Roping is all I’ve ever thought of since I was a little kid. I was infatuated with it, and grew up with the dream of roping at the NFR (National Finals Rodeo) with the big boys.
At 19 in 1980, I had the opportunity to join the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association), and rope with reigning World Champion Team Roper Allen Bach, who’d just won the world in 1979.
I got thrown into the frying pan my first rattle out of the box, and there was a huge intimidation factor for me. The travel was really hard, and the roping conditions were completely different from the amateur rodeos I’d come from. It was all pretty overwhelming.
Back then, you could go to as many rodeos as you wanted, and we went to about 125 a year. The travel was crazy for a country kid from New Mexico. The all-night drives, charter planes and borrowed horses—it was all new to me, and I was exhausted.
I remember roping, running to the trailer, unsaddling my horse, driving all night and barely making slack the next morning. When the fair rodeos were going on in the summertime in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa, there were times we roped at three or four rodeos a day. We even worked time zones sometimes. I was like a deer in the headlights.
I started the first of June my rookie year. My first rodeo was in North Platte, Nebraska, so I only had the second half of the season. What a big deal it was to make the NFR that year.
After that, I had the opportunity to rope with Leo Camarillo and got to help him win a world championship in 1983. I lived with Leo, and learned how to be a champion from him. I was way too immature to be a champion when I first started. Before Leo, I was basically just having fun and making enough money to stay ahead of my bills.
It was all business with Leo, and he taught me to practice to win. We’d get up, feed horses, clean pens, saddle horses, rope and repeat. When I lived with Leo is when I really got serious, and started wanting to be a champion.
Clay (Cooper) and I started roping in 1985. We lived in Arizona, and had access to the Earnhardt arena. We tore a page out of Leo’s playbook, and developed a rhythm. Roping 100 steers a day really put us in the driver’s seat. Our routine was all work all the time—rope, rope, rope. Clay and I created the perfect storm for ourselves.
Clay and I won five world championships in a row starting that year. It was unbelievable. I spent summers with Popeye Boltinghouse in Llano, Texas, when I was going to college. He was kind of a mentor to me, and that experience really came in handy when we started winning a lot.
When I first went to live with Popeye, I was just a poor college kid who didn’t have two nickels to rub together. He had roping cattle and good horses, and I got to ride some of them. His family took me in, and we became good friends. He was like a second father to me, and was always coaching on me and giving me good, sound advice.
I was actually at Popeye’s when I got that call from Allen—on the land line, because that was before cell phones—asking if I wanted to rope with him. I thought somebody was pranking me. I was like, “Come on, who is this?” But it was him, and Allen told me I had until the next day to give him an answer.
I decided to take my shot, so I had to get on a plane to Colorado Springs the next day, and catch a cab to the PRCA office to get my card. I’d never been on a plane before. At that time, you didn’t have to fill a permit to get your card. You just had to have three people sign for you that you were legit.
When Clay and I started really winning, Popeye said, “Just remember that you’re going to meet the same people going up as coming back down. You’re not going to stay on top forever, so you will face those same people again.”
Those were great words of wisdom, and I’ve lived by them. I’ve always hung my hat on humility, and let my roping do the talking. I can’t imagine living any other way.