Twelve years ago, Josh "The King" Espenhover was the kind of kid every roper loved to have around. He was one of those kids, raised showing hogs, who never learned to swing a rope but was so drawn to the sport he'd do anything to learn. He'd load steers, put on horn wraps, push steers and work the stripping chute just for a chance to be near the action.
So when he and Two-Time Steer Roping World Champion Scott Snedecor teamed up to rope four steers in 35.41 seconds, beat out about 449 other teams and won $50,000 per man at the #11 Wildfire Businessman's World Series qualifier roping, the term rags to riches came close to being literally true.
Espenhover was raised in Boerne, Tex., where as a youngster his family had a few cows "and showed pigs in 4-H," he said. "We never had enough money to buy horses and rope and ride. I used to have a brother-in-law who roped and I was kind of around it through him."
As a summer job in high school, Espenhover caught on at the San Antonio Rose Palace, owned by George Strait. Strait, his brother Buddy and Bret Beach produced ropings there and Espenhover worked for them.
"I was sitting down there at the Rose Palace when I was kid taking ropes off in the stripping chute wishing I was on the other side of the fence roping with those guys," he said. "In high school I couldn't swing a rope. I couldn't coil one up or anything."
But the weekend work wasn't cutting it. He needed full-time employment for the summer, so he asked Strait and Beach if they knew of anyone in the area hiring.
"I asked George and them if they knew anyone around that needed help during the week," Espenhover said. "Tommy Guy had just moved down there and bought a place near Boerne. They said, ?Yeah, Tommy Guy.' I didn't have a clue who he was, but I went out to his place that Monday after the roping and I've been with him ever since."
His first role with Guy, who was rodeoing pretty seriously in 2000, was as a driver.
"I met all of them, guys like Trevor Brazile and David Key," Espenhover said. "At the rodeos, I was a pusher. During slack, most drivers would go to sleep so they could go again the next night. During slack I just watched all them guys and tried to pick everything up. Tommy helped me with riding and handling a rope."
He became a fixture at the rodeos, and, sporting long, black, full, sideburn chops, World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron Walker dubbed him Elvis. Then, during the short round of the tie-down roping at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in Colorado Springs, he earned the nickname that has stuck ever since.
"Trevor Brazile was roping and that calf came back at him and run him over and he was under the rope and the calf and he was getting eat up," Espenhover remembered. "So I was going to run out there and help like I seen those guys do in slack."
Little did Espenhover realize that this was a nationally televised rodeo and his helpful urges might have been a bit premature. The judges were yelling, imploring someone to get this kid out of the arena, wondering who he was. That's when Eight-Time World Champion Roy Cooper shouted, "You all don't know The King?!"
The nickname stuck, and now that's how most people know him. At local jackpots that's how he enters (plus it's easier to say than Espenhover) and on his voicemail callers don't hear his name, just "You've reached the King."
As he was learning the rodeo game, he picked up driving assignments for other cowboys, including Brazile. In the meantime, Tommy Guy moved from Boerne back to the home ranch outside of Abilene.
"When he moved back to Abilene. I asked him, ?What about me?'" Espenhover remembered. "He said, ?You can come with me if you want.' So I just loaded up, 18 years old, and went with him to Abilene. Now I work with him on his Dad's ranch up here as the ranch manager. I take care of the place."
After Guy stopped rodeoing, Espenhover's dreams of roping got on the fast track. With more time in one spot, and Tommy's sister and renowned roper and horse trainer Lari Dee constantly in the roping pen, The King had the motive and the opportunity to improve his roping.
"I just wore my shoulder out on the dummy and worked on getting better riding and roping," he said. He helped with all the ranch chores, which required quite a bit of time horseback, and helped both Tommy and Lari Dee when they were in the practice pen.
That's when a little cutting horse reject landed at the ranch.
"He was a real rank colt and loved to buck and was a real piece of work when he was younger," Espenhover said. In fact, he was such a handful that the local cowboy who put some time on him dubbed him Jump Start. "We just tried to use him like crazy and then we started roping off him one day and we've just been riding him ever since. I kind of trained him myself. I'm no trainer at all, that's what Lari Dee does, but I'd ride him and she'd help me. We started taking him to the little ropings around here and then started taking him to the bigger World Series ropings and US ropings and just eased him along and now he's a pretty good pony."
