It's rare for anyone to do anything 30 years in a row.
To be competitive at a professional sport that long would seem highly unlikely, if not impossible.
These four guys were gearing up to go to BFI '07 when I visited with each of them. And they were just as excited about this 30th annual event as they were about the first one. Completely competitive, too.
This isn't a case of a few hangers-on throwing their names in the hat for old-time sake. Allen's the defending world champion heeler, and Walt is the reigning reserve champ of the world. Denny and Doyle Gellerman darn near won BFI '06 when they finished second only to titlists Brandon Thone and Chad Harper. And Mike's giving the team roping pack a serious run for the 2007 gold buckles with his son, Brandon.
A whole herd of today's best ropers hadn't yet been born 30 years ago. These guys were already dominating. And they keep proving that they'll still take your money today.
Allen, 50, Mike, 48, Denny, 51, and Walt, 51, have taught and mentored 30 years worth of ropers. They practice what they preach on a daily basis, and apparently there's something to it. They talk the talk at their roping schools, then turn around and walk the walk at the ropings and rodeos. The young guns respect them, and rightly so. They've earned it.
I find it an amazing feat that these four have failed to be derailed from the BFI contestant list in three decades. How, I had to ask, is that even possible? Clearly, this roping is a priority for every person who ropes for a living. But there's more to showing up to anything that long than just desire.
"Bob established the BFI as the most prestigious, best roping of all time right off the bat," Allen explained. "It was instilled in everybody's minds that you have the NFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo) for rodeoing and the BFI for roping. If you rope for a living, you have to be there. It's been engrained in us that if you rope for a living, you do not miss the BFI. It's continually grown and gotten a lot better."
"I would have never thought I'd be going to the BFI 30 times, much less that I'd still be competitive at this point in my life," Mike said. "There have been times it was tough to gather up the fees. One year, Shain Sproul and I won our entry fees to the BFI at a roping up in Olds (Alberta, Canada). One year, my close friend Bob Scott sponsored me. But thick or thin, I found a way to get into the BFI. It's the best roping in the world. It's the most prestigious. There are other great ones, but this is the best day of roping there is.
"You also have to be one of the top guys to rope there. Anybody and their dog can't enter the BFI. You have to be one of the top guys to be invited. I remember that first year (in Chowchilla, Calif., in 1977). You had to have an invitation from Bob, and there were guys who roped good who didn't get one. So it was quite an honor to get to rope there. I have so many special memories from this one roping that I can't name them all. It's a first-class roping. Bob and his staff do a great job. I've won it once (with Dee Pickett in 1987) and placed there two or three different times. I'm planning on winning it this year. We all go into it planning on winning it. But I've got great feelings about it this time."
Denny says it's more a question of "why not?" than "why?" when it comes to backing in the BFI box year after year.
"My grandma used to say, 'Time waits for no man. Do the things you want to do in life,' " he said. "She always used to say, 'The trouble with life is we're too old too soon.' As long as I enjoy it, I'll keep roping. The four of us were there when Bob Feist introduced this roping. It was the first roping of this magnitude. We used to sit around and say, 'Man, what a great opportunity to win a lot of money.' And nothing's changed there.
"Five hundred dollar fees were unheard of 30 years ago. But I like to rope for money. I always have. I didn't look at what it cost to enter. I looked at what I had a chance to win. I've won second twice, first once (with David Motes in 1981), and placed several other times. In 1987, I won three rounds in a row with Bobby Hurley."
And Denny's BFI memories don't end in the arena.
"For me, there's more to this particular roping than just the roping," he reminisced. "The first year Bob had the roping, my wife and I were talking about getting married. I told Cathy, 'If I do good, we'll go buy that ring.' Julio (Moreno) and I won second, and we went and bought our ring. That roping holds dear to me for that. Cathy's my rock. I'll be married to her for 30 years this January. The BFI is our annual thing. I've always told her I wouldn't go if I couldn't win. I've had a lot of good years at the BFI."
Denny also remembers rocks in the BFI road along the way.
