For many years, Smith held down a prominent position on the dreaded "best guy never to win the world" list of world-class tie-down ropers. And at 38, we all-even Stran-had to wonder if he'd end up going down in professional rodeo history as the second coming of Denny Flynn (who co-owns the record for most NFR bull riding averages with Jim Sharp at three, and by all accounts would have a gold-covered mantle if he'd been willing to hit it a little harder travel-wise, and hadn't shared an era with that Donnie Gay guy, who had a friendly, baby-faced way of hogging all the glory and owns a record eight world bull riding buckles).
Flynn is a hero to all who watched him ride, just as Stran's been a modern-day poster boy, in both the literal and figurative senses, as a Wrangler model and model citizen. Besides being flat handy with a rope, he's that GQ guy girls catch themselves staring at in wonderment. Let's face it, ladies, Stran Smith's prettier than most of us born into the ranks of the supposed fairer sex. It's no wonder he found his soulmate in Miss Rodeo America, the former Jennifer Douglas. It would take a crown of confidence to stand beside the perfect peacock.
It took the poise and personality she used to garner the 1995 Miss Rodeo America title and gain notoriety as a rodeo broadcast personality to get through the ESPN interview on Stran's big night without blubbering. He was jazzed about tying his last calf in 7.2 and winning his first NFR average championship as he stepped through the Thomas & Mack Arena outgate after being awarded his NFR saddle and buckle down by the bucking chutes. Microphone in hand, his bride shot him "the look." And he knew his long wait was over.
"I could tell by the look on her face that I'd won it (the world)," he said. "I don't know that I've ever been that excited about any two seconds in my life. I'd been working toward that moment for 20 years.
"When you pour your heart and soul and everything you have into something and don't win it (he's come oh so close so many times over the years), it's tough. When I look at this gold buckle, it makes me cry. It's like, 'No way. You've got to be kidding me.' I never expected that I would never win it. But I had to face reality that I hadn't won it (and the 2008 NFR was his 10th). And I had to know things would be OK if I didn't win it.
"The sense of accomplishment that comes with 20 years of my blood, sweat and tears-the times I was laying flat on my back (out in the practice pen), tired, sweaty, hurting and wanting something so bad it brought tears to my eyes-is hard to explain. That's what I see when I look at this gold buckle-the hours of 'never give up' and the decision to never lose my faith."
The emotion runs deep. I was standing right there when Jennifer shot Stran "the look." He looked around at a few of us standing beside the ESPN cameraman, wanting absolute confirmation and permission to cut loose inside. "Are you sure?" he kept asking. We all just held up the sheet of paper that had just popped out of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's computer system, smiled and nodded our heads. Lumped throats have a tough time talking.
Stran was whisked up the hall for additional television and radio interviews, and a few minutes later we rounded the same corner at a high lope from opposite directions. We kind of collided. And hugged. And cried. There are priceless advantages to advancing in age. In this particular case, for me, it was the perspective of what that day in the sun meant to Stran. It took me back to the time I spent a few days with him at the Smith family ranch in Childress, Texas, not long after he lost his best friend, Shawn McMullan, in 1996. I didn't know Stran very well then, and remember riding to town in a van en route to his sisters' steakhouse, listening to him tell of his love for visiting elementary school classrooms and telling kids stories-storyteller style. He was just a kid himself, and he was tired and dirty from a long day in the practice pen. His faded, filthy jeans were shoved into his broken-down boots. As a girl who boycotts makeup every chance I get, I was impressed that his unpolished appearance didn't seem to bother him even a little.
A few other things still stick out in my mind about that trip, including his parents' kind hospitality. Because Clifton and Judy Smith's ranch is off the beaten path, I stayed at their house. Stran still had his great horse Rifleman. The dirt was a fiery red color. We laughed one afternoon in the branding pen, when I practiced my flanking techniques on the little calves, with a few hot tips from Stran. Then there was our talk in the truck.
I had to ask. The world wanted to know about that horrific night on a dark stretch of remote Oregon highway when Shawn headed to Heaven. The rodeo world lost a super-talented young Texas tie-down roper with gold on his horizon, who at 26 was already an NFR veteran and top-five type. But Stran, also 26 at the time, lost his best friend.
