Full Circle

A Cowboy’s Dying Wish
A prized family possession finds a home.
Knowing the end was near, Tommy Yanez had two wishes: take care of his dog and find a home for his father's world champion buckle.

Two of the three team ropers at the heart of this story that’s been searching for its happy ending are no longer with us. They’ve crossed the great cowboy divide, and learned as we all will when our days here are done that “you can’t take it with you.”

Ed Yanez was the 1949 world champion team roper and wore the buckle that went with the highlight of his career with great pride before passing it down to his only son, Tommy. When Tommy Yanez got sick, and realized cancer was going to cut his own life short, he placed his most prized possession into the trusted hands of his longtime friend and fellow team roper, Mike Johns. Tommy’s dying wish was that Mike find the best permanent home for his dad’s treasured trophy buckle. 

As this is a decision that will outlive us all, I was honored to get the call from Mike to lend a hand. He gave Tommy his word that he would honor his last request, and has taken that responsibility very seriously. Trust is earned, and Tommy was a good judge of character when he chose Mike for this one final favor.

Black and white photo of Ed Yanez standing in front of a saddle horse.
Ed Yanez was the 1949 world champion team roper, and also a renowned pickup man in his rodeo heyday. | Metro Group/Santa Clarita Valley History Photo

Following his father’s bootsteps

As Ed’s heyday was before we were born and his cowboy contemporaries are also gone, Mike nor I ever got to know Ed Yanez beyond what rodeo’s record books tell us and the stories Tommy told Mike about his dad over the years. Historic documents tell us that California native Ed won the world in 1949, when he was heeling for Oklahoma’s Ben Johnson and fellow Golden State cowboy Andy Jauregui

When Johnson won his world team roping title in 1953, Yanez was the reserve champ of the world. Those were the days when a single world champion team roper was often named because you could go twice at some of the rodeos, and he with the most money at year’s end was the champ. Had that happened today, Johnson would have been the world champion header, and Yanez would have been crowned the 1953 world champion heeler for a career total of two titles. 

A special side note: After winning the world at 35, 1953 World Champion Team Roper Ben Johnson went on to win an Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor in “The Last Picture Show” when he was 54. Johnson brought the high-society house down with his country-boy charm when he ended his acceptance speech with a grin and, “This couldn’t have happened to a nicer feller.” Johnson was inducted with the inaugural Class of 1979 at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Records and reride stories Tommy told Mike over the years also say Ed was a renowned pickup man in his time, who often worked for stock contractors and rodeo producers and roped at the same rodeos.

“Tommy told me that his dad passed away when he was pretty young, at maybe 54 or so, of a heart attack,” Mike said. “Tommy always talked highly of his dad, and Tommy became a cowboy because of his dad. He wanted to be just like him. 

“Tommy loved telling old rodeo stories of the days when Ed worked for Andy Jauregui (a stock contractor from the same part of California as Yanez who was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame with Johnson in 1979; Jauregui also won a world steer roping championship in 1931 and the 1934 world team roping title) as a pickup man. When Tommy was little, he rode around out in the arena with Andy during the rodeos, and called him ‘Uncle Andy.’”  

Ed Yanez heeling for Phil Rawlins at the 1966 rodeo in Blythe, California.
Ed Yanez heeling for Phil Rawlins at the 1966 rodeo in Blythe, California. | Ben Allen Photo courtesy of ProRodeo Hall of Fame
Ed Yanez heeling for Hall of Fame Stock Contractor and World Champion Team Roper and Steer Roper Andy Jauregui. | DeVere Helfrich Photo Courtesy of ProRodeo Hall of Fame

True blue friends

I never knew Tommy personally but did happen to be at a roping on the Central Coast of California the day disaster struck for his heeling career. It was in the early ’80s, and when one run came tight, it cost Tommy most of his roping hand.

“His pinky, ring and middle fingers were on the ground,” Mike said. “And the finger you point with got cut off at the first knuckle.”

Tommy somehow, some way figured out how to swing a rope again. But with so much of his roping hand gone, it was never the same. As is often the case, when times got tough is when Tommy found out who his truest friends were.

Lifelong ranch cowboy and team roper Johns grew up on a 66,000-acre cattle ranch in Big Pine, California, about 15 miles south of Bishop. He calls Fallon, Nevada, home now, but lived in Paso Robles, California for 21 years after a year each in Merced and Coalinga for college. 

