By now, you’ve likely heard the unlikely news that Wyoming’s Johnson brothers—Kellan, 19, and Carson, 17—took the team roping title and gold medals at the Days of ’47 Cowboy Games & Rodeo, which ran July 19-21 and 23-24 in Salt Lake City. But you’re probably not aware of just how long the odds were against these two teen-aged brothers taking center stage to have those gold medals placed around their necks while being handed life-changing checks for more than $50 grand a man. To sum up this Salt Lake stunner in a word, “miracle” is more like it.
You see, there was a painful and very pivotal point in these boys’ family history years before they were born that could have prevented them from even being here. In December of 1995—16 years before he won the world with Turtle Powell in 2011—Jhett Johnson was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and was wheeled straight into emergency surgery. It took him five weeks to heal up enough to have a second surgery in January of 1996. When he started back rodeoing again in February at El Paso, Jhett couldn’t even lift his saddle onto his own horse. Big brother Justin—who placed third with Jhett at the BFI that year—had to do it.
Jhett and Jenny Johnson were married on June 8, 1996, right before the BFI. They went through some scary, tough, trying times together before being blessed beyond belief with a happy, healthy, bouncing baby boy—Kellan—in October of 1998. Then there was another—Carson—born in February, 2001, before caboose cowboy Kress came along in October of 2008.
There were three reasons Jhett Johnson retired from the full-time rodeo trail right after winning the world in 2011—Kellan, Carson, and Kress.
“People asked me a lot, ‘How can you quit when you just won the world?’” said Jhett, who roped at five Wrangler National Finals Rodeos between 2005 and 2011; in all but 2008. “Those boys are why I quit. I wanted to be there for them. To see them succeed is so special as a parent, because a parent’s there for all the times they don’t succeed—when they come home mad, sad, and completely beat down. To see them be the champs is so special, and I’m so thankful. I didn’t want to miss it, and I didn’t.”
Then there’s HOW Kellan and Carson got their names thrown into the Days of ’47 contestant hat. Kellan, who’s getting set to start his sophomore year at Gillette College, received an exemption for winning the College National Finals Rodeo in his family’s hometown of Casper, Wyoming, in June. He won the 2018 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association team roping title with Colorado’s Trey Yates, who rodeoed this past school year for Casper College, where Jhett is the rodeo coach.
Trey’s been spanning the globe trying to get to his first NFR with 2015 World Champion Header Aaron Tsinigine (and doing a darn good job of it), and just couldn’t make Salt Lake work. That’s when little brother Carson came into the picture. Days of ’47 took 20 entries from the World Champions Rodeo Alliance’s Virtual Rodeo Qualifier system, in which contestants can nominate events they’re already competing in to earn points, which in turn qualify them for big-money events.
“When Trey said he wasn’t going to go to Salt Lake, my dad found out how it worked, and how you can nominate rodeos,” said Carson, who’ll be a senior at Natrona County High School in Casper come fall. “I nominated six amateur rodeos in Colorado and Nebraska, and winning the rodeo in Brush, Colorado, with Kellan got me into Salt Lake. I think the virtual qualifying system is pretty cool, because it gives you a second chance to get something out of a rodeo you’re already entered in.”
At 17, Carson’s still too young to apply for a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association permit, which has a minimum age requirement of 18. It cost Carson $613 to nominate those six rodeos, and Jhett’s in favor of that risk-reward ratio on a shot at $50 grand, regardless of the fact that it was his credit card that actually took the risk.
“That was money well spent,” Jhett said. “Once Kellan knew he made it, Carson wanted in, too. Kellan and I only entered four rodeos over the Fourth of July, so we had July 2-4 off. That let Kellan and Carson go to those amateur rodeos, which also gave them a shot at Salt Lake. In pro rodeo, you dang near need to be a mathematician to navigate how to get into the limited rodeos. Sometimes they take guys from this year’s world standings, or last year’s world standings, or circuit standings. It’s gotten pretty confusing to keep track of it all. This Virtual Rodeo Qualifier deal is pretty simple, really. You nominate places you’re going to enter anyway, and if you do some good, you earn points, and get to go on and try to win some more.”
I have a vivid memory of Kellan from the NFR Press Room in 2011, where I interviewed Jhett just after he won the world. Kellan had just turned 12, was the only one of Jhett and Jenny’s boys old enough to really grasp the significance of that gold buckle at that time, and was overcome with emotion. When I watched that 6’ 1”, 230-pound man step up onto the big stage alongside his little brother for that gold medal ceremony in Salt Lake the other day, I flashed back to that sweet like boy shedding happy tears for his dad a few short years ago.
Kellan transitioned to roping with Oklahoma’s Brady Norman at the pro rodeos this week. Jhett and Jenny still have Carson and Kress at home, and Coach Johnson has a herd of other people’s kids to help now, too. But Kellan and Jhett have had a heck of a run here lately at the rodeos themselves. The father-son Johnson team roped at the Daddy of ’em All at Cheyenne on Monday morning, July 23, before the Johnson brothers team ran their first steer at the Days of ’47 at Salt Lake—they were 4.9 for the fastest time of the entire long round—that same night.
