I've been hearing JoJo LeMond's a cool cat. Wrangler National Finals Rodeo header Mike Macy mentioned him to my boys and me the other day when we were passing through Texas, and he gets high marks at both ends from two generations of ropers. The young guns say he's "Bad A," and guys like Mike say, "He can handle a rope like no other. If he has any problems in his life, roping is not one of them."
The Cooper twins, Jake and Jim, introduced me to JoJo one misty morning at this year's California Rodeo in Salinas, and it was good timing. By that afternoon, he and Martin Lucero had won the whole shootin' match and the beautiful buckles that go with the prestigious team roping title at "Big Week."
"This win really stands out to me," said LeMond, 25. "Every cowboy wants to win Salinas. You hear about guys who won this one when my dad was rodeoing (Jimmy LeMond roped calves; in fact, all three of JoJo's uncles and his granddad roped calves, too)."
Lucero also won Salinas in 1997 with Kevin Stewart. "This rodeo is like a major in golf," said Lucero, who turned 40 the previous week and has worn his first Salinas buckle "every day since the day I won it." "It's one you look forward to winning your whole life. There's a lot of tradition here, and the conditions are so much different than a normal rodeo. Everybody wants this buckle. It's the ultimate trophy."
That's a fact. Perhaps, in part, because there are so many obstacles in the form of variables to overcome to get it. The 35-foot Salinas scoreline is legendary, and both ropers come from the same box on the left side of the steer. The cowboys set a Styrofoam cup out in the dirt, and score the steers "head to the cup."
LeMond and Lucero roped five steers in 47.2 seconds for the win, and hauled $6,474 apiece back home to the Lone Star State, including fourth in the first round and third in the short round. "I wanted this buckle," LeMond said. "I told Martin if we didn't win it, I was going to wear his for a little while. I love it."
Lucero's level of self-satisfaction this time around outdid that of the last. When he won it with Stewart, there was an element of winning by default. "When Kevin and I won it, we came back second behind Speed (Williams) and Clay (O'Brien Cooper)," Lucero said. "And Speed's horse fell in the short round. I feel like we won it this time. It wasn't given to us."
Both were ranked fourth in the world among headers and heelers, respectively, at press time the end of July. They look to have a lock on LeMond's first NFR and Lucero's 11th; he made his last trip to "The Show" in 2002. "I'll be even more excited in October, when I know for sure," smiled LeMond, who lives in Andrews, Texas, 30 miles north of Odessa, which is "also home to coyotes and mesquites." "It's going to be hard for them to keep us from making the Finals now, but until I back in there at the Thomas & Mack I'm just going to take every steer for what he's worth."
LeMond placed third at Salinas one year behind Corey Ross. "I just started heading here recently," LeMond explained. "I never could get a great partner to heel for me, and I never really had the money to go. I kind of gave up on making a living in rodeo and making the Finals.
"But my wife (Blair) and I talked about it, and I'm not getting any younger. I want to be home when our little boy (Newt's 2) starts school, so now's the time. (They have a baby girl due September 10.)"
LeMond is extremely respectful toward Lucero, and certainly does not take this partnership for granted. "I couldn't turn away the opportunity to rope with Martin," he said. "He's very laid back and very patient. He's helped me learn to win on the heading side. I've always wanted to reach, reach, reach. He's taught me that it's important to establish a run and not have to max out on every run. Our run is going to be fast enough if we just keep it controlled.
"Martin's knowledge of the sport is so advanced. He's such a premier peer. He's been one of my heroes forever. It's funny how everything works out."
It's LeMond's first full year on the heading side. He filled in for Trevor Brazile and headed for Patrick Smith last year at Colorado Springs and Casper, but besides that one week this is it. "A guy has to stay committed to his game here," LeMond noticed. "And that's to beat every steer for what he's worth. You can't be 9 on an 11-second steer here. The strategy at Salinas is just to catch every steer. The steers are strong, and if a guy catches five steers clean he gets money. I wanted to make sure I didn't cost us. I wanted to keep from beating myself.
At Salinas, he rode a 14-year-old sorrel horse he calls Bull. "I trust this horse, and I like him," LeMond said. "He's really good in really short setups and really good at long ones. He's just decent at the in-between setups. He kind of anticipates my throw at the in-betweens and wants to get a little wide. Here and at Cheyenne, the faster end of the head horses really stand out."
Lucero, who lives in Stephenville, Texas, with his wife, Jodee, and little girl, Gabie, 6, rode his 9-year-old sorrel Spiderman. He's owned him a couple years now, and considers him, "Probably the best horse I've ever owned. He fits every condition."
Things got a little hairy on Lucero's right leg coming from the left side in the short round. "I rubbed my leg on the chute," he said, relieved it wasn't worse. "My horse gets a little nervous every round here. The steers run right, and he wants to follow them."
If Lucero was LeMond's first big shot, LeMond was the perfect fuel for Lucero's previously fizzling fire. "I was pretty much done roping for a living," Lucero said. "I didn't even buy my PRCA card last year. Then we roped together at the amateur rodeos last summer, and that got me excited again. This kid's got so much talent. With JoJo (Lucero calls him "Jo squared" and "Double Jo") on the team, we have a chance to place on every steer we draw. He can reach like no one I've ever roped with, and I've roped with some great guys. Knowing you have a chance no matter what you draw-even the runners-is a neat feeling.
"We now have a chance to win the whole deal (the world title). We get along well and communicate well, and have turned into a great team because of that. I've worked hard at it, and feel like I'm roping better now than I ever have in my life. I have a lot of confidence in my horse and my partner. We probably have the Finals made now. This should do it."
LeMond simply can't believe it. "I went from wanting to win the circuit to wanting to make the Finals," he said. "Now we have a shot at the title. I'm very thankful that Martin's giving me this chance. I've worked at it my whole life. Being able to rodeo and make the Finals has been a goal of mine all my life. I was managing a ranch-a cow/calf operation-in Midland, Texas, last year. I quit last summer to amateur rodeo with Martin. I'm very grateful to him, and to my family for what they've given up for me to do this."
All the sacrifices seemed so very worth it on that sunny Sunday afternoon in Salinas.
"This rodeo is special," said Lucero, who also stopped to thank his family for their support and standing so solidly behind him. "It's more of a roping contest. There are so many variables, so it's easy to fall apart here. You have to rope each steer for what he is, and figure out a way to rope two feet. This is one of the rodeos everybody wants to win. There are a handful that everybody looks back on and says, 'Hey, I won Salinas.' Everybody gets fired up for this one. If you win anywhere else, it's, 'Hey, good job.' It's fist pumps, handshakes and hugs here."