I’ve been fighting this deal with my right knee for four or five years. Then I had my head injury last November, when a horse fell with me in the practice pen. It seems like it’s been constant—one thing after another—since I lost my thumb at the (Wrangler National) Finals (Rodeo) in 2005. I finally stopped and had a partial knee replacement on June 16. I’d been on the treadmill thinking I couldn’t take the time off. Now I feel like the old horse you kick out to pasture to let him freshen up. It’s easy to think “why me” when these things happen. I had no say about missing last year’s NFR. I was forced into that one with a concussion and a broken foot. Getting my knee fixed was my decision. It was optional, although I probably put up with it a lot longer than I should have. I finally just stopped and took care of it. I chased championships for so long, and balanced roping for a living with raising a family. Our kids are grown, so Toni and I have more time together now. All those years of running up and down the road took a toll on me, so this break has been a blessing.
I hate to say it, but I’m starting to see the finish line. I’ve been roping for a living since 1980 and have qualified for 27 NFRs. It comes faster than you think. I haven’t quite gotten around the turn to the home stretch, but I’m 57 years old. I’m not a guy who gives up, but I don’t care what sport you’re in—at some point, you’ve got to be a realist.
I’m excited to see how I’ll come back from this knee surgery when it comes to roping for money. The first three weeks were pretty rough and painful. I went into surgery at 9 a.m., and they were done at 11:30 a.m. They had me up and walking the day of the surgery, and sent me home that same day with a walker. They operated on my other foot, too. I had a horse have a heart attack and fall on me roping with Clay (Cooper) in Cave Creek, Ariz., one time, and it dislocated my big toe. So they shaved that bone off on my left foot while they were at it.
I started roping the dummy about two weeks after the surgery, but I’m not going to lie—it hurt. It still hurts. When you’re younger you very seldom have any aches and pains. That’s part of the deal for all of us as we age. If you want to keep going, you have to learn to block it all out. I’m thankful that I have some pain tolerance and a positive outlook. It’s true that a positive outlook always helps.
I got back on a horse about three weeks after the surgery, on a very limited basis. I just got on and walked around, mostly. I put my horses on a walker for most of their exercise to start getting them back in shape. I was swinging my arm without even having a rope in my hand. I felt pretty weak and had no strength whatsoever. When they do a surgery like I had they have to cut through muscles and there’s a lot that has to heal up before you can feel normal again.
I started roping steers again at the end of the third week after the surgery, but I only roped 10 steers the first time I got back to it. And I didn’t turn them. I roped the steers, then let my rope go. I was a little apprehensive and expected it to really hurt, so I was testing the waters to get over the fear that something was going to go wrong. It got better every day, and I got more confidence. I turned a couple steers for a friend the end of the third week. I have not missed fighting the all-night drives, but I did miss the roping. When you take something away that you’ve done every day of your life for decades, you miss it.
I feel a lot like a heavyweight fighter who wants to get in the ring one more time. I’ve had a successful career. But it feels like the last several years have been about coming back. I have nothing left to prove, but for self-gratification I want to be the best I can be. People ask me all the time what I’m going to do when I get done roping. I haven’t really looked at that. In some ways, I feel like a rookie. But agewise, I realize I’m coming around for the homestretch. It’s been a heck of a ride. I’m going to get to stop and smell the roses one of these days, but for now I’m still driven to be my best.