Originally printed in the April 2018 issue.
Bobbi Williams is one-of-a-kind.
When it comes to team roping accomplishments, it’s often a matter of who won what for how much in what time, and have they done it more than once. Within those parameters, there’s certainly no shortage of legendary feats such as the historic eight consecutive world champion titles courtesy of iconic header Speed Williams between 1997 and 2004, but, in reality, looking to the numbers is just a starting place when it comes to the contributions made by the members of the roping community.
On an afternoon in mid-March, Speed’s mom, Bobbi Williams, works the camera for Pro ropers Chase Wiley and Martin Lucero as they make runs down Speed’s Santo, Texas, arena; but instead of talking about how to dial a run in, she’s telling stories of how it all began how she and her late husband took to the sport, how they raised a champion roper, and why Bobbi’s name comes to mind first for a host of women ropers when they talk about where their motivation came from.
NOTHING LIKE THE FIRST TIME
It’s 1975 in Florida, and Bobbi Williams is backing into the box at a public roping for the first time. She’s wearing a white shirt and a ball cap and doing her best to look like the more than 100 other men competing in that roping.
“There was only a couple people who knew that I was a woman,” Bobbi recalled. “As soon as I roped my second steer, I rode to the back and got to the trailer and went to screaming and hollering. I changed my shirt and took my ball cap off so nobody would know it was me.”
The story is perforated with laughter—as many of Bobbi’s are—and she seems just as tickled today as she was in her 32year to have taken second against all those men at her very first event.
Bobbi wasn’t the only woman roping that day, and at no point does she make claims of aiming to make team roping a more inclusive sport. Instead, it happened rather organically, and she loved it enough that she was driven to share it whenever she could.
Married to 1964 International Professional Rodeo Association Saddle Bronc Riding world champion Ken Williams, the young couple rented an old dairy in Jacksonville and made a business of training horses.
“My dad had about 50 horses, and he trained a lot of outside horses,” Speed explained. “We’d have anywhere from 10 to 16 outside horses a month, and he was a big team roper trainer. Kind of the Don Gates of the East Coast.”
Bobbi was vital to the operation. A horsewoman in her own right who showed cattle, ran barrels, and operated a fitting service, she also operated a rope in her home arena to help out with the training. It was just the sporting part of it that hadn’t occurred to her until a California woman put her up to it.
“Sue Little was a pharmaceutical representative and she and her friend, Louis, came to our arena to rope,” Bobbi said. “My husband was giving her a mount so she could go rope with her friend and she said to me, ‘Well I’m not going to rope unless you do.’ I said, ‘Sue, we’ll be the only two girls roping in that arena and I know that.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’”
Bobbi quit dressing like a man in the arena, but when her husband put her up to roping in the Bob Feist Invitational 10 years later, she still couldn’t imagine herself competing against the boys at that level.
“I told him, ‘You are nuts. I ain’t competing against all those men.’ But I did,’” she said, laughing through the story again. “It was three runs before they realized I was a girl. This was when it was held outside, and you talk about going fast. We looked like idiots running down that pen. I rode a big ol’ Paint horse and you couldn’t hide with a Paint horse—they all see you! We thought we was really big ropers. It was crazy. It really was.”
In roughly that same 10-year span, the rules were changing across the board and opportunities for women were being seized at every level. In 1972, Title IX passed and the New York Stock Exchange saw its first female director. In the Williams’ home state of Florida, a Republican woman who was not following in the footsteps of her father or her husband was first voted into the U.S. Senate in 1980. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Justice of the Supreme Court; and in 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to be sent into space.
And in Jacksonville, Bobbi and a band of girlfriends were hauling each other around, pooling their money, and sharing their mounts.
“At one time,” Bobbi remembered, “for a season, there was an all-girl rodeo in Florida. Me and three other girls went, because this other girl had a barrel horse and I had the roping horse, so we just pooled our money together and when we won we split it four ways and all that, and we had fun.”
