb.
"I couldn't afford the surgery," Beers said. "So I went and saw a homeopathic doctor in Oregon to try some alternative treatment. Using lots of ice on my neck several times a day got rid of the numbness. I got feeling back in my arm last spring, in 2006."
Beers started roping a little again last summer, with Canadian Jim Randle. He taught schools during the week, and went to a few rodeos on weekends. Beers and Randle qualified for the 2006 Canadian Finals Rodeo. Beers was the first American PRCA world champ ever to accomplish that feat. Brothers Jay and Randon Adams were the only other Americans in the CFR team roping field last year, in the first year the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association opened up their Finals to American qualifiers. Meanwhile, Mike also warmed up for this season by roping with Brandon at some circuit rodeos. Basically, he regrouped, bolstered his horse herd and got ready to roll into 2007.
"The plan was for me to go to Odessa, Denver, Fort Worth, San Antonio, San Angelo, Tucson, Houston and Austin," explained Beers, who also qualified for the 1992 National Finals Steer Roping. "That was my commitment to Brandon when we started this year-to go to those rodeos and see how we did. Brandon didn't rodeo enough last year to get into the limited-entry rodeos. But I was 30th in the world last year, and they took the top 50 to Houston."
Their 4.8-second run on their first steer at Houston won the opening round in their 10-team set. Dad roped a leg on their second steer, then they came back and won the third round, which was good for second in the average among the 10 teams they were going head-to-head with in the preliminary rounds. That qualified them for the semifinals at the million-dollar event. There, their 6 flat edged Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper by a tenth of a second to move on to the 10-team finals.
When Mike slipped a leg on their 6-second finals run, he hung his head, rode out and unsaddled his horse.
"With eight more NFR-type teams to rope behind us, I knew we were done," he said. "The Who's Who in the team roping world were the next eight teams, and somehow only three of them got us. We beat Matt (Sherwood) and Walt (Woodard) by a tenth to move on to the last round."
When all the chips were on the table, Beers and Beers were 5.6 on a strong steer that hadn't previously been twisted in quicker than 7.8.
"Then Speedy (Williams) went, missed his dallies and Dean (Tuftin) roped a leg," Beers said in disbelief." Riley Minor missed for B.J. Campbell. Logan Olson and Kinney Harrell had a steer they were 5.3 on in a previous round, and they were 4.8 plus 10."
At this point in the story, as if on cue, Mike's phone rang, right there at Gillums' kitchen table. Having no clue who was on the other end of the line, I "took five" to give Mike a little privacy. When I was sitting back down in front of my computer, he ended the call with, "I love you." Then he explained, "That was my roping partner." How cool is that? How many heelers get to end each conversation with their header with, "I love you?"
Back to Houston, after roping that last steer Mike rode out of the massive Reliant Stadium arena and started taking the boots off of his horse. They roped first in the final four, and "I didn't figure there was any way we'd win it."
"I was bent over taking care of my horse, and some lady from the committee came and found me and said, 'Mr. Beers, we need you in the arena.' "
"What for?" he asked her.
"You and your son just won Houston," she replied.
Beers fogged up with elation.
"The best part of winning Houston-the biggest regular-season rodeo of all time-was getting to hug my partner," he beamed. "That was the ultimate. That's why I was so emotional. I'd been at the bottom of the barrel a year and a half before that. Then all of a sudden I won the biggest rodeo ever with my son. If you've got kids, you understand."
The Beers boys bagged $31,500 apiece, and jumped to the lead in the world team roping standings.
"It was the first time Brandon's ever been in the world standings and he went straight to No. 1," noted the proud papa. "And this is the first time I've been No. 1 since December of 1984-before Brandon was born."
Cinderella has nothing on Mike Beers.
"Making the Finals is always in the back of your mind," he said. "My dream come true would be to make the Finals with my kid. But after those bad few years I got to wondering if I was done. You get to thinking maybe it's time to call it quits and go on to something else. I had some horses in training this winter, and was teaching some schools. I worked at Dally Alley in Phoenix, putting on schools seven days a week. The only days I didn't work were when I flew out to go to a rodeo. Brandon had the horses out at the rodeos. I have a clientele, so I was home when we weren't roping. I have 20 guys who come a couple days a week. Those guys start planning on me being there every day, so I needed to be there.
"Houston gave us a heck of a jump on things. If I make the Finals this year it'll be just as big a thrill as that first night at the Finals in 1980. The thrill of the NFR never leaves you. The butterflies you get on opening night are the whole reason we do this."
About that time, Riley Minor joined us at the table. Our talk turned to their win the previous Friday night in Patterson at the Mike Boothe Memorial Roping. It's hard for me to imagine that Mike died a dozen years ago already. I'd gotten to know him because he was good friends with my brother Blaine and lived in our part of the country for a few years. He rode Blaine's head horse, General, in a couple rounds at the 1994 NFR, and won the sixth round on him. He and Brent Lockett were 4.5.
"Mike Boothe was a great header," Mike Beers reminisced. "I was there the day he broke his leg at Pendleton (Boothe's unexpected death from rare complications after that freak arena accident shocked the rodeo world). That horse jumped up, and he had a broken leg. Everybody ran for the horse. I went with five or six guys to the hospital the next morning to see Mike. We stopped at the front desk, and the lady told us, 'I'm sorry, he passed away this morning.' We were sure they'd made a mistake. Then they told us a piece of bone marrow broke away and went into his lung. Mike was a great kid. Everybody liked him."
