keeping the faith

Faith and Family
The Davis boys leaned on God’s promises and rodeo’s community to notch big wins despite tremendous pain.
Justin Davis stands with two palomino horses
Professional header and entrepreneur Justin Davis of Normangee, Texas, hauls two kids now with big dreams. | TRJ file photo by Impulse Photography

Justin Davis (the former NFR header from Texas) told his 15-year-old son Jace to “just have fun” before the 5 header rode into the heading box for November’s Riata Buckle #14.5 short round. After all, Jace and longtime family friend Colby Lovell were coming from way down at eighth callback. Instead, Jace commenced to mash the gas like a gold buckle was on the line. They took the lead—and somehow held it.

Because when you’re 15, first is what’s fun (plus you can say you beat a team with Kaleb Driggers on it and heard a “good job” from Trevor Brazile). And when you’re the dad, you shout so loud it echoes throughout the biggest indoor arena in America. And not just because of that $51,750. 

“I can still remember Jace and I walking back up that long moat in the Lazy E, getting high-fives,” Justin said. “We bump smack into Cassidy Lovell. She looks right at me and just starts crying. And I do, too.

“It was quite a moment,” he continued. “I just looked up and thought, ‘I know you played a part.’”

Seven weeks earlier, Justin’s wife and the boys’ mom, Casee Davis, had died at just 40 years old. She’d been diagnosed with cancer back when Jace and his little brother Ryder were 7 and 5. Her final year, especially those last few months in and out of the hospital, was brutal. Yet, 12-year-old Ryder that spring had somehow heeled his way to his own biggest win—a $51,400 first-place check with Cade Ward at the USTRC’s Cinch National Finals of Team Roping’s Classic Equine #8.5 Shootout

Then, remarkably, a few weeks after the Riata Buckle, Jace and his dad placed separately at the Vegas Pre-Game in Stephenville, while Ryder switched ends there to win both the #11.5 and #13.5 ropings and bank another $30,000. Then, in Wickenburg, Arizona, Justin and Jace won a #12.5 to split $11,000. In Las Vegas, Jace and Jade Corkill got a check for a fast-time in a short round, while little Ryder stayed in Wickenburg to jackpot and racked up another $20,000 on his own.

“In that three-week span of being in Arizona and Nevada, I bet we earned about $70,000 between the three of us,” marveled Justin. 

But the benefit of team roping isn’t just monetary. It’s the camaraderie, the competition and a good cayuse that breathes life into your soul. And that was exactly what the Davis boys needed. 

“Their mama was one of the toughest women I’ve ever been around in my life,” said Lovell. “Those boys have no choice but to be tough, mentally and physically. And that goes into roping or everyday life—you’ve got to be able to get up and go. Dreams don’t work unless you do. Those boys work their butts off, but they were also prepared for everything and for life to move on, because she set them up with every foundation possible. I can’t say how proud of them I am.”

Casee Davis, in a 2015 selfie at the San Antonio Rodeo.
Casee Davis, in a 2015 selfie at the San Antonio Rodeo.

In fact, channeling the energy of grief into something good is nothing if not God’s desire, according to pro heeler Trey Johnson, who helped minister the gut-wrenching funeral service for young Casee.

“Justin’s done a great job of loving on those boys and helping them get their mind off not having their mom, while focusing on how much she believed in them,” said Johnson, who heeled for Davis in 2015. “What a way for them to live out their mom’s legacy and her desire for them to dream big and give it their best.”

Way of life

Jace Davis leaves the corner on his father’s buckskin, Cupid, at the 2023 Riata Buckle 14.5.
Jace Davis leaves the corner on his father’s buckskin, Cupid, at the 2023 Riata Buckle 14.5. | Andersen / CBarC Photography
Jace prefers to ride with these pink Classic Equine boots to represent his mom. | Andersen / CBarC Photography
Jace and Colby Lovell came from eighth callback to win $51,750. | Andersen / CBarC Photography

Recently, Johnson told his own parents that he never realized how much confidence it gave him as a little boy to just be in the rig with his family. Absorbing that love and togetherness and support over all those highway miles and all those hours in the practice pen—it just does great things to the inside of a kid.

“And what are you going to do anyway, sit around home?” asks Clay O’Brien Cooper, who was 18 when he lost his dad. “You’re not going to get your mind off it. At least in the arena, you’re going to be thinking about it, but while you’re competing, your mind is not going to be on that pain. You might as well just get busy.”

The seven-time champ of the world had teamed with Justin in 2013 to win RodeoHouston, after which they roped at the NFR. They remain close, and Justin knew the icon could relate. Back in 2002, Cooper’s first wife, Beth, had also been 40 when she passed.

“I remember it was early June and Jake and I were getting ready for the summer run,” Cooper recalled. “I just took off. You have to keep going, one day at a time, and just walk it out. There’s no way around it. Casee’s wishes were for those boys to have their opportunity. So really, staying busy and practicing and competing, I think that’s a good thing. You’re going to grieve along the way.”

Booting up a good horse, shaking out a loop and backing into a corner makes you feel alive on a good day. On a tough one, it’s crucially life-affirming. That’s why Justin decided to stack up as many jackpots as he and the boys could enter. 

“I have a business that was mine and hers called Just N Case Builders,” he said. “We build houses and barns and arenas. After she passed, God put the right people in place that allowed us to be gone at a busy time.”

Loving foundation

Mostly, continuing to rope has been a way for the boys to honor Casee, who was always pushing her kids to get the most out of their effort.  

“‘Case’ was such a good mom and good wife, and she’d tell the boys that God created this passion inside them, and she wanted them to live out that passion,” said Justin. “She was always encouraging them to keep after it.”