Australian cowboy Jarrod Grieve was behind the wheel that night. Shawn was riding shotgun up front, and Stran was catching up on a little sleep back in the living quarters of the trailer. They were hit head-on by a woman driving west in the eastbound lane-with her headlights turned off. Jarrod and Stran walked away. Shawn didn't.
"Losing Shawn gave me a perspective, and an appreciation of life," Stran says. "I know it all could have ended for me that night. For Shawn, it did. Having lived through that helps me stay grounded and be so appreciative of the time I have. I don't take this life I have lightly, and I continue to strive to be a better person to keep Shawn's legacy alive. His legacy didn't die that night. He was such a positive person. He did whatever he could for everybody who came along."
Something Stran said to me the night he won the world has also stayed with me. "Maybe it took so long because it took 38 years for me to be able to handle this," he reflected. "I never have wanted my ability to take me somewhere that my character couldn't keep me. That's always been my goal. This is just the right time. I never did want it before it was my time. I wouldn't be half the person I am now if I'd won it way back when. I see how much further I've come physically and spiritually. And to be a man of honor and integrity is first and foremost."
If that goal wasn't set in stone after surviving the crash that killed Shawn, it became crystal clear after Stran suffered a stroke in the spring of 2003. A blood clot broke loose and slipped through a hole in his heart he never knew he had. The previously undetected heart defect allowed the clot to head straight for Stran's brain and triggered the stroke. Suddenly-mid-sentence-he could no longer speak.
"I felt fine, and I could respond to the doctors with a pen and paper," he remembers clearly. "I just couldn't talk." Surgeons at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston repaired the atrial septal defect. His doctors strongly suggested a career-path detour. Stran would not be denied his dream. "They say you don't really appreciate things until you have them taken away," he said. "You're really not ready to live until you're ready to die. It's easy to say. But when you're walking it out, it's tough. When you don't know if you're going to live or get to do what you love-in my case, rope-is when you find out what life's really about. I got to see God's grace."
That he did. Jennifer was pregnant with their first child when Stran had the stroke, and they soon thereafter marveled in the miracle of a bouncing baby boy. If you're into original S names, such as Stran T Smith (and just so you know, the T stands alone-it isn't short for anything), try sons Stone and Scout's monikers on for size.
The season after the stroke-with Stran's heart surgeon in attendance at the NFR, if I remember right-he almost pulled off a Mission Impossible sequel when reserve world champ Stran came up just $1,778 short of 2004 world titlist Monty Lewis. "So close and yet so far." Those are words to an old song, and the story of Stran's life-until December 13, 2008.
I headed down the Thomas & Mack arena-floor hallway, as I've done nightly since 1987, and stopped in to say hi to my buddy (Dr.) Tandy (Freeman) in the Justin Sportsmedicine Room. I check in regularly to get the latest medical scoop on my cowboy friends, and right before opening ceremonies on round 10 last December, the scene I saw triggered me to do an abrupt about-face and run back to the press room for my camera. There was a lively discussion going on about who'd drawn what calf and who needed to do what in the round to win the world. It was riveting, really.
Cody Ohl was laid out on one bed getting his back stretched out. Joe Beaver (who rocked again on the telecast) was sitting on the side of the adjoining bed. Trevor Brazile was standing, in gym shorts, on the Joe B. bed getting his right knee taped up. Stran was sitting quietly in the corner, shirtless and hatless, with a heating pad slung over his right shoulder. The gunslingers were gearing up for a modern-day shootout at the OK Corral.
They all liked Stran's calf, though he'd gotten up on Justin Maass in a previous round. Three of them speculated, strategized and even laughed a little. Not Stran. He was in a world of his own. His roping shoulder was hurting after the barrier rope reached up and ripped his rope out of his hand coming out of the box in round five. He wasn't whining, though. And from the far-away look in his eyes, I don't believe his shoulder was anywhere near the center of his radar.
"You hear athletes talk about being in the zone," he said. "There have been a few times in my career when I can remember exactly the way I was. Time slows down, and my senses numb to everything but what I'm doing. When I ride in there, I can't hear anybody talk and I can't see anything but the calf. I can feel my rope. I can smell my piggin' string. The focus is so intense at that time that there is no distraction. I'd like to say it's like that every time I rope a calf, but I'm not sure that's physically or mentally possible. If it is, I haven't been able to master it. It's happened a few times for me, including on that last calf at the Finals.