Beers won Boothe's roping on a new horse he calls Houston, because he made the purchase with Houston paychecks. He bought the horse from Arky Rogers in Florida. The horse didn't have any papers, and Beers was curious about his history, so he did his own little background check. Rogers bought the horse from Tyler Magnus, who'd bought him from B.J. Campbell. Come to find out, Campbell bought Houston from Jackie Beers, who just happens to be Mike's big brother.
"I had no idea where he came from," Beers grinned. "All I was trying to do is find out a little bit about my horse."
Beers has mixed memories from Pendleton, which is one of his two favorite rodeos of the year along with Joseph, Ore. He's won three Pendleton all-around titles, and retired the coveted Pendleton Roundup Let 'er Buck Trophy. Beers has won the Pendleton tie-down roping and steer roping championships, but not the team roping-yet. His stats sheet includes similar scenarios at the California Rodeo in Salinas and the Reno Rodeo, where he's nabbed two all-around titles at each. Beers won the Wrangler Timed Event Championship-rodeo's ironman event held annually at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla.-in 1986, which is the year Brandon was born.
This guy's list of impressive accolades goes way back. The 1977 Oregon state high school team roping and all-around champ two years later won the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping title heeling for Casey Cox. If that name sounds familiar, he's the guy who headed-yes headed-for Speed Williams at his first Finals in 1988. Beers heckled Williams for showing up in satin shirts at his first trip to The Show.
"I gave him a bad time, and he said they were his dad's pickup man shirts," Beers remembers.
Beers has twice won the Texas powerhouse rodeos in San Antonio and Houston. He took his first Houston team roping title with David Motes in 1995.
"I get a second chance at rodeo right here," said Beers, who won the 1978 Chowchilla Stampede heeling for Riley and Brady Minor's uncle, Pat Minor, by a mere tenth of a second over super-power cousins Reg and Leo Camarillo. "This time I'm doing it more for the fun and enjoyment of it. I pay my bills this time around outside of the arena, with my endorsements and my roping schools. I'm rodeoing for the joy of it and the love of competing.
"I'm content. I'm happy with where I'm at in my life. I'm digging myself out of a hole, but I'm starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. I love to teach. If I could, I'd teach seven days a week. I scheduled 22 days of schools out of the 30 in the month of May. I love the people. I love sharing the knowledge I've learned from the last 30 years of my life. People show up wanting to learn, and that's really neat for me."
Job One now is to make the Finals with Brandon. Team ropers can count 70 rodeos this year, and they'll take it to the limit if that's what it takes. After May, Mike has suspended his school schedule until after Pendleton in September.
"We're going to take it one steer at a time," said the star of www.MikeBeers.com. "We don't have to go beat Jake and Clay. We have to make our best run on whatever steer we draw. Six flat will win you a lot of money all summer long. The worst thing you can do is to try to be faster than what each steer will allow. Do that, and pretty soon you've made a mistake and beat yourself. That same six-second run will win a lot of money every time."
This veteran's advice to all the aspiring young ropers out there?
"Rodeo is a great road and the people in it are great," he said. "But it's a tough road. You can't beat an education."
Beers' education hasn't always been the textbook type.
"I started teaching roping schools when I was 14," he said. "I taught the heading part in Vancouver, Washington. Tom Norton taught the heeling. I have a real passion for teaching.
"I've learned how to make my money outside the arena instead of inside the arena. If I hadn't won Houston this year, I'd still have made a great living this year. If I can go to the Finals one more time, I'll be content with what I've done. If they'd give me another world championship, I'd be really happy. But no matter what happens, I'm having a great time right now."
Hearing about some of Beers' past students tickled me.
"Back in the 1980s, Judy Johnson brought her boys, Jhett and Justin, to my school in Lander, Wyoming," Beers recalls. "They came two straight years, and Jhett heeled for Justin. Jhett was 13 the first year he came. He was a cute little kid. That's what's fun about doing the schools as long as I have. I've seen a lot of guys come up through the ranks.
"When Charly Crawford was 12, I kept my horses at his dad's (Chuck) house when I was in the area (for the St. Paul Rodeo). Charly cleaned my pens during the summer rodeos, and the deal was that every time I did a school in the area he could come for free."
Beers won his first professional rodeo with ProRodeo Hall of Famer Jimmie Cooper in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1980. He'll never forget it.
"We went to Florida in February," he said. "We flew back there, and we didn't take coats (hey, it's the Sunshine State). We were just two rookies. We took an all-night flight out of L.A., and we were up in the calf roping in the morning slack. We were up that night in the team roping. We didn't have anything to do all day, so we hung out under the grandstands, trying to stay warm. We went from there to Houston."
Fast forward to that very same week 27 years down the line, and you'll find a re-energized veteran who's having the time of his life.
"Rodeoing with my son is a dream come true for me," Beers said. "It's been a great ride. I wouldn't trade the people I've met in this sport for anything. I can go anywhere in the world and have friends there because of my rope."