Broc Cresta left such a memorable mark on so many of us that it’s hard to believe he’s already been gone a year this month. He left this world at 25—in the prime of his career and life—at the Daddy of ’em All in Cheyenne July 28, 2012, for reasons we’re not going to realize until the big roundup in the sky. But Broc’s memory will never fade for his family, friends and fans, and visions such as that smirky smile of his and him hammering steers on Lynx and Snoop are still as vivid as ever.
Broc’s family gave us a little memorial card of Broc at his service last summer, and after a recent trip to his old stomping grounds in Redding, Calif., for ProRodeo’s inaugural Wrangler Champions Challenge, I realized that if those cards could talk they’d have a heck of a story to tell. I know I take that thing wherever I go, and when I’m driving that shot of Broc drilling one at Salinas on Lynx is propped up right by the radio. When I fly, I tuck Broc’s card in a little zip-up bag, and take it with me. I had it in Redding with me the other day at Redding Rodeo slack, and compared notes on the subject with Broc’s brother of a buddy Spencer Mitchell. He has one of the same little cards tucked into the sweatband of his cowboy hat.
Broc was a fourth-generation California cowboy, grounded in his family’s deep rodeo roots. He wanted it, and proved that with how hard he worked. Broc earned 2007 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association/Resistol Rookie Heeler of the Year honors, and qualified for his first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2010, where he placed in five of 10 rounds with 2011 World Champion Header Turtle Powell. Broc turned right around and qualified for a second straight NFR appearance in 2011 with Spencer, and left the Thomas & Mack Center Arena for the last time on a hat-whooping note by splitting round 10 with Chad Masters and Jade Corkill—who a few months after Broc died were crowned the 2012 champs of the world—in 3.6 seconds. We’re left to wonder what more would have been in store for him here, but have to accept that God had bigger plans for Broc.
Broc was everywhere in Redding in May, 10 months after he died. There were BC and 42 hat stickers—a tribute to his last NFR back number. There were Best Ever Pads embroidered with Broc’s initials and “Roping in Memory of Broc Cresta,” and silver-and-gold BC necklaces around the necks of his best friends. But it’s what’s in all the hearts Broc filled in his quarter-century here that keeps everybody going. I noticed the reigning world champion heeler wasn’t wearing his shiny new gold buckle, but rather the Broc Cresta Memorial Roping buckle he won with Clay Tryan in April. I asked him about it.
“I finally got the one buckle I wanted to wear my whole life, but it feels different now,” Jade said. “Losing Broc put everything into perspective. I can’t say I’ll never wear that other one, but I’ll wear this one for a while, for sure. Justin (Davis) and I had talked about it the night before Broc’s roping, and we agreed we didn’t care who won it, but we thought it would be cool if one of the guys who grew up with us won it. When one of us did win it, it felt like it was meant to be. So it has a special meaning for me to wear it.”
At morning slack there in Redding, I ran into Cecil Nichol, who’s one of my dad’s oldest, dearest friends and also NFR heeler Justin Davis’ grandpa. He offered to take me to lunch at the Eagle’s Nest pizza parlor, where their family and friends meet daily at their reserved table to eat and visit. Broc was part of that family, and had a lot of lunches at that very table. Broc grew up in the Santa Rosa area, the son of mom Kelly Balistreri and dad Danny Cresta, and also answered to “Brent’s little brother.” And he hung his hat a good part of his last seven years at Jeff and Terri Davis’ Four Star Ranch near Redding in Cottonwood. When Cecil and his wife, Carol, offered to take me on a little tour to their house (where Broc used to heel steers for Cecil), Jeff and Terri’s (Terri is their daughter and Justin’s mom, and we were born a week apart), and their other daughter’s place (Tracy married my good friend Allen Gill from our Cal Poly days), I jumped at the chance.
The Shasta County countryside is rural and lush, and all Nichol-Davis-Gill places are beautiful and pristine. I grew up with a little Swedish mom who never stops cleaning everything, and swear you could serve a meal on Carol, Terri or Tracy’s floors without notice, too. As the gate swung open on the Davis Ranch, everything was gorgeous and green. Down by the barn, where Justin and his wife, Emy (who are expecting their first baby in December), live, Justin and Spencer were pitching a round of washers in the shade. We stopped to visit, then headed to the big house.
I got to see Broc’s second-home arena, where his memorial roping was held, and the bedroom Broc shared with Spencer. The 2008 Cheyenne saddle Broc won with Logan Olson sits right outside the door. I was going to snap a picture of that room—of those two beds that raised Justin and his cousin, Kyle, before they got married, moved out and turned them over to Broc and Spencer. But Terri wasn’t home, and Carol was concerned about the unmade bed and dirty socks on the floor next to somebody’s overnight bag, so I didn’t do it.
We walked back down the stairs, and there was a picture of Broc’s smiling face framed on the wall. I took a closer look at the buckle in front of it, and saw that it was from Broc’s open roping. Clay Tryan gave his Broc buckle to Jeff and Terri. I saw Clay’s son Tyler wearing one just like it—which he won in the 6 to 8 Broc Cresta Memorial Dummy Roping—at the James Pickens Roping the other day—so the Tryans kept one in the family. But Clay knew what that buckle would mean to the Davises (and he was right), and what that home had meant to Broc. Jade offered his Broc buckle to Jeff, too, by the way, but got “it means more to me to see you wear it than to have it back."
