As I sit down to write this story the day after the Justin Boots Championships in Omaha, I have no idea whether defending World Champion Tie-Down Roper Stran Smith will even qualify for this year's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. The best part is-in the grand scheme of his life-it doesn't matter.
To set the stage for this unlikely story, in which I hit send before the final outcome is known, Stran was 45th in the world before the September 11-13 Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash. He pressed on through the preliminary rounds, and stuck a 7 flat on everybody to win it all in the final round. The $17,038 pop in Puyallup shot Stran from 45th to 24th in the world, and also advanced him to the September 24-26 Justin Boots Championships in Omaha, where the top 12 Wrangler Million Dollar Tour contestants in each event duked it out for shares of the $835,712 total payoff.
Stran, 39, was 9 flat on his first calf in Omaha. That didn't place, but paired with his 8.8-second fourth-place finish in round two he split sixth and seventh in the average and, most importantly, advanced to the semifinal round of eight. He put a wrap and a half on the black whiteface he drew in the semis, and Stran's 7.4 was second only to Hunter Herrin's 7.3. In the final four, Stran misstrung his calf, had to go to his second string and was 10.7. That was fourth behind champ Trevor Brazile, who stopped the clock at 7.2, Monty Lewis, who was 7.5, and Hunter's 7.8.
The $11,145 Stran won in the Omaha clutch certainly helped his cause. He climbed from 24th in the world to 17th. But that's obviously not quite enough to make the Top 15 NFR cut. He had one last Hail Mary opportunity to go when this issue when to press. Heading into the October 9-17 Heartland ProRodeo Championships in Waco, Texas, Colorado's Josh Peek held down the 15th hole with $66,005; Utah's Jake Hannum was 16th with $64,937; and Stran, who calls Childress, Texas, home, was 17th with $61,364. Stran was the only one of the three who had the Heartland Championships made. The $11,395 Stran won in Waco last year was the difference and then some in the gold buckle race. Stran won the world by $2,389 over reservist Hunter.
All that said-and knowing Stran still needed another $4,642 to edge Josh into our Super Bowl (in the tie-down roping; Josh had it made in the bulldogging)-this is where I get to the real beauty of this story. It doesn't matter if Stran makes it or not. The sun will rise again tomorrow, the world will continue to turn and his boys, Stone (who turned 6 on September 22 and just started home-school kindergarten) and Scout (who celebrated his fourth birthday October 17), will wildly and enthusiastically greet their dear daddy at the door of that big, white bus win, lose or draw.
Decades into my career, this sort of story is a first for me. I have been there at the wire tons of times with guys on the edge. I've laughed with them when they got it done, and cried with them went it all went south. But I can't ever remember not waiting for the final verdict before starting the presses. Stran's story is different. Here's why…
"It all goes back to the last thing most people heard me say on TV," he said of the 2008 night he realized his gold buckle dream. "You don't have to be a world champion to make a difference. If your heart's still beating in your chest, it's proof positive that God's not through with you yet.
"It's a lot easier to do interviews when somebody's sticking a microphone in your face because you've had a lifelong journey and just accomplished a lifelong dream. I didn't achieve my goals and dreams when I was 25, 30, or even 35. I'd been so close so many times and had to live with the disappointment. I'd had to deal with it.
"At each one of those times, I wouldn't have traded that feeling of disappointment for the goal of having the gold buckle or winning the title. Because it wasn't my time. If it had happened earlier and easier, I wouldn't be the person I am right now. All those experiences helped ground and humble me. They helped me have more patience, and to be a better person, husband and dad. I wouldn't have traded it. No way."
Stran swears he'd still be smiling, even if things hadn't gone golden for him in Vegas last December. I believe him.
"Even if I hadn't won the gold buckle at 38-if I still hadn't won it-I'd have been fine with it," he said. "I'd come to terms with that possibility a long time ago. Sure, it was a professional goal of mine. But it isn't what makes me tick. It's not who I am. I don't want that to define me-that all of a sudden I've arrived. I'm still the same guy I was. I lived without this gold buckle for 38 years. I'm darn sure not going to let it change me."
In Omaha, I spent part of Friday with Stran and Scout in the bus. Jennifer was off with the TV crew doing her thing, and I think Stone was with Stran's parents, Judy and Clifton, AKA "Mimi and Grandale." Grandale, which is a combo of Granddad and his middle name, Dale, also roped calves at the Finals back in the day. I enjoyed my visit with Scout-who was twirling the plastic sword Stran bought him at the carnival in Puyallup, and reenacting the couch-to-couch leap across the bus that resulted in the shiner that circled his right eye-immensely. Getting to play a little catch with him and Stone out in the cowboy parking lot on Saturday while Stran saddled his horse felt fun and familiar, just like my Lane and Taylor's t-ball days.
Remember, our Friday visit was before Stran won a dime in Omaha. When he said these words, he had no way of knowing the outcome there-or in Waco. But again, it didn't really matter.