“I met Tommy in the ’70s when I was going to high school in Shandon (California),” remembers Mike, who shared his original home country with National Finals Rodeo header and close cowboy friend Mike Boothe, who died at 25 in 1995 after a head horse fell with him at Pendleton and broke his leg. “I went my first two years in Shandon, and my second two in King City. Tommy was living in the Shandon area working on ranches for people like the Twisselman family. 

“Tommy was pretty handy with a horse, and roped pretty good, too; he was a good cowboy, and he was good help. He started colts, shod horses and cowboyed on ranches. He actually started out as a header in the arena, most likely because his dad was a heeler. But he worked on his heeling, and when he felt like he could win more doing that, he switched.

“In the late ’70s, and all those years when Tommy was in his prime, he was one of the guys to beat on the Central Coast. He caught a lot of cattle—maybe not for first, but a lot of thirds and fourths. But after he cut off most of his hand, it was impossible to rope like he did before.”

Lost then found

Tommy and Mike had seen each other around at ropings for years. Then life took them in different directions for decades.

“I hadn’t seen Tommy in 20-25 years when I ran into him again at the ACTRA state finals in Winnemucca (Nevada) in about 2016,” said Johns, who heeled behind the likes of Boothe, Bronc Pryor, Sherrick Grantham and Justin Hampton at the rodeos over the years. “We went and sat in a restaurant, visited and caught up with each other. Tommy was living in Susanville (in Northern California), he had some colts to ride and it was a wet year and had been raining a lot. 

“I told Tommy to come down to the desert at my ranch in Silver Peak (Nevada). He loaded up those colts and a broke horse, came down there and ended up staying about a month. Tommy got those colts going, then went back home.”

Then the two old friends parted company again. 

“Tommy came back to help us brand a few years ago, in 2017 or 2018,” Mike said. “He was good help, so I offered him a job. He ended up leaving, but came back two or three years ago and stayed.”

It was one of those times in life where everybody wins. Tommy had a place on a beautiful ranch in Paradise Valley (Nevada) to call home while working with and for a friend. And with his trusted help in holding down the fort, Mike, who’s 64 now, was able to start spending winters roping in Arizona.   

Life throws a curveball

They were both rocking on and enjoying the third quarters of their lives. Then came another curveball in Tommy’s life, when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last July. 

“Tommy got to where he couldn’t swallow very good,” Mike said. “And one Sunday morning, he started throwing up blood.”

Yanez sought medical attention in Winnemucca on Monday and was immediately shipped to Reno for stepped-up care. On Tuesday, Tommy asked Mike to come get him and take him back to the ranch on Wednesday. 

“One doctor told Tommy if the cancer was only in his esophagus, he thought they could save him,” Mike remembers. “But when I took Tommy back to town, they found cancer up and down his throat, and beyond his esophagus. They sent him to the hospital, and the doctors gave him a 50-50 chance. Then when it came time to operate, the surgeon told him he had a 30% chance. Tommy said, ‘That’s not good enough, take me back to the ranch.’

“It went downhill fast from there for Tommy. We hauled him back and forth to Reno three times, which was three and a half hours each way. But Tommy had had enough.”

The end was coming fast, and Tommy knew it. When he went back home to Mike’s ranch for the last time, running soup through a blender was his only attempt at sustenance. Mike wondered if starvation would take him before the cancer could. 

The younger Yanez had always traveled light, so there wasn’t much to getting his final affairs in order.

“Tommy was a bit of a gypsy, and could move from ranch to ranch in one pickup load,” Johns said. “Like his dad, Tommy was a neat freak. They used to give a best dressed award in the RCA (Rodeo Cowboys Association; predecessor to today’s Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) every year, and Ed Yanez won best-dressed cowboy in the RCA in 1953. 

“Tommy would stand in front of the mirror and comb his hair for five minutes. His truck was immaculate, and when he was shoeing horses, every tool was in its exact place.”

Tommy Yanez inherited his dad’s 1949 world champion team roper buckle, then left its permanent placement in the hands of a trusted cowboy friend before he rode away for the last time. | Debra Johns Photo

What matters most

There were just two matters of business that were important to Tommy before he drew his last breath. 

“Tommy had a good dog,” Mike said. “He called her Bea, and that she had a good home to go to was his #1 concern. Tommy gave Bea to a friend’s granddaughter. He called that friend from the hospital when he was there for the last time and knew he wasn’t going to get out of there alive. Tommy wanted that family to know how much he appreciated them giving that dog a good home.