Hearing the story in Bobbi’s charming and sing-song-y twang calls to mind a rodeo cowgirl version of Rebecca Wells’ novel, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, in which four girls grow up and into adulthood in the Deep South, leaning on each other through life’s adventures, hardships, and sticky, summer heat waves.
“We were all married, and there was only one rule that I had,” Bobbi confirmed. “And that was that nobody goes anywhere in the truck by themselves. If we go, we all four go at the same time, so there’ll be no tattletale-ing and we won’t get in trouble.”
If Bobbi ever did get in trouble, those tales must not compare to the fun she had in and out of the arena, because she sure doesn’t spend her time recalling such incidents. Instead, for her, the memories revolve around one thing: Letting others in on the fun.
“When women came to our place, you know, the girls would come with their guys,” Bobbi said. “And a girl would be dating a guy that roped, and after they got married, then she wouldn’t want him roping no more. So, I encouraged them all to rope, and I said, ‘Look, I was 32 before I even started, and if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
And Bobbi meant it, particularly when a man might try and get in the way of his lady having a go horseback.
“We had this one insurance man come out, who was impressed with Speed, so he wanted to learn how to rope,” Bobbi recalled, laughing less. “My husband mounted him on one of the best little heading horses, but he told his wife she couldn’t ride because she had no balance and no idea,” which Bobbi pronounces as i-dear.
Her tone reaches a pitch of subtle indignation as she tells the tale, as if there might be no more absurd thing in the world than to tell a person they’re not even allowed to try getting on a horse.
“I told her,” Bobbi continued, “if you’re having trouble with your man, come on out and we’ll go on a trail ride and it will beat your butt and clear your head, and you’ll forget all about your pain with your man.”
Over the years, more girls got entered up in the roping arenas, and Bobbi remembers being impressed with the likes of Beverly Robbins for being equipped with talent and good horses, whom she first met when Speed was getting out on the rodeo road. At home, Bobbi spent the years getting a host of young girls mounted, hauling them around to different ropings, and helping them get to where they were real-deal competitors.
“I call them my protégés. We really did accomplish quite a bit.”
She speaks of girls like Mandy Hunt, who went on to win at the USTRC’s National Finals of Team Roping in Oklahoma City. And Bonnie Nettles.
“She’d just irritate me,” Bobbi said playfully. “She was a barrel racer and she didn’t even have to work at it. She’d come up and she wouldn’t practice. I’d put her on my horse, give her my rope, give her my glove, give her everything, and she’d go out there and beat your butt. But we had fun.”
On occasion, the girls would have too much fun, and Bobbi gets back to chuckling as she recalls a phone call with a friend who’d been on a winning streak and how much trouble it was causing in her marriage. Or, how after Ken’s death, she hosted a memorial roping for the following six years and thought she might lose her stock contractor when all the ladies showed up to rope.
“I talked the producer into letting me have a girls round robin,” she explained. “We had 22 and 24 girls show up to rope in that thing. I drawed out because I had to work and there was one other girl that drawed out, but we ended up having 22 and 22. When we finally got through, my contractor said, ‘I cannot believe I let you talk me into this!’ Usually, we couldn’t even get 15 on each side, but there were so many girls that had started roping. It was amazing. It really was.”
COMMITTED TO THE CAUSE
Having to draw out to get stuff done at one of her ropings was just a drop in the work bucket for Bobbi. Even though she was already a hand around the home ranch, Bobbi never entered a team roping before she was 32 because, given the scarcity of women ropers—particularly in her region—she knew there wasn’t room for mistakes.
“I always felt like if you were in a man’s world, and you got hurt,” she said before pausing, “You don’t want to get hurt in a man’s sport. You know what I mean?”