"I've been blessed with the ability to really focus when the pressure's on. Not to say I'm some clutch performer. But when I rode in the box to rope that last calf at the 2008 NFR, I had lived the last 20 years of my life for that one opportunity; for that one time. That's what I'd lived for. So I thought to myself, 'Enjoy it.' You can't fake that inner peace."
Having heard the scouting report on that calf, knowing he led the NFR average heading into the finish line and fully aware that Stran's considered a clever businessman, my jaw hit the deck when he put a rather risky wrap and a half on him. Two and a half wraps was a lot of money in the bank, mister. But his internal clock told him there wasn't time for that. He drew the flag in 7.2. And six seconds later, when that calf stayed tied and the flagger nodded his head, Stran forever etched his name in stone in the PRCA record books as the 2008 PRCA World Champion Tie-Down Roper.
"It wasn't about the money at that point," he said. "I'm usually up on what I need to do to win, but I didn't get caught up in all the hoopla this time. I knew I had to win the average to have a shot (at the world title), and I thought I needed to place ahead of those other guys in the round. I was just letting it roll. You never go to Vegas planning to play with scared money. I'm supposed to be a conservative guy, but I've got this gambler inside of me.
"When I threw my hands up, I kind of came to and came back to life in real time. I looked down at that calf, and couldn't believe I'd just put a wrap and a half on him. Then I heard the crowd roar. It's like I'd been out of my body, and that brought me back. When I took the victory lap, I didn't know I'd won the world."
Riding into round 10, three of his four friendly foes in the world championship race were people he's bowed his head to pray with at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Hunter Herrin held a small lead over Trevor Brazile (who's married to Stran's niece Shada). Then there was Tuf Cooper (Stran's nephew), who was fifth in the world, but third in the average and had just wowed the crowd with a 6.7-second run the night before. Stran was sixth, but with the average lead he had the hammer in his hand-if he could also be fast on his last one.
They sure put on a show. Stran's 7.2 was second only to Jeff Chapman's 7.1. Hunter finished third in 7.3. Tuf finished fourth in 7.9, and Trevor was 8.2, despite gimping through it with a strained right knee and partially torn MCL.
King of Class Brazile-the now six-time World Champion All-Around Cowboy and the only $3 million man in rodeo history-rode right up to Stran after riding out of the arena, hugged Stran and told him he was "way overdue." Stran gets it now. But in all the excitement of the moment, he honestly thought Trevor was congratulating him for winning the Finals (Stran was 87.1 seconds on 10 calves; he placed in five of 10 rounds and banked $89,243 at the Finals and $181,401 on the year. He outdistanced world reservist Hunter by $2,388. They were only two-tenths of a second apart in the round, but the difference in their round-10 checks was worth $3,245. So you see, the risk of that wrap and a hooey really was worth the reward-since that calf went ahead and stayed tied.). "He just got through tying a calf not to win the gold buckle that I won, and that's what he had to say," Stran said appreciatively.
I mingled amongst the champs back in the dark alleyway where they wait to be called into the spotlight for their first official curtain call as the newly crowned kings. Right before Stran stepped up to grab his long-awaited gold, Cody Ohl came running from back at the barn and tackled Stran. Both their hats flew into the smoky darkness in the dust-up, but neither one cared. "He'd gone out and put his horse up, and came all the way back to give me a hug and a kiss," Stran said.
"Ty Murray left me my first message to tell me, 'Way to go' and to tell me how proud he is of me. He's since told me he uses my message about never giving up or quitting when he talks to young guys, and compares me to Tom Reeves (who qualified for 18 straight NFRs in the saddle bronc riding event from 1985-2002), who all those years later got his gold buckle in 2001. Things like that-wow. I did not realize just how many people were in my corner rooting for me and pulling for me. And the cards and letters and texts and calls keep on coming. That's what makes me so happy and proud. At least once a week, I laugh thinking about it. Then I cry. I can't believe it. That it took so long makes it so much sweeter."