I had a strong suspicion that the dirty socks on that bedroom floor were Spencer’s, and he confirmed his guilt with a big, broad smile that night at the rodeo. Spencer didn’t get off to the start he’d hoped for in 2013. He and his 2012 NFR heeler, Dakota Kirchenschlager, had won about $5,000 before Redding, and weren’t even in the top 50. Dakota was back home in Texas (they’ll rope again this summer), so Spencer roped with fellow Californian Cody Cowden at the Redding Rodeo, and a few others, including Sonora, Ramona, Livermore and Santa Maria, Calif., and Sisters and Central Point, Ore. With Cody’s help, Spencer rebounded with the win in Ramona, and they placed at Sonora, too. Then came the first-ever Champions Challenge right there in Redding on Saturday night.
The Champions Challenge features a made-for-TV, fan-friendly format, where 10 top guns battle it out for the title. Spencer qualified as the Redding Rodeo’s reigning champ, a title he won last spring with Broc. Historically, that arena’s been very, very good to Spencer and Broc, so it was no big surprise that Spencer’s slow 2013-season luck would catch a gear there.
Spencer and Broc won the opening round of the 2003 California Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association finals in Redding en route to the year-end team roping title when they were 15 and 16, and a high school freshman and sophomore, respectively. They went on to win their first of back-to-back state team roping championships together that year, too. Spencer came of age to buy his PRCA permit in 2006, and filled his permit at his first weekend of rodeos right there at that Redding arena, heading for his and Broc’s friend Craig Fehlman. “Redding was a good arena for us,” Spencer said. “Broc and I won a lot of day moneys in it. I still remember one year when Speed Williams and Dean Tuftin were winning the second round, and Broc and I were the last team out and ended up moving them.”
Spencer and Dugan Kelly won the first-ever Champions Challenge and the $4,000 that went with it in 4.9 seconds. “I like the concept of the Champions Challenge,” Spencer said. “I wish I could be at the next one, too, but only the top seven guys from last year are guaranteed in. (The other 2012 venue champions, 2013 world and Million Dollar Tour leaders as of 30 days before each event fill the field.) It’s a great idea to be able to build a fan base, and there’s a lot to build on. Getting rodeo on TV is huge.”
Spencer rode his 11-year-old bay horse, Keeper. “He’s been honest since the day I brought him out here rodeoing three years ago when Broc made the Finals the first time,” Spencer said. “He doesn’t ever do anything fancy, besides how good he scores. He’s just a people pleaser. Broc used to always say my horses had to be simple-minded to stay as true as they do day in and day out for me. I get nervous when I get close.”
Dugan’s roping with Turtle, they’ve won about $15,000 (as of the middle of May) and are hovering around 15th in the world. Dugan and Garrett Tonozzi also won this year’s George Strait Team Roping Classic. Dugan’s No. 1 gun is his horse Circleback, but he cracked out a new one at the Challenge. He bought 16-year-old Bartender the day before he rode him in Redding.
“The Champions Challenge is something we’ve needed to do for a long time, and I like the concept,” said Dugan, who’s a five-time NFR qualifier. “We have a sport that’s sellable. That’s proven every year at the National Finals. The house is packed and everybody’s watching it every night. After 10 days you’d think you’d be sick of watching it, but on the 11th day you’re bummed that it’s not on again.
“When you have the best contestants and best stock, it’s good watching. And that’s what the Champions Challenge is about. It makes no sense to have Trevor Brazile, Cody Ohl and Tuf Cooper up in slack, when there are no fans in the stands. Then you have to explain to the crowd that bought a ticket why they didn’t get to see the winning run. I think this is a great deal, and hope all the other great events we have now keep going also.”
Dugan’s a California kid, too, so he understands the sentiment for Spencer up in that country. “What Spencer and Broc did growing up roping together—going all the way to the National Finals and winning all the things they won together—is an amazing thing,” Dugan said.
“Spencer was Broc’s best friend, and they won Redding last year. That was their arena and their spot. I could never fill Broc’s shoes, but it was special to be a part of that. I’d rather have stayed home if I could have given my spot up to Broc. He and Spencer had a special chemistry. I feel like Broc had a hand in us winning it. I’m sure he was looking down, and he was happy Spencer did good. They were like brothers. You get close through the highs and lows of rodeoing. And they were a team who got really close.”
There’s no doubt about that. “It’s tough,” Spencer said. “Nobody in the rodeo world will ever forget about Broc. That’s one of the best things he did for himself. Broc and I had a rhythm and when we were on a roll, we were on a roll. It’s going to be different, no matter who I rope with. I always get the flashback of roping with Broc, and always will. I’m happy to have those memories. We had a lot of great times and made a lot of great runs. We succeeded at what we set out to do from the start together. That’s pretty neat.