"I remember when Feist came to us in 1983 at the Red Bluff Round-Up," he recalls. "He said he wasn't going to have his roping that year, and he didn't. Us open ropers didn't have anywhere to go back then. I told him he had to have it. I told him to raise the fees. It hadn't gone over real big in Denton (Texas, in 1982). I told him he was the only thing we had besides the NFR that was still anything big for the open ropers. He said, 'Alright. If you guys really want it, I'll try it again.' He told us later, he had a spot for us in 1984, roping outside at Reno. We had it in October, and it snowed on us. It moved to June in 1985.
"If I went to one roping a year, this is the one I want to go to. I love this roping. I love the atmosphere. And we were there on the ground floor. There's a huge fan base at the BFI. I have a lot of students who go watch it. It's kind of a reunion and honeymoon for Cathy and I. Plus, it's just a great competition."
Walt loves everything about the BFI, which he and his family look forward to every summer. And Walt's a guy who studies it all, from the intricacies of roping to the business end.
"I'm such a fan of team roping," he smiled. "Leo (Camarillo) said it best when he told me one time, 'If I can't heel I'll head, and if I can't head I'll run the chute. I just want to be around it.' I feel the same way. I love the sport so much, and this roping that Bob Feist created was such a novelty back when he came up with it. I remember reading about it the first time. It was like, 'What? You've got to be kidding.' The two premier events people lived for before the BFI were the Oakdale 10-Steer and the Chowchilla Stampede in California. I couldn't wait for the first BFI to happen. It was such a huge event.
"There aren't a lot of people who do things for reasons other than money-for the love of the sport. Most people take big percentages out for stock charge and office charges and promotions-40 percent and more. A third is pretty common. Feist takes an unbelievably tiny amount out (3 percent of entry fees, to be exact). I don't know hardly anyone who would do this. If I can crawl to this roping, I'll be there. And I don't want to just show up. I want to have a chance to win. Jack Nicklaus quit playing in The Masters not long ago. When he did that, he said, 'I don't have a chance to win and I'm taking a chance away from someone who does.' When I feel like I'm taking a spot away from a young guy who has a chance to win this roping, I'll bow out. If I can't rope competitively, I'm gone."
So, guys, what's so special about the BFI that it makes your mustn't-miss list?
"This roping has always been a horsemanship test," Allen noted. "Bob experimented with locations, then went indoors with it, to the best indoor arena out West (the Reno Livestock Events Center). There's a lot of room, and he lets the score out there as far as that arena allows. It's really challenging. You really have to be mounted. The header has to handle cattle and set things up. At a lot of these other ropings, just about anybody can beat you. But at this one, you have to be mounted and you have to use your head."
"The way this roping is run and the atmosphere make it special," Mike said. "It's a longer score, six-steer average. All the people who come to watch it is pretty cool, too. People come to the BFI to watch the best ropers in the world. That in itself makes it different. The best 100 teams in the world rope at the BFI. That's what sets it apart."
"I've always loved this roping," Denny declared. "But the minute I don't think I can win, you won't see me there. I really enjoy this roping and the fellowship. I never watch the roping. I sit with Cathy in the stands and visit. It's a long day, and I don't like to get involved in what everybody else is doing. I can't control what they're doing. I can only control what I'm doing. I don't think any one particular thing sets this roping apart. It's just The Masters of our sport. There are other good ropings. But the BFI, to me, is The Masters. It's the most prestigious roping."
"I'm a freak about this sport," Walt added. "I love it. I teach it. My son ropes. My wife ropes. My dad ropes. We're fans of it. We love it. Bob Feist and his willingness to do something just for the love of this sport sets this roping apart. He started this whole thing out of respect, admiration and giving something back to the sport, and I'm a beneficiary of that. Every guy who ropes for a living is a beneficiary of that.
"You can buy a home in some parts of the country for what this roping pays. It can change your life. That's incredible. There's no reason for Bob to do this other than to give something back to the top level guys who've laid it out there and dedicated themselves and devoted their lives to this sport. That gives me goosebumps. I'm honored to be involved in this roping."
My perennial BFI roper panel is divided as to why four heelers have outlasted the rest of the original entrants. Like Allen said, "I don't want to pretend to have the answer to that. I'd almost call it an accident, because there are some really great headers who've been around just as long as we have, guys like Jake Barnes, Tee Woolman and David Motes, who've had really great longevity." Mike's only guess is that heading is more physically demanding than heeling at the world-class level. And Denny said, "I think it's a coincidence. David Motes and Doyle Gellerman could be on the list just as easily as the four of us. Something just came up a time or two for those other guys."