Speaking of sweet, I had the honor of watching the eighth round with Stran's dad, Clifton, out on the VIP press deck. Clifton roped calves at the 1960 and '62 NFRs, and is the patriarch of this gorgeous and talented rodeo powerhouse. Stran aside, I've always said his sister Shari (who's Shada and Tuf's mom; eight-time World Champion Roy "Super Looper" Cooper is Tuf's dad) and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Lewis Feild's wife/young gun bareback rider Kaycee's mom, Veronica, are two of the most beautiful women I've ever seen-movie stars and runway models included. Stran has two other sisters, Sealy and Susy, who are just as pretty, and a big brother, Smitty, who's often referred to as "the amateur answer to Ty Murray in the timed events." Stran simply says, "He's the one who taught me how to win."
Every great cowboy gives his horse at least half the credit, and when Stran bought the legendary Topper from Roy Cooper he thought he was that once in a lifetime dream horse people talk about. Then Stran suffered another devastating setback-just after returning from shoulder surgery, no less-the May 2007 day Topper was hit by a truck near the ranch.
He got a rare second coming in the dream-horse department when he bought a little bay mare by the name of Destiny from Wes Adams, who's the dad of 2008 World Champion Heeler Randon Adams and will weave back into this story here in a minute. Destiny, whose American Quarter Horse Association registered name is Hickoryote Sue, is 16 now. And if she looks familiar, it's because Matt Shiozawa used to ride her. "She's just a winner," Stran said. "And we gel. She fits me so good, and I have so much confidence in her."
His date with Destiny-well, to go pick up her award at the South Point for being voted the Fort Dodge American Quarter Horse of the 50th anniversary NFR in the tie-down roping event in an online ProRodeo.com poll-made it mandatory to eat and run from a fabulous dinner after round nine. Stran and Jennifer, Trevor and Shada, Jake and Toni Barnes, Billy and Holly Etbauer, Mr. and Mrs. Adams and I had the fun fortune of being invited to join Tom and Meredith Brokaw for a meal in the posh private dining room at the Wynn.
It was wonderful to get to find out for myself that Tom Brokaw is as genuinely nice as he's seemed on the TV screen since I was a little girl. And Meredith was magnificent. My only mistake of the evening was suggesting Jennifer and I split a dinner. It seemed prudent given the prices. Three bites of sea bass didn't do it for either of us, but the conversation was so engaging that we hardly cared.
I've baked cookies most days of my life, so willpower is clearly not my bag. Jennifer and Stran have wills of steel. And in recent times, he's taken his fitness regimen up several notches. He's whittled his 6' 3" frame down from 210 pounds to 185 by eating like a saint and working out three to five days a week. The workouts range from cardio and weights at the gym to riding his bike, lifting weights and working with an exercise ball on the road.
The Smith family foursome travels together in their great white motorhome, and their commitment to eating right has them all feeling fit and fine. "I've always been fairly strict when it comes to roping," he said. "In 2008, I documented what I ate and my workouts, so I'd have a record of it."
His trainer, whose client list also includes Alex Rodriguez, Lenny Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Steve Nash and Arnold Schwarzenegger, spent the week before and of the Finals with Stran. "He took me on as his charity case," Stran smiles. "His program's not just about physical excellence, but about the balance of physical man and spiritual man. It's about getting the right amount of rest, eating well and exercising. It's a 24-hour-a-day deal." His fitness level helped minimize the shoulder injury at the Finals, by the way. In part because of that surgery on his roping arm before, he worked double time with his trainer to "build a steel-belted radial around that shoulder."
The dream has been there-front and center in his sights-for decades. And at long last, after putting out the effort every day and somehow managing to stay patient and avoid panic, it all panned out for Stran T Smith.
"People ask me how I handled that pressure going into the last round," he said. "I've lived the last 20 years of my life for that opportunity. So I just stepped into it-into my destiny. You couldn't have written a better script for a movie. It was just my time-my destiny. And all the things that had to happen for me to win it finally did. My goal all year long was to have my name in the mix when they were talking about who had a chance to win the world going into round 10 at the Finals. That was the opportunity I was looking for. At that point, the roping was the easy part.
"By changing my eating habits and working so hard at it every day, I've brought my youth back. I'm lighter on my feet. I'm quicker. I'm physically stronger than I've ever been. Then you add all the experience I've gained through the years. The first thing I said when it was all said and done in 2008 is that the best is yet to come. I've only scratched the surface with what this whole training program can do. I came straight home from the Finals and was in the gym Monday morning. I can't sleep I'm so excited. As far as my physical man is concerned, 2008 felt like my rookie year."