For the entire 2009 season, rodeo fans and friends have approached Allen Bach to say something along the lines of, "How great it must be for you to be able to rope with your son Joel."
Bach, who is an outspoken Christian, always gives the short answer in reply, "Yes it's been awesome." While Bach feels the opportunity and the experience is awesome, the part he doesn't always have time to share in passing conversations and small talk is that it's been a struggle as well.
"It really has been an extreme strain on us," Bach said. "Of course, it's one of the most worthwhile things I've done in my life. I didn't realize it, but roping with Joel, I'm trying to be his dad, his best friend, his partner and his coach. I was wearing four different hats this year. You have to prioritize and say, 'I've got to be his dad first. I want to be his friend second, and his partner and coach after that.' All year long, I didn't do the perfect job and I'd keep getting those four roles mixed up. I did a pretty good job being dad first, the other three deals would get shifted around."
Bach essentially invited Joel to become a part of the family business. But in no other sport can a father and son actually compete as a team at such a high, professional level. Joel, 19, lives at home. When it's time to go to a rodeo, he and has father (and sometimes mother, Peggy, and brother, Tyler, too) load up, drive halfway across the country, sleep in the same rig, then head to the arena to rely on each other for the other's success and financial well-being. Then, win or lose, get back in the same rig together and drive to the next one.
"To be somebody's partner and friend is one thing," Allen said. "I've tried to pride myself on having some of the greatest partners I've had over the years. I've had so many guys that turned into brothers. To be a friend and a partner is hard, most people are doing well just to be a good partner. They travel in separate rigs and business is business. So it took a lot of our family supporting us."
And at first, the results were less than either expected. For years, young ropers have flocked to Allen Bach's house to take advantage of his generous teaching spirit as they prepared to launch a career in the sport. And no one benefited from the environment more than Joel. Naturally, he turned into a skilled roper who could rely on talent more than strategy.
"When you're 19, you're supposed to start thinking for yourself, standing on your own two feet and being independent," Allen said of Joel. "So, he's dealing with that. Being 19 years old, he would challenge the way I wanted to do things with the way he wanted to do things. I've been doing it 30 years, and I feel like I understand how to win. I keep trying to put those winning principles in him. It came down to the fact that he has a lot of ability to reach and he's always wanted me to turn him loose. He'd say 'Dad, if you just turn me loose I can reach two coils, run at the barrier and turn those steers for first place.' I would try to explain to him that at these big rodeos, the guys who get to the short go rounds and win the big money, place not just in one go round, but place in the go round and in the average. Those are the guys who win the big money. Being consistent, getting to the short go, catching that last one and being smart always pays off."
As the season wore on with no signature wins, both men became frustrated. No 19-year-old wants his life controlled by his father and every father wants to teach his son not to repeat the mistakes he made-whether in the arena or in life.
"It's like a partnership, but at the same time it's not," Joel said. "When we're roping together, he's coaching on you. It's not the same thing as just having a partner."
And sometimes, those lessons would get muddled. Even if Allen and Joel were out-of-sorts in a personal situation, they had to rope together. Sometimes, the personal conflict would spill into the arena, sometimes it helped their relationship grow.
"Simple things like teaching him how to drive safe and do his part on the road, because of the father thing, I'm trying to teach him to be a good person at the same time as making the NFR," Allen said. "You mix all that in there and it makes for quite an interesting summer."
Joel wasn't immune to the pressure, either.
"Just like any father, he doesn't want you to hang out with the wrong people," he said. "But it's a strain when a person you're roping with is also telling you those things."
In a career that's lasted over 30 years, Allen, however, has seen some of the most talented ropers and good-hearted people lose their way because of choices made early in life. Because of that, he became determined to influence Joel as much as possible.
"I could have done a lot of things differently financially or given myself a better chance to win the world or even make the Finals, but in praying about it a lot, God put it on my heart that I was supposed to be with my son this year, no matter what," Allen said. "Everything that's worth having you pay a price for. That's a huge thing that I realized this summer. The time spent with your kids is the greatest investment you can make in anything. The time spent getting to rope with Joel is the greatest thing for me and him ever. Getting to have Peggy and Tyler with us, and the time spent going through something that's hard like that-it's one thing to go to the park-but we worked together toward a goal and a dream. I can't say enough. I know a lot of fathers struggle with stuff when their kids are teenagers, but it's worth dropping everything, even if you had to quit your job, to spend time with your son when they are going through tough times. There's nothing else that's more important in your life than your family."
The struggles were there, no doubt, but the payoff, the awesome part of their partnership, began to blossom as the season moved to crunch time and into the Northwest.
Beginning in Lovington, N.M., Allen took Joel aside and explained that if they were to have a chance at the Justin Boots Playoffs in Puyallup, Wash. (and by extension, a shot at the Wrangelr NFR), they had to start winning and placing at the Wrangler Million Dollar Tour rodeos immediately.
"When we left our house to go to the Northwest, we knew we'd have to rope well to have an opportunity," Joel said.
And they did. First in Lovington, then to the Northwest in places like Hermiston, Ore., Bremerton and Ellensburg, Wash. In fact, in Kennewick, the duo had the fastest run of either of their careers, a 3.8.
