Derrick Begay was on my mind yesterday, and it’s no wonder. I didn’t know it before we talked, but he had just run his last steer—for now, anyway—with Clay O’Brien Cooper the night before.
Begay and Cooper closed this chapter of their partnership April 11 at the Clark County Fair & Rodeo in Logandale, Nevada. Cooper will start roping with two-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header Spencer Mitchell—Spank headed for the late Broc Cresta at his first Finals in 2011, and roped with Dakota Kirchenschlager at the 2012 NFR—this week at the Oakdale Saddle Club Rodeo in their native California.
At the moment, Begay does not know who his next partner will be. That is not typical. But true to form, I caught the cowboy-to-the-core, seven-time NFR header horseback and headed out to check on some cattle.
“We’ve hardly had any rain,” said Begay of his home country in Seba Dalkai, Arizona. “We don’t call it a drought here in Arizona, because it’s all desert and it’s hard to have a drought in a desert. But it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Begay has always been a pretty philosophical sort, and he doesn’t have a whining bone in his body. Perspective seems to come naturally to this cowboy, who’s still just 34 years old. That’s why he’s not worried or miserable about the end of his and Champ’s little era in team roping history, which started at the 2015 National Western Stock Show & Rodeo in Denver, and resulted in a trip to the NFR that year.
I’ll never forget Begay telling me, “Champ is my kemosahbee” when he and Clay first hooked up. By definition, that’s the loyal term of endearment used by The Lone Ranger’s trusty sidekick, Tonto.
“That’s the guy who’s right there by your side; the guy you can count on; the guy you go to battle with,” Begay said. “When I said that, I was saying, ‘Champ’s the guy I always dreamed of roping with.’ We all grew up wanting to turn steers for The Champ. I got to live that out.”
They stopped the clock twice clean at Logandale, though Begay grinned about it being more than a bit ugly on the style side.
“We caught the first one clean, then I went at the second one, couldn’t dally, roughed him up for Champ, and got in the fence,” Begay said. “We got a time and made a clean run, so we ended with a bang. There’s always a chance we’ll make the short round (which is Sunday, April 15), but realistically, unless everybody’s hat blows off in their face and they whip their hat throwing their rope, we won’t make it back.”
Begay fondly remembers being beyond nervous when he first joined forces with seven-time World Champion and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Clay O.
“When I showed up at our first rodeo ever at Denver, I’d practiced harder than ever,” Begay said. “I think I got there three days early. I was so nervous that I roped my own head before I roped the steer. Then I turned him, and Champ roped a leg. Our last rodeo was a lot better than our first one.
“I was so nervous the first time we ever practiced together (at Clay’s daughter Bailey’s place in Stephenville, Texas), too. I wanted to make a good first impression on the Champ. I got there an hour early, I washed and brushed my horse, I got my good ropes out, and put the good boots on my horse. I split the horns on the first steer. Then I did it again. I split the horns on the first four steers we ran.”
Begay was humiliated, and just too tight trying to impress Clay to get right what he can usually do left-handed with his eyes closed. Champ snapped him out of it.
“I finally asked Clay what I was doing wrong, and he said, ‘Just try roping the left one (horn),” Begay now laughs. “That’s when I told myself, ‘This is stupid. Champ’s the same age as my dad.’ I told myself to pretend I was practicing with my dad. That helped me relax, and I did better after that.”
The split was actually Begay’s idea.
“After Houston, Champ and I talked, and I told him I was getting too old and too slow,” Derrick said. “I told him he needed to find a new partner, because my horses aren’t good enough anymore, and I haven’t even been practicing. I told him that’s not fair to him. I was starting to feel guilty every time we went somewhere, because I haven’t been putting in the hours or looking hard for a new horse.
“I told Champ that I can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We decided to take a few days to think it over. And a few days later, I told him I still hadn’t found that burning desire again. I haven’t been turning over every rock or desperately calling everyone I know to find that next great horse. My attitude on my horse hunt has basically been, ‘I’m not worried about finding another one, but if one comes my way, that’d be nice.’”
If Begay seems just a tad bit distracted, there’s good reason for it.
“We’re going to have our first baby in a couple weeks,” he said.
Begay and his longtime girlfriend, Justine Doka, are expecting a baby girl on May 3. Begay’s betting Baby Begay will be here before her due date.
“I want to be around for that,” he said. “I have all kinds of emotions about it. I’m excited, nervous, and scared. I’ve been all kinds of places and done all kinds of cool things. But this is by far the coolest thing that’s going to happen to me.”
Begay’s been busy soaking up advice from other cowboy dads, the likes of Dustin Bird, Kollin VonAhn, Luke Brown, and yes, Grandpa Champ.
Begay said Clay never offered much unsolicited roping advice during their partnership, unless specifically asked. But boy oh boy did Begay learn a lot from a man of so few words.
“Champ never really said much about my roping,” Begay said. “He never told me how to rope, and mostly stayed out of my way, because that’s how he is. Champ doesn’t talk a lot, but he’s someone all the young guys respect. The old guys, too. Being around him makes you think more and try harder. He makes you become smarter. And he does all that without saying anything. He just gives you that feeling, and it makes you rope better.”
There is no typical day in the life of Derrick Begay.
“A great day at this stage of my life is to get up early in the morning, go outside and stand to the East, say a little prayer, have a cup of coffee, go out and do chores, then let one thing lead to another,” he said. “I’m happy when I’m getting some work in, whether it’s fixing a fence, welding something, checking cows and water, gathering cattle, or just riding a young horse to see some country. At the end of the day, it was a good day if I didn’t waste it.
“My favorite things are being around my family, a horse, a cow, a dog, and my friends. These days go by fast now. But a good day is when you get something accomplished. And if you try as hard as you can and do what you can do, you can have peace.”
Begay is like every other cowboy who grew up with big cowboy dreams. But time has taught him that the rodeo arena is only one aspect of life.
“I wish everybody could become rich and famous, just to see that’s not the ultimate answer,” Begay said. “I grew up wanting those things, and to win a world championship, just like everybody else. But as you get older, you start to see the bigger picture in life. I know now that if I do become rich and famous and win a world championship, those things won’t make me happier or complete my life. At the end of the day, if you stayed busy, you did something. And what’s really the ultimate is peace within yourself.”
Life teaches us many valuable lessons, as does walking through the triumphs, trials and tribulations alongside people we respect.
“Champ came into my life at a good time, and we’ve talked a lot about life these last few years,” Begay said. “He sees the big picture. It’s amazing how someone who is so competitive and wants to win so much has higher goals than just winning. But being a good guy is a lot of what it’s about with Champ. I’ll still talk to him a lot, I’ll always pull for him, and be one of his biggest fans. I’ll always cheer for Champ.
“I’m not going to retire. Retiring is for rich people. A good horse and a good partner go hand-in-hand, so getting another good horse will be a good start. I don’t know where my next horse is coming from or who my next partner will be, but I’m not worried about it. I have peace about it. I’ve always left these things up to the man upstairs when I wasn’t sure. I put in my part, then I listen.”