Some 50 years prior to Bobbi taking second at her first roping, cowgirl bronc rider Bonnie McCaroll twice won the title against men and women alike at the two biggest rodeos in 1922—Cheyenne Frontier Days and Madison Square Gardens—and the accomplishment is often used to highlight the golden age of rodeo cowgirls. Then, a short seven years later, McCarrol suffered a fatal wreck at the 1929 Pendleton Round-Up and her death became a cautionary tale, used equally as often to highlight the imminent doom of said golden age. Though not the sole factor that ended the era, rodeo organizers agreed then that they weren’t going to charge good money for people to watch women die.
Bobbi knew, if she did it, she was dang sure going to have to do it right.
By 1976, Bobbi was making some money in the arena, and that season that she and her girlfriends competed in the all-girls rodeo, Bobbi made the finals, and was always in the Florida Cowboys Association’s top four. And this, all while running a business with her husband and raising her son, eventual eight-time world champion header, Speed.
“His dad was going to make a champion out of him and I was going to get him an education, so that’s what we accomplished,” Bobbi stated, painting a picture of how she and Ken managed rodeo weekends and schooling and life in all its iterations.
“She’s a big reason I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished,” Speed confirmed. “She would drive all night to get me home to go to school in the morning.”
“I’ve put some miles in.” Bobbi continued, marveling a bit. “I always got the midnight shift driving. We didn’t have living quarter trailers then; we just had a gooseneck, and we’d put a mattress up there and that’s where Speed slept. I’d jerk him out of there, get him in the bath, give him breakfast, and take him to school.”
Then, during the week, the Williams hosted ropings at their arena every Tuesday and Thursday night.
“You got to come and rope for $20 a man,” Bobbi illustrated. “Then, on Thursdays, I had a $30-a-man round robin, and for the beginners, I had a $10 draw pot. Of course, that was when people would stay around and help me, and it was fun, but I did that every Tuesday and Thursday night no matter what. It was a working arena. It had to be. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we paid the feed bill. After we started winning money it was good, but we worked.”
It’s a work ethic that has clearly paid off in spades with Speed, and the two are once again teamed up in the arena. Since her husband’s passing, Bobbi moved to Speed’s Texas ranch and films runs at his clinics (which Speed uses to help teach his clients or to publish on speedroping.com), while also enjoying her time with the grandkids.
“I am just blessed to have my health and be able to do what I do,” Bobbi said. “I get to go with them, and I film, and we do the junior rodeos and the jackpots and stuff.”
Both kids—Hali, a 5-Elite, 14-year-old header; and her younger brother, Gabe, who just got bumped to a 3 after his first two ropings—are poised to keep the team roping tradition alive and well in the Williams family, and their grandma is happy to say so.
“Let me tell you something,” Bobbi asserted, “That girl is so much like her daddy. She has high dreams, too. Of course, we all think she’ll be the first woman to qualify for the NFR.”
Speed agrees that it’s about time a woman made it to the NFR, but claims he’ll just be happy if he can keep Hali team roping instead of running barrels. For now, he’s happy that she and Gabe will be junior rodeoing together in the fall and is looking forward to sharing his skills with them, while Bobbi is taking advantage of these opportunities to compete with them.
“I had three things on my bucket list,” Bobbi, who won the all-girl at the Windy Ryon Memorial with her daughter-in-law and followed that up by winning the 2006 all-girl at the USTRC Finals, revealed. First, she went on a Christian cruise to Alaska four years ago. Second, she wanted to win a roping with her granddaughter.
“We didn’t actually win,” Bobbi conceded, “but we won a buckle and a saddle at the Fire Up deal and we were like fourth high team back. So, I got to rope with her and do that. My next one is to go to a Fire Up with Gabe before he gets pushed up too high, so I can rope with him in one of those low numbers.”
At 80, Bobbi Williams has got a good handle on which goals matter most in this life, and rest assured, she’ll keep working hard to reach them. She knows that life and kids and marriages can get a little messy, but she also knows they can be pretty rewarding.
“Make time to enjoy it,” Bobbi stated. “If you have kids, you’ve got to make time to be with them and enjoy being with them. You’ve got to decide your purpose in life.”
And if you’re lucky, you might just find it amongst family and friends in the roping arena.