She drove Jace to countless ball games and soccer tournaments, often leaving little notes—now adorning the walls of his room—that he’d find in his bag getting ready for the game. Casee even encouraged Justin to go rodeoing the year after she was diagnosed.

“She wanted us to refuse to let this disease dictate what we would do or not do,” recalled Justin. “Roping was such a big part of our life, she didn’t want cancer to stop us from that. Honestly, these boys’ motivation to get better, their drive, it all came from her.”

Throughout her illness, the Davis kids schooled themselves at home daily in academics and got schooled horseback by a pair of NFR headers, on the best horses their grandpa and dad could dig up. 

“If they sneeze wrong and I think I can help them, I’m going to bring it up,” said Lovell, who won the gold heading buckle in 2020 with Paul Eaves but is equally hard to beat on the heel end. “And their dad ropes and rides so good. I guess you could say they’ve been fortunate. But they’ve taken advantage of it. They’ll be in the truck going with me to help at a futurity while I’m talking on the phone to Joseph, or Paul or Kaleb. They get to listen to conversations with guys who are feeding off each other to beat each other. It gives them the mentality of an Open roper.” 

12-year-old Ryder Davis posing with trophy saddle
Ryder Davis was 12 when he roped four smooth with Cade Ward to win $51,400 at last year’s USTRC Finals. | Andersen/CBarC Photography

Jace admits that throwing his focus into riding young horses has assuaged the pain. He gets animated discussing how free his 21-year-old Pinto remains, or what needs tweaked when a steer comes left or how the roan leaves flat and “brings the horns” to him. His little brother is no different. 

“Ryder studies it,” said Jace. “He’s pretty natural, but he also knows a lot and rides really good. I want to be able to ride a heel horse like him.” 

Not only would Casee be proud, but Justin feels like their success has been a way to honor her memory and the way she lived, too. 

“She loved rodeoing,” said Justin. “She loved going. She had a gypsy soul and loved being out on the road and even in the stands. She loved our lifestyle.”

Justin and Casee had met in eighth grade. They were 22 when they married after she finished at Texas A&M. 

“She was part of the beginning of Justin’s career,” said Johnson. “I know Justin, as a dad, wants her to be a part of the beginning of those boys’ careers.”

The good things

On a weekend in mid-March, Ryder discussed his goals while headed to a Madisonville local rodeo where both boys were entered with their dad. 

“I want to go to the NFR and do all that,” said the 6 heeler. “I like to head, but it’s not as satisfying as pulling back on feet!”

He said he thinks about his mom when he’s high call. As for Jace, baling hay at home or roping the MoJo ’til the wee hours keeps his mind off everything the boys have gone through. And he can’t put into words how much support he’s felt from family and friends.

“That’s the good thing about our way of life,” said Lovell, whose 10-year-old daughter Jewel loves to rope. “The Code of the West and the Cowboy Code mean our beliefs are big and they bleed through into what we do.”

That means everybody helps everybody. 

“Something else that’s helped is that we don’t hold back,” Justin said. “We talk about her all the time. We laugh about the good times. We miss her, but there was so much life we lived together.”

Justin’s transparency about emotion surely ups the ante on how ice-cold his boys are in the box when the chips are down.

“We talk about the mental game all the time,” he said. “Of course we put ourselves in pressure situations at the house. But there’s nothing better than experience. I’ve tried to take them everywhere I could take them. And I’ve always told them, ‘The last steer is no different than the first three steers.’ And that takes a lot of pressure off. To compete with a clear mind is so important.”

If a clear mind helps heal their constant hurt, so does a close family. And the entire rodeo community is truly that.

“I love these people that I’ve rodeoed with over the years,” said Justin. “They gave us their time and encouragement—everything it takes to get through a heartache like that.”

Casey Wood and folks with the Texas junior-high rodeos created and sold patches with Casee’s signature that said ‘Show Up’ because she always showed up for people. 

“She was always the first one there at baby showers or after tragedy in someone’s family and was always staying late after parties to help clean up,” Justin said. 

Several NFR team ropers bought the patches they still sport on their cowboy hats. All the proceeds went to Jace and Ryder.

Faithful perspective

“You notice what you need to pay attention to after you lose someone special, you know?” reflected Jace. “As of right now, I think a lot about what I’d do without my dad and Colby, and my grandpa… the people who love us so much.” 

There’s often an enhanced perspective that comes from loss. It helps us see what in life truly deserves our attention.

“Loss is part of life,” said Cooper. “But really it’s about the good things, about the people who have come alongside the Davis family and how the kids are winning.”

For years, every text or call Justin has gotten from Cooper starts with, “How’s Justin doing?”

“In September, I told him that I’d just gotten started in this grief deal and I wanted to know from him how I’d know when I’d gotten past it,” Davis recalled. “Champ told me that I won’t. You just learn to live with it.”

That stark fact has been eased by their family’s faith, Justin said. The Davis boys remain confident that God is for them and not against them. 

“We are truly excited we got to live this life with Case,” he said. “And we’ll get to see her again. We miss her, but the truth is, we’ll see her again.”

Justin acknowledges his family won’t be the first or the last to feel terrible loss, and his heart goes out to the family of his recently deceased friend, NFR switchender Quinn Kesler. What he’s learned about grief is to trust that God’s in control—and to enjoy every day that we can.

“All of us are going to go through tough times in life,” he said. “None of us are protected from that. You can take refuge in Him. Jesus said that in Him we may have peace. In the world, we’ll have struggles, but we should take heart because He’s overcome the world. We know He’s already defeated all of this. We look forward to what Christ has for us and our future.”

—TRJ—

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