Along the way, he picked up a check or two?and even a buckle and a saddle at an Original Team Roping Association event in Abilene. He and Lari Dee entered the World Series Finale in Las Vegas in 2009 and 2010, and he'd become a reliable header with a reliable head horse.
So, this year, he decided he'd enter the Wildfire Businessman's Roping. Organizers told him the roping was full, but put him on a waiting list. Two weeks later, they called to tell him he'd made it in.
Originally limited to 150 teams, event producer Billy Pipes held the entries open until the day before the roping and there ended up being closer to 450 teams. As the entries rose, so did the jackpot. In fact, by the time it ended, they paid out $263,500?$80,000 more than advertised. Promoted as the $75,000 Wildfire Businessman's Roping, it suddenly paid $100,000 to the top team. The winners' Montana Silversmith Buckles, engraved with $75,000, sat on a stack of cash totaling $100,000.
With all those teams, it made for a long, cold day. And Espenhover and his heeler, Snedecor, didn't even know one another.
"I did not even know who to look for when they called his name out," Snedecor said. "I don't enter many team ropings, so I didn't know who a lot of them were. I didn't know for sure who he was until he rode in the box."
Espenhover, meanwhile, was eating it up. His first run was at 6:30 in the morning, and as the day progressed, he wound up as the third high team back with another partner and the high man back with Snedecor?the last run of the day happening as the clock approached midnight.
"My partner come back first and third and his heeler missed on the third high call," Snedecor said of the short go. "I was waiting for him to ride back up the arena, and I told my wife, ?I do know what icing the kicker means.' If the announcer said it once, she said it 20 times: that all we had to do was be 11 seconds to win $100,000. I thought, If I miss, I'm going to hear that for the rest of my life."
While Snedecor is confident and competent as a steer roper and even a header, heeling is outside of his comfort zone.
"Heeling's always been a job for me," he said. "It's real tough for me and I have to think about what I'm doing."
Still, he practices every spring in preparation for the Timed-Event Championship in Guthrie, Okla. Nevertheless, as he was waiting in the box, his nerves began to get the better of him.
"I've never been that nervous roping," he said. "I wasn't that nervous when I won the world title. I think roping steers helped me out a lot, but it still wasn't the same. I told them, ?I would sure rather tie a steer down in eight seconds for $50,000 than heel one in 11 seconds.' It's a whole lot easier on the other end for me."
Espenhover called for the steer, roped him smooth and turned him off. But the steer didn't handle like he should.
"We had three really good steers there and it was easy, it was getting my confidence going," Snedecor said. "Then when that steer turned all of a sudden, I don't know if he got wild or what the deal was, but I thought, Not now, I need your feet together, I'm not a full-blown heeler, I need some help here."
But, knowing he had 11 seconds to stop the clock, he stayed patient?which was probably the biggest advantage he had learned from high-stakes competition in the steer roping.
"They asked me how I had that much patience, why I didn't throw my rope under there when he did that," Snedecor said. "I just kept thinking, I can run and tie a steer at the very back of this pen in 11 seconds, I know I can rope this steer going across there in 11 seconds."
They did, but just barely, stopping the clock in 10.73.
So when they came together after the roping, to meet for the very first time. Espenhover told Snedecor this was only the second buckle he'd ever won. While Snedecor has won his share, including two gold ones, he pointed out that he hadn't won many heeling. Not only the buckles, the duo each went home with $50,000. Snedecor, who just moved from Uvalde to Fredericksburg, Texas, and is building a new place, knew right where the money would go.
"I still got it all. I don't know what I'll do with it," Espenhover said. "The Guy family has taken care of me like one of their own, but this is the biggest paycheck I've ever seen in all my life. It's just a life-changing experience. I don't quite know what I'm going to do with it. I've still got it in the briefcase. I'm still on Cloud Nine right now. I come from nothing and then to learn to rope and accomplish something like this? I'm happier than any man could be right now."
When he got home to Abilene, Lari Dee wanted to take him out to dinner to celebrate. When they arrived, 40 or 50 of The King's closest friends had gathered, hung banners and had a surprise party for him. Even Brazile and his family were there. And, surrounded by some of the roping and rodeo world's most successful names, Josh Espenhover's nickname was no longer tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, he was The King.