The legendary Texas ranch and rodeo cowboy they called Cactus Jack was called home to Heaven May 1, 2023. But not before making a million memories with family and friends in his 81 years here. If you’re talking team roping, it doesn’t get much cooler than winning the first-ever George Strait Team Roping Classic and spinning steers for your son at the National Finals Rodeo. But Jack Stephenson did that, and so much more.
Another of the countless feathers in Stephenson’s cowboy hat was founding Cactus Ropes with his cousin Joe Mathews and friend Mike Piland in 1991. So it was fun and fitting to reminisce with my old friend Mike—and Jack’s—about this true team roping trailblazer.
“Jack was kind of a Phil Lyne in high school,” remembers Cactus Ropes VP of Industry Relations Piland. “He entered every event at both ends of the arena, and was very successful. When he first rodeoed, Jack rode barebacks. Then he switched to team roping.”
The Phil Lyne connection gets extra cool when you consider that Stephenson grew up in Cotulla, Texas, which is Lyne’s hometown today.
“They were still tying the knot (team tying) down here in Texas back then, but Jack was working in feedlots in Brawley, California, and got started dally team roping with those guys out there,” Piland continued. “Then he brought dally team roping back to Texas. Jack was one of the first team ropers from Texas to make the NFR.”
It’s easy for today’s team ropers to forget that dally team roping came from the Golden State, back when Oakdale, California was dubbed the original Cowboy Capital of the World because so many rodeo cowboys called it home. But back then, the Texas rodeos didn’t even have team roping.
They called this man who left such a mark Cactus Jack for good reason.
“Don Beasley (one of Stephenson’s favorite heelers, who moved to Texas from California to rope with him) gave Jack that name, because he lived down here in the brush, mesquite, cactus country,” Piland recalls. “Then when they had CB radios, Cactus Jack was his handle.”
As for naming the rope company after him, well, “When it came to naming this company, that was a no brainer,” Piland said. “When people passed Jack on the street, they shortened his CB handle and said, ‘Hello, Cactus.’
“Starting this rope company was totally Jack’s idea. Joe and I helped with the money. We called Neil Love, and bought a rope machine and the blueprints for $50,000. Jack devoted that first year completely to the ropes, then went back home to the ranch. Barry (Berg) came on in 1992, and he and I took it from there. Four years and half a million dollars later, we finally figured out how to make a good rope.”
Jack won the inaugural Strait roping with son Jacky in 1982. Dad did it again the first year King George awarded the champs at his roping a truck and trailer on top of the loot heading for eight-time Champ of the World Rich Skelton in 1991. Cactus Jack got to head for his boy Jacky—Jack Reese Stephenson Jr—at the 1984 NFR, the last year Rodeo’s Super Bowl was held in Oklahoma City.
“Jack was also a horse trainer, and put on a lot of roping schools,” remembers his old amigo Piland. “Jack worked in feedlots and on ranches. He ran cattle, and crossed a lot of Mexican roping cattle across the (Rio Grande) river.
“Jack moved a lot of guys, the likes of Rich Skelton and Matt Tyler, up the roping ladder. About every superstar in the ’90s lived with Jack at one time, including Rich, Matt, Charles Pogue and Kevin Stewart. Jack was an amazing teacher and mentor, and he mentored Tee Woolman for a long time, too.”
Jack was a man of strong faith, and Piland says Jacky has followed suit and is a preacher now.
“Jack was instrumental in bringing the cowboy churches along back in the days when people thought to be cowboys, they had to be tough guys who drank and fought,” Piland said. “Jack, Allen Bach and a few others kind of changed that image.”
Cactus Jack Stephenson is survived by his high school sweetheart, Marjorie, who spent the last 61 years by his side as his wife. He also leaves a lasting legacy in their children, Jacky, Lori and Robb, and their families.
“They inducted Jack into the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame three days before he died,” Piland said. “His family considered that tribute there at the Fort Worth Stockyards to be his eulogy, and Jacky (who made a second NFR heeling for Stewart) spoke on Jack’s behalf.
“Cactus Jack would be proud to be remembered as a cowboy’s cowboy, not only in the rodeo arena, but on the ranch. Jack was a Godfather of team roping in Texas.”