"Fast forward from that round 10 interview at last year's NFR to right now," he said. "Did I change? No. I'm still the same monkey I was when I tied that last one in 7.2. I'm still riding the same horse. Things didn't go the same way this year, where people think it's going to be a repeat. I haven't won as much. But this has probably been the best year I've ever had.
"Everybody wants to know, 'How was your Fourth (of July)?' My answer: 'My Fourth was great.' Then they want to know how much I won. 'I didn't win a dime over the Fourth.' They don't get it. Winning doesn't determine how good my life is. My life is great. My boys are healthy. I've got the most perfect mate in the world. She's everything and then some that anyone could ever want or ask for. I am so blessed. I have my health. I'm doing something I love. I have the best horse I've ever had. Everything is golden. I haven't lost that killer instinct. No. It just hasn't worked the same this year."
Stran's not throwing in the towel on the grueling uphill backstretch that sends out the regular season for every bubble boy. No way. Not his style.
"I stood up there when the Finals ended last year and said, 'Don't ever give up. Never quit on your dreams.' And I meant it," he said. "The way the story goes, they live happily ever after, right? No. The next day I started back over in the same struggle we all always live. It's the same bump and grind. You don't get smooth sailing and easy street, not even after accomplishing your lifelong dream. You can never just fall back and expect things to be perfect. Life is a struggle. It's checks and balances. What we do is not easy out here."
That's a fact. The all-night drives and lack of guaranteed paychecks are tough enough on the young-gun single guys. The pressure's really on for family men with mortgages and other grown-up bills that belong to breadwinners.
"This year has been more of a struggle-not the roping, but winning-than it has in any of my 15 years of rodeoing," he said candidly. "This one has been the hardest. I've had things happen that were beyond my wildest dreams-weird things that never happen. There are so many variables and little things that can go wrong. When things continue to go wrong that aren't supposed to, it's just the way it was. You deal with it.
"I feel like I've been blessed to be able to rope. That's my calling. So I don't question it, no matter how bad things get. Injuries. Bad calls. Bad calves. Financial woes. Whatever it might be. I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. So that takes all the pressure off. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, and I'm going to do it to the best of my ability and enjoy myself."
Enter Stran-literally-through the front door of that bus. He's just roped a calf-any calf, any rodeo, maybe he succeeded, maybe he failed. Again, it does not matter.
"My number one calling in my life right now is that when I walk in that door, I don't want these two little guys to be able to tell whether I just won another gold buckle or whether I just broke the barrier for $10,000," he said. "It's easier said than done. But my family has sacrificed. Jennifer and my two boys have sacrificed a lot for us to be together. That's key to my family. I don't want to come home in a month to see my boys. I want to come home when I throw my hands up and see my boys. We're going to be a family and be together. Whenever the time comes that they don't want to go, I'll go home. I'm good with that, because I'm not me without them."
As tough as times have been in 2009, Stran's optimism springs eternal.
"I've not had the goal of making the Finals this year, but of winning another world championship," said the guy who still wasn't in the Top 15 when he said it. "I went 14 years without having this buckle, so I'm good with not having it if that's how it goes. It's important to have that balance in me. When I ride in that arena, the Mr. Nice Guy has to let that cold-blooded killer come out on the inside. Then, when I throw my hands in the air, I need to call that dog off. That's hard to do.
"That's where I have to lean on my faith. I want to put God first in all things. My first response is, 'What would God have me do?' How should I act when someone cuts me off in traffic? Or when a gateman won't let me in? Or when I break the barrier? Every morning, do I say, 'Oh, another day?' Or, 'Thank You, God, for another day with my beautiful family?' That's the life lesson in everything. How do we balance everything in our lives? Our careers, our families, our faith-the physical, mental and spiritual."
Stran has learned that the great days are brighter on the heels of the darkest ones. That's just part of the plan.
"I'm always amazed at the way God works in my life," he said. "What I have learned in my lifetime is the things on the worldly scale that look the worst-that's when I have been able to see God work greater and better in those things than in any other areas of my life. Shawn's death. (Stran lost his best friend and fellow NFR tie-down roper Shawn McMullan in 1996 when they were both 26. A woman driving West in the eastbound lane with her headlights off hit them head-on up in Oregon.) The shoulder injury. The heart deal. (Stran had a stroke in the spring of 2003, when a blood clot broke loose and made its way through a hole in his heart he never knew he had. The clot went to his brain, and triggered the stroke. Stran had surgery at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston to repair the atrial septal defect in his heart.) Losing a gold buckle by $1,700 (to Monty Lewis in 2004).
"Those things were all so hard to understand. The hardest was Shawn's death. But through those times I became more mature and leaned more on God. At Kansas City in 2006-at the last regular-season rodeo of the year-I had to win a thousand dollars in the short round to make the Finals. Instead, I tore all the ligaments away from the bone. I held my slack. I had a big calf you couldn't jerk down, because he wouldn't get up. So I held my slack. My foot slipped out of the stirrup when I was stepping off. And instead of letting go, and letting the calf take the hit-like I would have done any other time-I locked down on my rope with my hand and held it, and I took the hit. It tore all the ligaments away from the bone. I went ahead and flanked him and tried to tie him. I ended up missing the finals by one spot.
