As told to Kari deCastro
Earl Higgins is a cowboy and a team roper and has been since childhood. Like all true cowboys, you could fill a book with stories from his old bull riding days—that’s always been his favorite event.
“Every little boy wanted to be a cowboy and I could never give it up,” laughed Higgins. “I used to get in more trouble at school. They’d always try and take my cowboy hat away and I’d run clear to the bottom of the hill to keep them from getting it.”
After being mauled by a rank bull at a California rodeo, Higgins woke to rodeo legend Casey Tibbs standing at the foot of his hospital bed with a bouquet of flowers. Butch Murray (father of Ty Murray) is one of his oldest and truest friends and they’ve, “had more fun together, and done plenty of things we shouldn’t have.”
The hardest part of telling his colorful story would be keeping it chronological.
“I’ve got no need for dates,” said the now 77-year-old. “It’s just another day.”
Close to home, in Phoenix, Ariz., they call him “Average” and all winter long you’ll see his name in almost all the local roping results. Higgins knows how to swing a rope and how to win money doing it. He might not take the fast time check these days, but he’ll dang sure be in the average and he’s not afraid to take your money…and do it with that infectious grin of his.
“I had a guy tell me one time, ‘You’re going to have to quit that smiling like that. Those old guys already hate you and whenever you catch one by two feet like it’s nothing they’re really going to get to hating you.’ But I still can’t help it, it’s just fun.”
At the 2014 WSTR Finale IX Higgins finished ninth in the Bloomer Trailers #10, roping behind his daughter LaRae Branham, to win $50,000. In the last six months he’s accumulated another $22,090 in WSTR earnings. He admits it’s more money than he ever imagined winning, but the most astonishing fact is it was just over a year ago that back surgery for a herniated disc (a follow-up to several earlier surgeries) nearly left him paralyzed from the waist down. The notion of walking again was uncertain, riding a horse was out of the question, and competing at the World Series Finale wasn’t even a topic for discussion—unless maybe, you had asked him.
After 30 days in a rehab hospital he was walking with a walker and eight months later he was horseback. His first attempt back in the competition arena didn’t go well. But by October 2014 he made his annual trip to visit his son, Joe Burke Higgins in Texas. They got some slow loping steers, a no-slide saddle seat, and about two weeks before the Finale he entered, and placed, at a jackpot.
“After that, I said, ‘What the hell, I’m ready!’”
The Roper: My folks had a little motel out there in Show Low, Ariz. My dad and his brother, they were old cowboys. We had a Fourth of July rodeo every year. I was always just cowboy-minded. There was a truck driver came through town one time, he showed me how you throw a heel loop and I’ve been doing it ever since. The first critter I ever roped was right downtown Show Low: a big ol’ heifer, in someone’s yard. I was riding by and thought, I can probably catch her, so I did. I had a hell of a time turning her loose.
The Bull Rider: When I got to be in high school I wanted to be a bull rider. So that’s what I did. I rode bulls for about 13 years, and it was the most fun. I could ride them bareback horses, but I couldn’t spur one very good, so I couldn’t win anything doing that. I roped a little then. When I was about 16, Earl Thode (a ProRodeo Hall of Famer) told me I was one of the best heelers in the state, but I never went anywhere. A stock contractor told me one time, “You’re an ornery little son of a buck, but you can ride bulls.”
Moving On: We were at a rodeo when LaRae was about 5-years-old. She told me, “Dad you got the round back,” you know, fell off. After that I was done. I broke lots and lots of horses and trained some rope horses. I always went to the team ropings and if I had a good head horse I’d head and if I had a good heel horse I’d heel. There for a while my head number was bigger, but I’ve won a lot more money heeling. It’s been six or seven years since the last time I threw a head loop.
Wedded Bliss: We’ve been married 53 years. Gail is from Phoenix, her daddy used to put on jackpots, that’s how I met her. She was a World Champion Team Roper in the WPRA and used to rope both ends. She still ropes all summer when we go to Jackson (Wyo.) and has fun. But when we come home she doesn’t rope as much. She doesn’t have time because I rope so much. She has flagged ropings too. She’s probably the first lady who ever flagged out Leo Camarillo for crossfiring.
Can’t Kick the Cowboy: I finally went to work. We built half the pads from Sun City to Vale Vista. We built lakes, overpasses, freeways, everything. I worked a while out in California and then spent a year up in Colorado on the Blue Mesa Dam. Every place I worked they knew I was a cowboy. I always wore my cowboy hat. We were building a stretch of freeway outside Casa Grande, and the superintendent asked the foreman about me, he told him, “Don’t you worry about him. His head’s so damn hard he don’t need no hard hat.’” They had a big roping in Las Vegas one time and I just took off. Came around the corner and there was my boss. He said, “Aren’t you supposed to be working?” I said, “I called in sick.” He just said, “O.K.,” and away we went.
How Times Change: There are just so many more people who can do it well. When I was kid, there wasn’t but a half dozen of us. Back years ago if you could heel you could rope with anybody. Now, it’s whoever has the best head horse, they get the best partners. Anybody can heel now. There are kids who can rope two feet quicker than you can think. But it’s amazing to me, the different people who team rope. If you were to draw a team roper on paper, you could draw anything—a big fat guy, a tall skinny guy, women, kids, old, young—you’d have a team roper.
Arizona: When I first started going to Dynamite Arena 50 years ago, Cave Creek was a dirt road. Jim Riley, the guy who built it, he was a great welder. He welded all day out at the nuclear plant and would come home and weld all night on that arena. He used to have some big ol’ steers and we’d have some pretty good jackpots. I can’t remember a year like this one for new faces. I went to Dynamite and had seven partners and I think I knew two of them. Lots of Canadians! But I don’t think I’ve met a Canadian who wasn’t a great guy. They are just so tickled to get out of that cold up there!
Big Payouts: Every time I go to one of them big ropings, like Vegas, all I can think about is guys like Fred Darnell and Joe Glenn. They never got to see anything like that. It took half the year to win $10,000. They were such great guys, you feel bad they didn’t get to see what it is now.
A Steady Steed: Gail bought him from a man in Utah. He’s a Hancock-bred horse. He’s got a motor bigger than a diesel truck. He never did buck but he wanted to run. Early on, I sent him to Travis Ericsson to chase those wild cows. Tubba is 15 now; he’s been a great horse for me. He goes until you throw your rope and he never tries to cheat you. He can still pull one of them big steers down if you need him to.
The Company You Keep: It’s been a great life for me. That’s why I had all them surgeries, so I can keep doing this! Sometimes it’s hard to get yourself in a place where you can win, but when you get in that place you have to take advantage of it. You’re just roping for fun; you aren’t making a living at it. Only a few of them guys do. So if it ain’t fun, there ain’t no point. It’s only as good as the company you keep and the fun you have.