“There are times I expect him to be here and he’s not. I miss that smirk he always had on his face. It’s hard when you get to those places where it’s habit that he was always there. Time heals, but it doesn’t ease everything inside. It took me less time to believe it than a lot of people, probably because I was there when it happened. It made it easier to believe he was gone, but still not easy to understand. I don’t think I’ll ever understand it.”
Spencer and Broc ran the last steer of Broc’s life on July 27, 2012 at the Daddy of ’em All. They were supposed to run their second steer the next day, but Broc never woke up. Somewhat surprisingly, Spencer remembers every detail about that day that forever changed his life and so many others.
“I woke up that morning and went and checked horses,” he said. “A few of us were visiting, and I stepped into Nick Rawlings’ trailer to get something out of his ice chest. I heard a scream, and ran into the trailer where Broc was. I grabbed his leg and shook him. I could tell by the color of his skin and how cold his leg was that there was nothing we could do. Tyson Durfey ran in and started saying a prayer. Then a nurse, a blonde lady, came in and checked his pulse.
“I roped that afternoon with (NFR tie-down roper) Houston Hutto (“H” missed.) I could have sat around and not roped, but I had nowhere to go and there was nothing I could do to get away from what had happened. We were at Cheyenne, one of Broc’s favorite rodeos, if not his favorite rodeo. He had a great track record of winning there. Broc was my best friend, and Houston and Broc were great friends, too. Broc’s family and the Davises flew in the morning of the short round, and we all went and saw him before they brought him back to California.”
Spencer’s planning to go sit awhile at that cemetery in Santa Rosa before he heads out for this year’s Fourth of July run. “There’s not really anything that helps make it easier,” he said. “Keeping busy, remembering what he stood for and what we were doing out here is about the best I can do. Having our friends together is a great help. We’re all more like family than friends, and that’s huge. Justin, Russell (Cardoza), Kyle (Davis, Justin’s cousin), Jade was in and out a lot—there were a bunch of us that were always together.
“Roping for a living was a dream Broc and I shared. What I’m doing now is what we worked at together since we started roping. This wasn’t my dream or his dream. This was our dream together since we were kids, and neither of us ever thought of doing anything different. There is a hole there that can never be filled. And there are times I look around for him. I miss Broc being with me. I miss the little things we used to do, whether it was to go have breakfast or go cowboy. I miss him more than anything, but he left a lasting impression. Those memories mean a lot to me.”
Spencer misses Broc’s smirk, and even the way he would laugh at him. “You could always tell by the look on his face what he thought of the situation,” Spencer said. “If you knew him well enough, you could read him without him saying anything at all.”
When Brent and Jenny Cresta welcome their first baby—Broc’s niece—to the world in September, she will be the fourth-generation of her family to be friends with my family. It’s hard to explain how that kid tickled and touched me, and how much I enjoyed watching him grow into the fine young man and talented young cowboy he became. When I was a rookie rodeo reporter, fresh out of college in 1987, I followed ProRodeo Hall of Famer John W. Jones Jr. and his wife, Sherrie, to Denver that January to take my first job with the PRCA in Colorado Springs. (Since Broc died, Brent’s gone back to roping more and is now heading on the Jones’ horse Cuervo. In fact, he placed on him at Broc’s roping.) We left a week after baby Broc was born on January 2, 1987. Broc’s first felt back number at the 2010 NFR was 87.
Broc’s back number at the 2011 NFR, where he debuted Spencer in Vegas, was the now-famous 42. My brothers and I bought a condo—No. 42—when we were in college that was the rodeo kids’ hub. And I now laugh out loud and say, “You got me, Broc” every time that number pops up in the strangest of places. The other day I was driving with my son Lane to the James Pickens Roping, and I ran into Carl’s Jr. for iced teas to go while he pumped the gas. We’d just been talking about Broc, so naturally the young guy behind the cash register with the bad paper hat on his head handed me plastic to-go-order placard No. 42.
The last chance I had to chat with Broc in person was on the tailgate of a truck at the Reno Rodeo last June. He got a kick out of the fact that my son Taylor was riding his old paint bulldogging horse—the one he and Spencer and Russell used to ride when they were in high school. They’d tried heading on him, too, but according to Spencer “he ducked so hard he’d try to cut your hand off.” I can see that old paint horse—who runs in the pasture with Taylor’s old pony Paintbrush—out the window from my desk. I had a Twilight Zone moment in March, when Taylor (who won the state all-around title trailer with that horse’s help last June) won the short round riding him at the Challenge of Champions high school rodeo up in Plymouth. Twister, or Paint, as Broc called him, ran straight to the memorial banner of Broc that was flapping in the breeze at the back end of the arena.
Losing Broc broke a lot of hearts. But loving him for 25 years was well worth the heartbreak. “I have no regrets,” Spencer said. “I couldn’t have been closer to anyone than I was to Broc. We had an argument a couple weeks before he died, but that was OK, too. It was just a couple brothers yelling at each other. We said what was on our mind, and it was over. It was great for us, really. Broc will always be with me. None of us who knew Broc will ever forget him.”