"He knew it was OK to go ahead and throw two coils," Allen said. "Even being my son, I was amazed. I don't know that I've ever roped with anybody who roped that fast."
But the true test was the next weekend in Ellensburg. Riding that wave of confidence, would Joel rebel and revert back to the mad bomber style that came as second nature, or would he stick to a game plan that dad advocated that would allow them to win the most money possible?
"At Ellensburg, he roped all three steers sharp, he did exactly what I told him," Allen said. "We won third on our first one and third in the average and won $3,500. He made it into Puyallup by a few hundred dollars and I missed it by that much. Just the fact that we won $10,000 in that last four weeks, when I told him that it looked tough and it could be done, and he rose to the occasion and did that, that was pretty cool for me to see."
And Joel began to understand what Dad was telling him.
"I learned to just go out there and don't let what other people do, like going fast, change your mindset," he said. "Sometimes if you're fixing to rope and somebody right before you ropes one real fast, that can change your whole game plan-what you were going to do. Just stick to your game plan. Don't think about what you've got to be, just make your run."
Allen had to watch in Puyallup where Joel roped with J.W. Borrego. After a great first-round steer, they were flagged out on the second one for crossfire. Immediately, Allen recognized it as a hinge point for Joel.
"There's a good chance that could have cost him making the Finals and nobody knew that better than him," Allen said. "Instead of flipping over backwards, he rode out and didn't throw a fit. I was so proud of him. He rode out like a champion. It's the losing that creates the most character."
Again, Allen wondered how a crushing blow like that might affect his young son. There were still chances to make the Finals out there, and he hoped the defeat wouldn't affect him.
"I told him, 'There's still a chance, with God all things are possible," Allen said. "We can win $9,000 or $10,000 and put us within a shot and that's all we need.' He roped sharp and aggressive. We won third on the first one. There were a lot of guys miss on the last one, and he kept his composure so well. Everyone is thinking about making the Finals and the added pressure of winning Pendleton. He just ran up there and did everything by the book. He roped really sharp coming off of that hill on to the grass and handled that steer to where he was easy to heel. What Pendleton meant to me, with all that we went through this year and then to win one of the biggest rodeos of the year and $9,000, this gives us a shot."
Together, they roped three steers in 21.2 seconds to haul in $8,880 each.
"We had a good steer on our first one and we won third," Joel said. "The second one run on pretty good, but we roped him good and came back as third call back. Everybody knows that the short round can fall apart there, and sure enough everybody was missing and legging. When it come to us, we need to be 8 to be winning it, and we were 7.5. Both the teams behind us, the headers missed. The first and second high back, both of them, if they would have caught, would have made the Finals, Matt Sherwood and Ty Blasingame."
Again, with the Heartland Finals in Waco yet to happen, they've still got a fighter's chance. While both are preparing for their opportunity, the win at the Pendleton Round-Up signified that a year's worth of struggle was worth it.
"It was dang sure a relief," Joel said. "Every little close deal that could have gone either way went against me this year. That is an awesome rodeo to win. It was really cool, especially with my dad. My mom was there and it was a fun family time. This last whole month was reassuring that I could do this. Being out there and far from home would make it easy to get down. Regardless if I do good at Waco and make the Finals or not, it still turned out good and I learned a lot of things this year. I'll be a lot better off."
Allen learned that it takes three to four years for young ropers to reach their potential and hoped that even though he and Joel struggled and it frustrated them both, other young ropers would recognize that there's no such thing as an overnight success in the game-even with the Bach pedigree.
"It was really, really, special," Allen added. "I don't realize that sometimes it's that way with things you accomplish. Roping with Joel has been pretty special. I never dreamed I'd get to do that. And that's a rodeo you get to hear everybody talk about it. Being on the grass, the level of difficulty is way up there as far as being able to go and make three runs in a row there. It kind of hit me that I'll remember that for the rest of my life. That's actually the first big rodeo he and I have won together. It's probably one of the biggest wins, or coolest wins, for me. Special win, I guess you'd say."
As a competitive team and a father and son, the success in Pendleton was akin to coming through the refiner's fire to a purer relationship that they were able to celebrate publicly together. Both men learned hard lessons that involved pride and trust, and now they both have saddles sitting in their living room to remember it.
"You can't help anybody by pretending everything is perfect in your life," Allen said. "Even as a roper. The whole point is we know how to fix our mistakes roping and God gives us a strategy to fix our mistakes in life and not let our mistakes ruin us.
"I just couldn't be prouder of Joel. We honestly struggled. We kept going and didn't give up. When you get in a slump, you just want to go home and forget it about. I'm not saying that's not the thing to do sometimes, but I was really proud of him that he wanted to keep battling away. The last month, he really rose to another level. Coming out of being frustrated and nothing working out and have him work his way through it."
Now, Allen and Joel just need to make decisions about the future.
"I'm kind of at the stage in my career where- if I knew that he could get a better partner-I would step back and be all for him having that right partner that he could go on with and work on his career," Allen said. "But the best favor I felt like I could do is to be that partner for him until he finds that guy."