Walt was the most opinionated on the panel regarding this point.
"It's easier to survive in terms of longevity for heelers," he said. "It's more physically demanding to head than it is to heel, and it's harder to get the great head horses. You can get by on lesser horses as a heeler. This is The Masters. This is Pebble Beach. If you can't hit a ball in the wind, don't golf at Pebble Beach. If you don't have a great head horse, you better not go to the BFI. Because that place'll eat you up if you aren't up to the test."
Their BFI partners roster reads like a roping Who's Who. So I wondered who, in their eyes, tops their all-time BFI chart?
"Daniel Green comes to my mind," Allen said. "The four guys who really stick out are Matt Tyler, Charles Pogue, Jake Barnes and Daniel. In each one of those cases, their concentration to not miss is so good when it comes to conditions like this, where there's a long score and you really have to make your horse run. Those guys are all great.
"Daniel stands out, because he's likely to throw a coil coming to one. If I had to bet my life on someone not missing, it'd be on Daniel Green, even dropping a coil, because his concentration is so phenomenal. He was so much fun to rope with. He was such an awesome partner to not miss or break out. I roped with Jake a lot at this roping, and we almost always placed, too. What can you say about Charles on Scooter? Same with Matt on his good horses."
"I'm going to say Dee Pickett, because I won it with him," Mike stated. "After this year's roping's over, I'll have to say Brandon Beers, because he's got my blood in him."
"I won it with David Motes and have placed in the average more with him than anyone," Denny said. "He and I were just a good team. I've had really good partners at this roping."
"Wow. That is a great question," Walt wondered. "I would have to say Clay Tryan (his 2007 partner). He's such an aggressive roper. He's already won it (with Patrick Smith in 2005). He believes he's going to win it again. He's not intimidated by that place at all. I'm really, really excited about it. Clay doesn't just try to survive at jackpots and just catch. You get into trouble just trying to survive at the BFI. Gloom and doom will hit you if you do that at this roping. You need to attack all the time at this one, especially in the first two go-rounds before the cattle start to soften up."
Given that virtually every roper from 5 to 85 has pretended to win the BFI at one time or another in his or her practice pen, I had to ask the big-dog veterans: What does is take to win this thing?
"It's pretty important to draw pretty good on the first three steers and to be pretty aggressive," Allen said. "It's kind of easy for a header to lay off the barrier and for the heeler to take a couple extra swings. But if you do that, you might look up and find yourself four seconds behind. I really believe you need to stay aggressive early on and set yourself up to be in the driver's seat. Then if you happen to get that steer that runs you down there and you're a long 8 or short 9, it's not nearly as bad. How you draw and what kind of start you get in those first three rounds dictates a lot."
"It takes six clean runs to win the BFI," Mike said. "I've only roped six clean steers there once, and I won it. I've placed there a couple times, but I roped a leg on one steer."
"It takes getting our horses really prepared right," Denny figures. "And mentally preparing ourselves right. We know how to rope. Most of us have roped thousands and thousands of steers. Winning is a mindset. I take it one run at a time. I don't get caught up in the times. I get around each steer as fast as I can, and take the cards as they fall. If I draw good and rope as good as I can, I'll win good. I don't get caught up in the hype. I stay focused on my job, which is to rope two feet as fast as I can. I make a lot of practice runs as if I'm there for months before the BFI. I set my shots up, and take them. You have to rope aggressive, but you have to rope smart."
Walt's won everything but first at the BFI heading into BFI '07.
"You're asking a guy who's never won it," he smiled. "That's like asking a fat guy the secret to losing weight. The key to this roping is the first three steers. They're critical. If you're 25 on the first three, I don't think you have much of a chance. It's happened. But 21-22 on three at this roping makes it really fun the rest of the day. You get windburns on your cheeks in that first round when the steers are flying. And when they're going that fast, it's hard to heel them. It's so easy to say you'll just go catch. But then you're behind. And when the steers let up in the later rounds and start letting everybody be fast, you can't make up any ground.
