We rope because it is fun: the rush of dashing after a steer at top speed, the thrill of competition and the camaraderie of the participants. But there’s more to it than that. The sport of team roping becomes a connection. A bond between friends and even the tie that binds some families together. So when Phillip James Shurden of Decatur, Texas, came tight on his final steer in the #11 Super Qualifier of the Lariat Bowl at the Wildfire Arena in Salado, Texas, with partner Scott Tiner, a year’s worth of emotion poured out.
Phillip James Shurden was born in Midland, Texas, but his family was always on the go.
“We were kind of like gypsies,” he laughs. “But we all grew up riding.”
Not only was he horseback from a young age, his riding background is one of interesting distinction.
“I’ve been on horses since I was two years old, but we rode polo ponies and I grew up playing polo. As a kid, we would travel from Texas to Mississippi to Louisiana to Florida—all over the country. That was our family business. My dad was always a cowboy. He roped calves before he got married and had us kids—there are five of us. I’m the fourth, and only boy. I have three older sisters and one baby sister.”
Shurden’s father, also Phillip, in addition to being a skilled horseman on the polo fields and equally competitive roping calves, was also a farrier by trade and an avid team roper. The latter, were both talents he passed on to his only son.
“When I was 15, my dad had a mild heart attack. He couldn’t go to work shoeing, so I took over and he helped coach me through it. Really, he taught me everything I know.”
That included swinging a rope. But Phillip James didn’t start roping until he was nine years old.
“After my grandparents passed away, and things were divided up, my family, for some reason, we all took up roping. We took the polo ponies that would make rope horses and sold all the rest.”
And just like that they were a family bound by the sport. While that early story lends itself to one of a kid destined to be a life-long team roping addict, Philip James had other ambitions. At 17 and living in Florida, he quit the horse scene, picked up golf (also learned from his father) and played professionally on the mini-PGA tour.
“It took my (golf) coach eight months to get me up to speed once it was something I realized I wanted to do, but I burnt myself out on it.”
So, with his golf career in the rear view, he returned to his western roots and spent the next four years (2006-2009) driving for Speed Williams, up and down the rodeo trail. Williams is Shurden’s brother-in-law, married to his older sister, Jennifer. When Williams retired, Shurden went to work in the oil fields and still travels all across the country as an oil field operator.
Time to Heal
Rewind to the 2012 Lariat Bowl and life for Shurden and his close-knit roping family was forever altered. Just one short week after roping in Salado, the elder Phillip Shurden, then 63, wasn’t feeling well. He had spent the day in the practice pen with Speed and Jennifer, helped another of his daughters with some fence work but just wasn’t feeling right.
“My dad, he always worked on percentages of how he felt. He had said he was feeling about 80% after the day’s work. I had called just to see how he was that day.
“That night he went to church,” Phillip James explained. “He still wasn’t feeling very good, and so they prayed over him. He was a very, very good Christian guy. Several minutes into the music he made a couple of twitches and passed away of a massive heart attack.”
Despite his love for the sport, after losing his father Shurden needed a break from the arena once again. He dedicated the last year to his work in the oil fields, and in November married his wife, Haley—who works for National Roper’s Supply.
Two weeks before Christmas, Jennifer approached him with, ‘Hey what if we enter that roping in Salado?’
“I had only roped in the practice pen once that year, up to that point. We ran steers two times between Christmas and Salado. But I thought, ‘What the heck, why not? It was time to get in the saddle.’”
Exactly one year after losing his life-long mentor, Phillip James found himself second high call at what had been his dad’s final roping. At the time it hadn’t really occurred to him. He knew, coming back second high call, if he went and caught they could do no worse than second.
“I knew what I had to do,” he said. “Good, clean horns was my goal all week. I’m a catcher. I like to be very confident I’ll catch 98%. Being a polo player makes you an aggressive rider. I make my horse run hard. I’m not a reacher. I went out there and ran my steer down. Once I caught him and the high team missed, it was just our deal.”
Afterward, Jennifer found Phillip James with tears in her eyes.
“She asked if I knew this was the last roping dad came to before he passed away. I said, I didn’t, and then started crying right there in the arena with her.”
For both it was a cathartic experience. And for Phillip James, it helped end a grieving process. Ready to get back to roping more consistently, he’s grateful for the time he took to heal.
“I just needed the time away. My dad was my best friend. He was the person I could count on. He’d been around a while and he always had an answer for anything you had a question for. He taught me everything.”
Scott Tiner hadn’t planned to rope with Phillip James in Salado, in fact they barely knew each other.
“We had met out at Trevor’s (Brazile) briefly and we talked out at the Finals this year.”
When Shurden approached him about roping in the #11 Tiner was ready to head home to Weatherford, Texas, but decided later that night to stick around. He’d roped in the #13 and #12 and was feeling pretty confident.
“In the #13 I missed one, like whacked him. From that point on, I roped in the #12 with one guy and roped in the #11 with two people. In the #12 I did not miss a cow and we just missed the cut by a half a second. In the last 11 cows I didn’t miss one, and only legged one. For me that was pretty significant. When it’s your day, it’s your day.”
This is only the second saddle Tiner has won since he started roping in college. “I’ve always roped the dummy and stuff, I had friends that roped. I didn’t run my first steer on a horse until 2000.”
After winning his first saddle on a Sunday he got bumped from a #4 to a #5 by Thursday. This time they waited about a month before moving him to a #5 Elite. He and Shurden will tentatively plan to rope in Vegas—pending any future number changes.
This was the biggest check Tiner has won and most of it went right back into entry fees, including the 2014 World Series Finale, but for him the most important thing he was able to do was help his brother, Sean, buy a truck.
“He’s always been there for me always helped me out with everything,” explained Tiner.
This last year Tiner got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive for Trevor and Shada Brazile. While hauling some horses for Clay Tryan and Travis Graves up to Rapid City, he struck up a conversation with Trevor and soon enough he and his 16-year-old daughter, Katie, who is homeschooled, were traveling to rodeos hauling horses and helping the Brazile family with the day-to-day tasks that inevitably come with being rodeo’s royal family. Everything from saddling and riding horses to helping with their kids, the job is one that’s much more important than Tiner even realized.
“It was like a big family. Katie helped take care of horses. With Tristan and Style, we all chipped in and worked together on everything. I watched the kids, and Katie did too. It was just a lot of fun. I got to meet a lot of people and see a lot of things.”
While that experience was one he and Katie will not soon forget, Tiner is ready to settle down, stay closer to home and rope more—maybe even pull in more big paychecks with Shurden.
“I have to give credit where credit is due. Phillip, he roped them all good. He did all the hard work. He didn’t break out, he got it on them, handled them good. It was real easy roping behind him and I look forward to roping with him some more.”