Some cowboys are famous. Others are not. They might not be household names coast to coast, but they are borderline superheroes in their home country. Mark Gomes just died on July 30 at 65 in our little corner of the world on the Central Coast of California. It’s perfectly possible you’ve never heard of him and never got to see how talented he was with a rope. But be it the team roping arena, the branding corral or mentoring aspiring young ropers and horseshoers, Mark earned local legend status around here. And Mark’s the man who changed the course of the life and career of one young boy from around here by the name of Dugan Kelly. Against all odds, he grew up to be a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo team roper—thanks to the huge heart of Mark Gomes.
“When I was 12 years old and in seventh grade, I’d ride the school bus home every day and the bus went right by Mark’s place,” said Dugan, who’s 44 now. “I’d gone to a Walt Woodard roping school, and had been around roping just a little bit. But I basically knew nothing. Every day on that school bus, I’d look over and Mark would have a horse bitted up in the round pen, and another one tied to a Eucalyptus tree out by his arena.
“My job when I was 12 was to exercise the neighbor’s horse before branding season. I’d ride through the vineyard down to the river, down the river bed and up to Mark’s house. It was about a two- or three-mile ride. I’d never met Mark. I had a rope tied onto my saddle horn, and when I made my first pass past his place, I’d have that rope over on Mark’s side, where he could see I had a rope. When I turned around to ride back past his place and head home, I switched my rope over to the other side, so he could still see I had a rope. Mark said, ‘Hi,’ so I said, ‘Hi’ back and I kept riding back home.
“The next day, I ride by again with that rope tied to my saddle horn. Mark sees me, and yells, ‘Hey, you rope?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m learning.’ He told me, ‘Come on in here.’ We introduced ourselves to each other, and he told me to rope his dummy. He figured out real quick that I meant what I said about just learning. Mark told me, ‘If you work the chute, and help saddle and unsaddle horses, one day you’ll be able to rope here.’”
Mark had a couple of roping dummies. He sent one of them home with young Dugan that very first day.
“Mark told me, ‘When you can rope the dummy 100 times in a row around the horns without missing, you can rope here,’” Dugan remembers like those words were said today. “I kept showing up to saddle, unsaddle, hose horses off and work the chutes every day. Then I’d go home, turn the lights on and rope that dummy every night. It took awhile, but I finally got to where I could rope it 100 times without missing. I said, ‘Hey, I finally did it. 100 times in a row.’ Mark said, ‘If you can do that at home, you ought to be able to rope this other dummy 20 times in a row right here in front of me with the pressure on.’ I roped it 20 times in a row, and he said, ‘Alright, a deal’s a deal. Get on your horse.’ Mind you, this was the neighbor’s calf branding horse, and he’d never been team roped on.
“I catch the first steer, dally, go to turn him off and this horse—a buckskin named Buck—bucks me off. I could tell that made Mark a little nervous. Here’s this kid he barely knows, he doesn’t even know his parents and he was probably thinking he didn’t want to lose his place in a lawsuit to some people whose kid just rode in off the street. Mark came over and met my mom, and it’s all history from there. I was at Mark’s place every day for years and years.”
Mark Gomes grew up in Chowchilla. He lived his adult life in Paso Robles, and was a cat daddy at our California Mid-State Fair for decades.
“He won the Match Roping who knows how many times heading and heeling, and not only won the Match Calf Branding, but might ocean wave the last one, just because he could,” Dugan said. “At the same time, Mark was always so humble.”
Mark had a uniquely notorious heeling style, that included timing steers by his head going side to side with each hop.
“I called it ‘the bobble,’” Dugan smiles. “He would bob his head left to right, and if there was a really important steer he was focused on, he really bobbed it. That move made Mark one of a kind, and Mark could really rope. He worked at it, and he won. He taught me at an early age that, ‘Anything you want isn’t going to be easy, you’re going to have to work for it. Just because you won something or achieved something great, doesn’t mean you’re the best one there. And just because you’re the best one there, doesn’t mean you’re going to win.’
“Mark said that to achieve anything great or win any big event, there has to be some sort of luck that goes your way for it all to happen. Luck is where preparation and opportunity meet, and if you put the work into it and show up, there’s your opportunity. Give yourself the chance to be lucky. That mentality was the reason Mark was so humble. He did great things, but he never got too high on himself. He put in the work, but he also knew it could be anyone’s day to win. When he won, he figured he was just lucky enough to win that day.”
A year into Dugan showing up at Mark’s place on the daily, he told his volunteer mentor that it was his goal to make the NFR.
“From then on, Mark kept molding me in that direction and kept taking me to the next level,” Dugan said.
The coolest thing about Mark might have been that he was one of those people who was not afraid to share everything he knew—even with people who were trying to beat him.
“If you asked Mark for help, he dropped everything and helped you,” Dugan said. “He showed you everything and held nothing back, because he wanted you to do your best and be your best. That’s how genuine he was.”
Mark is survived by the love of his life, Chris, who for decades spun steers for her handy heeler and horseman husband. Their son Alex is a dog veterinarian, and their son Trevor is a horseshoer, like his dad. Trevor and his wife, Lindsey, have three darling kids who were dearly loved by their Grandpa Mark.
“Mark truly loved his family, and he truly loved his friends,” Dugan said. “He raised two good guys. If you ever want to know how good a guy Mark was, go talk to his boys. We’re all a product of our environment, and Mark did a great job molding the next generation.
“Mark loved the Western way of life. He loved his country, and he enjoyed his life. Every day. I shoed with Mark one summer when I was a kid, and when I’d show up in the morning when it was still dark, he’d said, ‘Top of the morning to you!’ Roping. Shoeing. Branding. Mark just enjoyed life. All the way to the end. And he was loved by all. He knew no strangers, and he had no enemies. Mark talked to everybody, and would help anybody.”
Losing Mark too soon to cancer will leave a hole in a lot of hearts for the rest of time. He was like another son to my dad, who roped with him, trusted him to shoe his horses and golfed with Mark once a week for decades—always with a small friendly wager on the line.
“I relate how broken my heart is about losing Mark to riding a colt,” Dugan said. “Everybody wants a 30- to 60-day fix when they send a colt to someone to ride. But that’s not a reasonable expectation. Well, this loss isn’t going to be a 30- to 60-day fix, either.”
Dugan and his beautiful bride, Brittany, live near Paso in Shandon. In case you need a quick refresher rundown on his seven trips to the Finals, he made his first one in 2000 with local boyhood buddy Lance Brooks after a wild fight to the finish line. From there, Dugan heeled for David Key in 2001 and ’02, and Chad Masters in 2004 before taking seven years off. He then returned to Vegas heeling for Turtle Powell in 2013 and ’14, and for Cody Snow at young Snowman’s first Finals in 2016.
“When you think of pivotal points where one day alters your life, the day Mark invited me into his place was the day that changed my life forever,” Dugan said. “I’m still making a living off of the stuff he taught me. Where I went, the people I met and the things I accomplished would never have happened without Mark Gomes.
“Mark Gomes is who I am, really. He taught me horsemanship, the ability to win and how to be a person. I was around him every day from 12 years old until I was 18. He caught me at a pivotal point in my life, and he influenced me to be who I am.”