"When I rode out of the arena, I couldn't raise my right arm. I knew something bad was wrong. I knew I hadn't made the Finals, and that my year was over. I couldn't have roped at the Finals if I'd made it. I rode out to the truck, devastated. A year of rodeoing came down to one rodeo and instead of me being the hero, tying that calf in 7 and going into the Finals on a roll, I ride out of there not making the Finals and with my arm torn up.
"(Dr.) Tandy (Freeman) told Jennifer after surgery if I'd been a pitcher my career would have been over. But when I rode out to the trailer after that run, I raised my good hand up and said, 'Thank you, Lord, for this. I don't know why this happened, but I do know one thing, and that's that you're working in this. This didn't surprise you, and I'm excited to see where you're going with this.' I called Jennifer right after that run. She wanted to know how I'd done. I said I didn't make the Finals. She wanted to know what happened. I said I've got some bad news. I hurt my arm. But I said, 'It's all good. Something good will come out of this, I promise you.' "
The silver lining on that story was a life-changing relationship with Dodd Romero, personal trainer of the stars and a laundry list of professional athletes, including Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Steve Nash, Alex Rodriguez and Lenny Kravitz.
"Dodd started telling me how he was going to make me faster, stronger and more flexible," Stran remembers well. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Just get me to where I can swing a rope again.' I honestly did not believe he could make me faster. But I was wrong. The first time I went to Florida to work out with him, Jennifer and I were in a vitamin shop after working out one morning. We were buying supplements, when Jennifer got a phone call. I instantly wondered by the look on her face what was wrong."
The call came right after Austin in 2007, which was Stran's first rodeo back after the shoulder injury that kept him home since the previous November. It was a warm welcome back when Stran and the great Topper placed second. Then came that dreaded call. Topper had grazed his way out to the highway, and had been hit by a semi. Hit and run. At 25, one of this sport's all-time greats was gone.
"Topper was the best horse that ever lived," Stran said. "And he was part of our family. I was devastated. I knew I'd never have that good a horse for the big rodeos and the Finals again. I walked back behind that vitamin shop, dropped down to my knees and told God, 'Lord, I know this isn't a surprise to you either, and I'm excited to see what happens of this.' He wasn't a horse to me. He was my best friend. Topper and I were blood brothers. We were meant for each other. There will never be another Topper."
Earlier that morning, before that call, Dodd had asked Jennifer, "What does Stran need?" Her answer: "Another horse, because Stran's going to 70 rodeos a year and will only take Topper to 20 of them." Stran needed a B Team, because Topper was 25 and had earned semiretirement.
"Two months later, I found Destiny," Stran says of the cute little bay mare of a godsend who's now 16. "It's a lot easier to look back on it and think it's cool. But at the time you don't know what's coming. You always try to look for the best in everything that happens, but all I was walking on at that time was faith, because there was no proof yet that a bright side was coming. Every ounce of me knew losing Topper was bad. But we're told to walk by faith and not by sight. That's called blind faith. There's no way I would have found Destiny if I hadn't lost Topper. I wouldn't have been looking for a horse of her caliber, because I had my No. 1."
God delivered Destiny. And Dodd delivered a complete lifestyle change for the guy who was already Wrangler's fit and handsome poster boy.
"He changed the way I eat, exercise and sleep," Stran says. "My exercising and diet cause me to sleep sounder. I went from weighing 210 to 170, and lost every ounce of body fat I had. In 2007, I weighed 175 at the Finals and was stronger than I'd ever been in my life. Dodd had a whole goal for me, and it was an 18-month process. The goal was to strip me of all my body fat and replace it with long, lean muscle. There's no way to get that without a lot of hard work.
"I do a lot of stretching. I do lots of reps with lighter weights, and lots of core exercises. Everything I do is generated from the core. The most painful exercises you can do are what we do. I weigh 190 now, and I've put lean muscle back on. I'd like to weigh 200, and be totally lean-to not go over eight percent body fat. I'm probably 7 percent body fat right now."
Meanwhile, back in Omaha, Stran's 2009 roping life is on the line as we close in on Saturday night's semifinal and final showdowns. Stran is brushing Destiny. And petting her. And talking to her. He even wipes her nose for her, I kid you not. I can see his eyes narrowing into that zone of his. But he's never too busy or focused to be interrupted by his boys. Stone has grabbed his baseball glove and a ball. He starts throwing Stran a few grounders while he's trying to cinch up his horse. The ball buzzes right between Destiny's back legs, but she doesn't flinch and Stran just smiles, bends over, grabs that ball and fires it back. Those boys had no clue Daddy was under the gun that day. Another perfect day in paradise.