When the flag fell on the high call steer of the 2018 Bob Feist Invitational, a 24-year-old heeler from Las Vegas, New Mexico, made a victory lap around the arena in front of the Reno Livestock Event Center's packed house, then solemly rode his blue roan out the back, through the Monday crowd of kids swinging toy ropes and spectators streaming out of the stands, back to his stall, all while the announcer beckoned him back to the arena for awards and photos.
Cade Passig looked like a flagger riding to put his horse up after a 40-team jackpot, but in fact, he had just clinched the biggest win of his young career, worth $122,000, heeling behind a neck catch to win the Feist. All he could think was that he needed to call his dad, Shotgun.
Then, before ever heading back to the arena for the dozens of interviews and photos that would follow, Passig swung off his horse, hands on his head, and stared off, trying to figure out what he'd just done, heeling six steers for his brother-in-arms, Chris Francis, in 43.34 second. But within moments, other ropers, like Joel Bach who'd just finished twelfth in the roping and Cheyenne champ Brandon Webb, noticed Passig alone in the aisle way, and swarmed him with congratulations.
"I didn't know what to do," Passig said. "It didn't really sink in. I was trying to call my dad and he wouldn't answer the phone. I was trying to let it all sink in but I didn't really know."
Francis and Passig fended off threats at high-team back from a short round packed with talent–including the number-two team of Bubba Buckaloo and Tyler Worley, the number-three team of Clay Smith and Paul Eaves, and the number-four team of reigning USTRC Cinch National Finals of Team Roping champs Kaleb Driggers and Junior Nogueira.
"We just kept making our run and it kept working," Francis, a new dad to a young daughter, Karstyn, said. "There's no doubt to me that Driggers is the best header in the world. And to have him fourth call, and know you've got to get around him, and to know he's not going to back off, it's pretty cool. When I looked across the deal, and I saw Cade zoned him, I thought, man, I've got to win this roping for him."
Francis and Passig operate Mathews Land and Cattle for owner Oren Mathews, breaking in steers and running World Series of Team Roping and USTRC events. They've known one another since Passig was 2 and Francis was 16, and have rodeoed and worked together for the last five years. Francis' and Passig's fathers knew one another growing up, and when Francis was in college he moved in with the Passigs.
"I thought he was going to cry," Passig said of his dad, who amateur rodeoed with Francis. "Finally he answered the phone, and he was probably more excited than I was."
Shotgun had every reason to be–he'd been helping his kid get to this point Cade's whole life.
"I think I was a freshman in high school, and I said I wanted to rodeo and be the best heeler in the world," Passig said. "I started getting home schooled, and we bought a bigger trailer. We didn't have a job so we had to win something to stay gone. But he showed me how to win and how to get around. We didn't just drive two hours from home, we'd stay gone for two months jackpotting when I was young."
If Shotgun showed Francis and Passig how to win, it's their boss, Oren Mathews, who helped furnish the best BFI preparation possible in 2018.
"In years past, we tried to get ready for this roping a little bit," Francis, who won the US Open in 2011 with John Paul Lucero, said. "This year, we didn't prepare, we just broke in steers just like we do every day. We didn't ride our good horses much, we just did our job at home. But I said I felt more prepared than we ever had. We didn't put too much emphasis on it. We should rope better than we do for as much as we rope. We get to rope a lot. It's nice when you come to one of these because you can get run-dumb to it."
It was that real-life-cattle preparation that World Series of Team Roping founder and president Denny Gentry said is why he counts on Francis and Passig to produce some three dozen World Series of Team Roping qualifiers annually, and why he wasn't the least bit surprised by their nearly wire-to-wire lead of the Feist.