"Every year at this roping, the guys that jump out early have a huge advantage. Just for the record, I had that roping won last year. I was fast on three. Then I drew the steer from hell in the fourth round. He ran hard and ran left. I had to follow him, was 12 or 13, and it took me out of contention. I had a great start going. I was cruising along, right on the lead, no problem. But in order to win the Indianapolis 500, you have to have some racing luck. That place is dripping with talent. Everyone's been home, they're tuned up and rested. Everyone is completely prepared when we get to this roping."
The BFI set the standard for every big-time roping that's followed. Is its impact on the roping industry and roping history as huge as it seems to me?
"It paid two or three times as much as any roping we'd ever been to from day one," Allen explained. "Other producers who wanted to have a prestigious roping modeled their events after the BFI. Some of them got creative and changed it up. But I really believe that Bob impacted all the good ropings we have today. There really are a lot of people who like to watch us rope for a lot of money."
"Spectators today want to see the best ropers rope, and the BFI has a lot to do with that," Mike agreed. "The BFI was the start of it. The BFI's been to California to Vegas to Texas to Reno. When Bob decided to do this, it started giving open ropers somewhere to go. Back when this started, you had 40 good open ropers. Now you have 200. The BFI was such a good roping that everybody wanted to get good enough to be invited to rope in it."
"There's no question the impact this event has had," Denny said. "They're getting these bigger ropings scattered all over the place. The BFI is so important, because it was the footstep to the whole thing. It is the roping that started all big-time ropings. It is the premier event."
"The BFI has changed people's lives," Walt has observed firsthand. "My son is a BFI winner (Travis won it with Mikey Fletcher in 2003). People are known for winning the BFI. That goes with you the rest of your life. Everyone knows if you've won the BFI. Like Travis says, it's not for the rest of your life, it's for the rest of time. He said that when he was a little kid going to the BFI to watch it-long before he ever won it. It stays with you forever."
Bob Feist is the first guy who ever paid me to write a story. So he was a pretty pivotal person in my career. What about you?
"I'd like to thank Bob for believing in us and the sport enough to keep dedicating himself every year," Allen said. "Bob and his mom took Peggy (Big Al's better half) and I on our first date. We went to Marine World Africa USA in California. I still remember riding in the back seat and holding hands. We were friends, so I felt Bob's pain in getting this roping started and keeping it going. The fact that he made that commitment to stay hooked all this time is a way bigger deal than us four guys roping in all 30 events. Bob actually produced all 30 events. People are passionate about this roping. We all dream of winning this thing. (Bach won it in 1979 with Brian Burrows.)"
"If it wasn't for Bob Feist, I don't know what would have happened to open roping," Mike marveled. "He's the first one who took it upon himself to make a bigger, better place for the open ropers. It was his vision that took team roping to another level. Stephanie (Anderson) and that whole staff have been a huge factor in this thing, too. Bob's been a great asset to team roping. If it hadn't been for him, we wouldn't have seen the open ropings we have today."
"I give Bob the biggest thank you that you can possibly imagine," Denny chimed in. "Without him, I don't think the team roping world would be where it is today. I really don't."
"It's so admirable that someone would do something simply for the love of the game," Walt said. "That's the only possible reason to have done this. Bob's saying thank you to this sport. It's for the little kids who sit in the grandstands and watch it thinking, 'One day I'll be good enough to compete at the BFI.' And the ultimate dream, 'One day I could win this roping for the pride of my family.' Travis's BFI saddle sits in our living room. That's how much this roping means to our family.
"The BFI is to roping what the Kentucky Derby is to horse racing, what the Daytona 500 is to stock car racing, what the Indy 500 is to open-wheel racing. This is our premier event. That guy qualified for the NFR, won the NFR, won the world, won the BFI. Those are the four things people are known for. This thing is phenomenal. Fantastic. The numbers speak for themselves, and no other roping can compare to it. To compete against 99 teams for $70,000 (per man)-anyone who is not amazed by this roping flunked math. I feel extremely fortunate and grateful to still be competitive and to just be linked to this roping and these other three guys. They're all so mentally tough. I'm very humbled to be in their company."