Kellan and Jhett were 7.6 on their second steer that morning at The Daddy, and placed second in the second round. Kellan and Carson earned $3,200 a man for winning that long round Monday evening, which in Salt Lake was considered the semis (the top two teams from each perf plus the two fastest, additional “wild card” teams advanced), then struck for the $50 grand a man in the Gold Medal Round on Tuesday night. On Wednesday morning, Kellan and Jhett roped at the Days of ’76 Rodeo in Deadwood, where they were 5.1 for third on their first one, and finished eighth in the average with a leg. Spinning for his dad and little brother, Kellan won right at $60,000 at those three rodeos alone.
The kids may be a bit young to put a $53,200 win at one rodeo into perspective just yet. But its significance is not lost on a seasoned veteran such as pops.
“There are only two rodeos all year long where a guy can win that kind of money,” Jhett said. “And one of them—the NFR—takes an all-year struggle to get there, after you’ve worn out your horse, truck, trailer, and body. The other is Houston. To stop at one town on one day and win $50,000 is amazing. That’s like having a chance to win at four huge rodeos all in one.
“My boys had a great rodeo, and what’s really cool is that they weren’t alone. Matt Sherwood and Will Woodfin (who were 4.3 for second and $25,000 a man) had a great rodeo. Riley and Brady Minor (who placed third in 4.4 for $12,000 a man) had a great rodeo. Derrick Begay and Cory Petska (who finished fourth in 4.5 for $6,000 apiece) had a great rodeo.
“The way I see it, the WCRA is an additional, complementary opportunity to win good money. Rodeo’s always been a tough way to make a living, and it’s getting tougher and more expensive all the time. Who knows where all this will go. Any new business needs a three-year plan, and two years from now, there’s no telling where the WCRA might be. I promise you that starting next season a lot of people will be trying to qualify for what’s coming next, because they want to be the next Cinderella story. This is all just really good for the cowboys and the sport.”
In addition to the $106,400 and two gold medals between them, Kellan and Carson’s win at the Days of ’47 also comes with an exemption into the next three WCRA majors in 2019, each of which will feature a $1 million guaranteed payoff. Others interested in competing at the next big show are now vying to be one of 150 contestants in each event to qualify via the Virtual Rodeo Qualifier system for the November 15-18 semifinals at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Kellan and Carson Johnson are seventh-generation Wyoming natives to ranch the 7,000-acre family spread, which was homesteaded by their great-great-great grandparents back in 1882. Those pioneer Johnsons built a two-story log home that they moved into in 1894, which is the oldest two-story log home still being lived in in the Cowboy State. It’s currently occupied by Jhett and Justin’s parents/Kellan, Carson, and Kress’s grandparents, Jamis and Judy Johnson.
Justin, now 50, and Jhett, 47, both built family homes a couple miles from Jamis and Judy’s two-story ranch centerpiece, and about a mile from Johnson Ranch headquarters. Justin, who went on to be a hard-core cutter, grew up in the arena with Jhett, just as their boys have.
There are a whole lot of J’s in the Johnson family. In addition to Jamis and Judy, and Jhett and Jenny, Justin is married to Jodene, and they have two boys, Jayden, 22, and Jerren, 19. Kellan will head for Jerren at the college rodeos this next year. Jerren will rodeo for Casper College and Coach Johnson. I just had to ask why Kellan isn’t rodeoing for dear old dad. I laughed when someone said that it was “something about a girl,” as in Kellan’s girlfriend, Brooke Howell, who also goes to school in Gillette. Kellan just smiles, and does not deny being smitten.
Kellan’s future scholastic goals include a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in counseling. “I’d like to be a guidance counselor for high school kids,” he said. “I had a good one, Mr. Catlin, who helped guide me, and helped me make informed decisions. Rodeo comes to an end, and I like talking to people, and helping them.”
Meanwhile, what to do with all this dough…
“A rodeo like Salt Lake changes people’s lives,” Kellan said. “Junior Dees made the Finals from it (last year, when it counted toward the world standings). Kelsey Parchman made the Finals off of Houston, when that counted. This is life-changing money. You can pay trucks and trailers off, and buy new horses for the job you’re doing. It also gives you that confidence to keep going. It’s easy to feel beat up out here. You’ve got to keep working, and this is a big shot in the arm to keep at it.”
“Like Dad said, ‘A lot of people don’t win $50,000 in one day in their whole career,’” added Carson, who’ll heel for Bryton Scheller at the high school rodeos this coming year. “Kellan just bought a new head horse, and I just bought a new heel horse. We’re thinking about buying a few cows together, too. Dad always told us to spend our money wisely, so we have something to show for it when we’re done.”