"Day in and day out, month in month out, year in year out, there was no team in that roping that ropes as many steers," Gentry said. "Yes it's their job, but I know a lot of people that had or have that job. These guys do it because they love it. They have over a thousand cows that produce the steers and heifers that they furnish for three dozen WSTR qualifiers each year, and that includes the jackpots at South Point. There are a bunch of reasons I selected Chris to have the cattle and contract at South Point, but primarily I know that his little band of cowboys will rope through all the cattle. Sorting and shaping steers is what they do and there is no short cut to that.
"Every day they are breaking in steers, conditioning sorts, and those steers that run too hard and are too wild for handicapped ropers, (even 15 and 16 teams) wind up in their practice pens. Talk about running strong steers at the BFI, that is just a normal day for these boys. And it's not just them, Kenna and her sister rope as many head and pack around pretty large handicaps for ladies and beat lots of ropers' a$&es. She had that baby and I promise in a matter of weeks was back running steers."
Francis credits wife Kenna as the best female header in the land, and said without her, he wouldn't be where he is today.
"My wife is awesome," Francis said. "She helps me a lot–with staying focused, taking care of the baby, everything. Without her I couldn't do anything."
Gentry, with his generations of insights into the sport of team roping, drew a comparison between the new BFI champs and a couple of legends–Jake Barnes and Clay O'Brien Cooper–for the work they put into their roping.
"Jake and Clay stand alone as individuals with great talent and a work ethic next to none," Gentry said. "Their work ethic has continued to make them successful in the roping world. I was over at Shawn Grant's a couple of years ago, and Jake showed up to work some horses. I sat and watched him with Skeeter and Ranger as Jake very methodically roped 60 or 70 head. We have all had them stay at our places, and they are fanatics about roping volumes of cattle...So my message should be loud and clear, the Jake and Clay technique of out-working everyone else is alive and well every day in Las Vegas, New Mexico. All that stuff about horsemanship, these guys buy grade horses all the time to break in steers, after a few thousand runs on each horse, the cowboys climb over themselves to buy them. The horses become machines, also."
The machines they rode at the Feist this year? Passig rode a gelding who he calls Doc Holliday he's had since those early days of jackpotting across the country with his dad. The horse is the only one he's ever ridden at the BFI, and he's one of the last colts out of Rooster Todd's stud My Blue Warrior.
"He might not be the best in the world but he's the best for me," Passig said. "It's so important to have a good horse here because the steers are so strong."
Francis was on a 12-year-old gelding named Dude he bought from fellow short-round header Driggers.
Driggers, who was in the hunt for the BFI title himself, told Francis after they roped a tough steer in Round 4 to firmly take the lead: "Finish what you started."
Francis and Passig stayed at the stalls throughout the day–eating popsicles and drinking Dr. Pepper–to stay focused on finishing the roping.
"It's weird–I was telling Cade out there at the stalls–I was bummed (after not doing well at the Reno Rodeo a day earlier) and I was looking at something on my phone, and I saw this Bible verse about when Jesus walks on water, and he calls Peter out there, and he quits looking at him and he sinks. And he says 'Ye of little faith.' So I was just going to keep my eyes forward and keep pushing forward and let that be yesterday, and keep the faith," Francis said.
Francis and Passig will head off to 10 rodeos over the Fourth of July run but will stay close to home for most of the summer, with 10 more jackpots on their schedule to producer for 2018.
"We'd love to go rodeo, and we both want to, but we've never had the backing to do it," Francis said. "We could go but we couldn't afford to stay out there if it went bad. Someday. I think, in my opinion, he's one of the greatest heelers out there. He hasn't had the chance. He'll get his chance, and they'll all know about him."
Safe to say, though, that a whole lot more people know who Chris Francis and Cade Passig are after June 18, 2018.
"For years Byron Wilkerson carried that title of the most talented, highest-numbered roper that never made it to the National Finals," Gentry said. "Well I don’t know if these guys will ever make it to the National Finals, they have a job they love, but if there are any ropers that have earned Byron's reputation, these are the two guys. I absolutely love it when the people that are suppose to win...DO! I would not be the least surprised if they do it again"