“His dad’s buckle was #2, and Tommy’s only other concern there at the end. Tommy asked me if I could see to it that that buckle made it to a hall of fame. He’d mentioned that before he was sick. It meant a lot to Tommy that the buckle be somewhere it’d be seen.”

The perfect place

My first four thoughts on best final-home options for Ed Yanez’s 1949 world team roping buckle—which by the way was won all the way back before “gold buckles” were made of gold, and is solid silver with 10-karat gold words and team roper—included the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs; the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City; the California Rodeo Heritage Collection Museum in Salinas, California; and the Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. 

The ProRodeo Hall is dedicated exclusively to the legends of professional rodeo. It was started by rodeo cowboys, and has stood for now 45 years as rodeo central downstairs from PRCA Headquarters with majestic Pikes Peak as its picturesque backdrop. Johnson and Jauregui both being immortalized there would surely mean something to Ed and Tommy. 

The National Cowboy features vast ranching, rodeo and Native American collections. Jauregui’s enshrined there, too, and there’s a Ben Johnson Award given annually in Ed’s old amigo’s honor. 

The California Rodeo Heritage Collection Museum makes its home at the rodeo every cowboy considers the ultimate team roping rodeo in Salinas, where California native Ed spent his roping, ranching, pickup-man cowboy career and much of his life. Tommy told Mike that beyond that massive cowboy-conditions Salinas rodeo arena, generations of the Yanez family won many a bridle class over on that Salinas track over the years. Big Week has always been a big traditional deal to team ropers. 

The Ben Johnson was opened in honor of one of Ed Yanez’s closest cowboy compadres. While the focus there is on the Western heritage of Osage County, Oklahoma, Ben was without doubt one of the most significant partners of Ed’s career. 

I wondered if Ben’s 1970-71 World Champion Team Roper nephew John Miller (John’s mom, Mary Ann, was Ben Johnson’s sister), who was born in 1942 so was only 7 when his Uncle Ben helped Ed win the world, ever had the chance to know Johnson’s main heeling man in his world championship. 

“At that time, Ed Yanez was pretty much the hot heeler in the country,” remembers Miller, who was only 11 when Uncle Ben won the world in 1953, but had so many glorious years of listening to the best rodeo stories of Johnson’s heyday before Ben died just shy of his 78th birthday in 1996. “Ed lived down there along the California coast, and was a little short guy who was really fast with his rope. He was a happy-go-lucky guy who was always smiling and giggling. 

“Ed is, of course, the one who helped Uncle Ben win his championship. California would be a great spot for Ed’s buckle because that’s where he was from and also where team roping started. The Ben Johnson Museum would be a hell of a spot for it also, just because of how close they were and how much they had to do with the success of each other’s careers.”

I can come up with pros and cons to all four places. Some rotate their collections, so it’s possible the buckle would be placed in storage when not in rotation. Some are open all the time, while others have more limited days they open their doors. Current staff can promise the buckle will be seen, as was Tommy’s wish to Mike, but there are no guarantees for what the future might hold. 

Tommy Yanez died on August 31, 2023, just 39 days after his first cancer diagnosis. He was 74. While he mentioned more than one of these halls and museums as good possible choices in Mike’s fulfillment of his last wish, he did not have time to do the due diligence on each option before he left. What he did know before he died was that that treasured buckle his dad left to him was in good hands, with a friend who’d go out of his road to make what he deemed the best possible decision. 

“The two things Tommy was concerned about were that dog and this buckle,” Mike said. “None of the rest of it meant much to him, and he gave it all away. Tommy lived long enough to take care of his dog himself, and I gave him my word on the buckle. I want to do right by my friend and the Yanez family. That buckle meant the world to Tommy.”

Home at last

Mike and I weighed it all, and made the call. Ed’s world championship buckle will make its final home in Salinas. California is where it all started for the Yanez family, and for team roping. 

As Mike put it, “The Yanezes were California natives and had strong family ties to the rodeo in Salinas. Tommy’s dad and Uncle Andy were the two people who meant the most to him in the rodeo world, and both of them had a lot of history there. Leo and Jerold Camarillo are both in the Salinas (California Rodeo) Hall of Fame, they grew up in the same country in California as Ed and Tommy did, and Tommy really looked up to those guys. Salinas is also the most traditional team roping rodeo of all time to this day.”

And there you have it. That 1949 world champion team roper buckle found its perfect permanent home, and this story found its happy ending. Promise kept, and the buckle will be hand-delivered to Salinas next month during Big Week 2024.

—TRJ—

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